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DiPietro: Mental wear always tougher than physical

by Chuck Gormley
At 28, New York Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro knows the view from the highest mountain and the pain inflicted from hitting every branch on the way down.

Nearly a decade removed from being the top pick in the 2000 Entry Draft, the engaging native of Winthrop, Mass., has been an NHL All-Star (2007-08) and a starter for Team USA at the 2006 Winter Olympics.

A week before his 25th birthday, he signed one of the richest contracts in NHL history -- $67.5 million over 15 years -- and went on to play 188 games over the next three seasons on Long Island.

It was near the end of the 2007-08 season that DiPietro began what would become a torturous 20-month stretch in which he underwent surgeries on both hips and both knees, limiting him to just five games last season and four games this season entering this week.

Now back between the pipes and in the thick of a playoff race, DiPietro recently spoke with to discuss his long road back to the NHL, his Olympic experience and his plans for the future. Can you talk about some of the obstacles you faced during the past two seasons and what it took for you to get to this point?

DiPietro: It was a trying year and half. I had a lot of things go wrong in a short period of time. I was lucky to have enough support around me with my wife, my family and the organization. We wanted to take our time and make sure it was right this time in hopes we didn't have another setback.

So far so good. In some ways you can probably look at it as a positive. It gave me the opportunity to step back and get a better perspective of how lucky I am to be given this great honor to be a professional athlete.

I like to think maturity-wise, how I approach the game and how I come to the rink every day is a lot different now that I've gone through that. I keep telling myself that when you work that hard and go through that much, the end result will be that much more satisfying. It's true what they say about anything worth getting is worth working for. When you're out of the lineup so long, what do you miss most?

DiPietro: You're there, but you're not there. You're not competing every night with them and you don't get to be a part of all the little things that go on in the locker room. I equate it to the movie "Shawshank Redemption." You see a guy who has been in jail 60 years. He finally gets his parole and he doesn't know what to do with himself. As drastic as that sounds, when you get hurt, you lose the routine. You don't have that same sense of accomplishment of each day bringing a new challenge.

When you're hurt and rehabbing so much you don' have that next game to look forward to or the gratifying win that satisfies that competitiveness. That was the hardest part for me. From a mental toughness standpoint, what did you learn about yourself?

DiPietro: This was not easy, especially for the type of person I am, always trying to get ahead of the game and do more than I should. Patience isn't one of my best qualities and I don't know if I would have been able to do it without all the people behind me and the support I've been given.

The most frustrating part for me now is waking up in the morning not knowing how (my knee) is going to react. You put more and more stress on it, go home and ice it and cross your fingers that the next day when you wake up it feels better and, so far so good.
There are some parts of my game I'd like to tighten up, but when you're in the thick of a playoff race you'd like to be clicking on all cylinders so you can help contribute. Do you have a reference point to let you know if your game is where it was before you were injured?

DiPietro: That's funny you even ask that, because I don't even know the last time I could tell you I was 100 percent. I can't even put into words how frustrating and how mentally draining it is.

It's the No. 1 worst thing that can happen to a professional athlete. People talk about how many surgeries I've had. I've had surgeries just because doctors told me it would add time to the end of my career. People don't understand that we're never normal physically. I don't know what great feels like anymore.

The toughest part for me was balancing the work without setting myself back. I'm the type of person who likes to work, work, work. (Boston University head coach) Jack Parker told me when I was in college that the harder you work in practice, the better results will be for you in the game. So it was a fine line for me not to overdo it with my rehab. Now I'm at the point where I can focus on stopping the puck without thinking of everything else. Has that been the hardest part, trusting your body to do what your mind tells it to do?

DiPietro: You always hear athletes that come back from injuries saying your mind takes a while to adjust and you say, "No, that won't happen to me." But it's true. It's a scary thought when somebody tells you at 28 years old that your career might be over. That's scary. As much as you want to go after it, at the end of the day you have to be smart and listen to your body. You mentioned Jack Parker. Is there any advice you've been given by coaches that you still hold onto?

"I'm a USA guy through and through. If they asked me to go sharpen skates I'd go sharpen skates." -- Rick DiPietro

DiPietro: Everybody would always tell me to calm down because I'm so hyper. Lavvy (former Islanders coach Peter Laviolette) once said, "Listen, don't be the show, steal the show." Those are such great words of advice. It's not a circus, but at the end of the day if you play well enough you're going to steal the show." Let's talk Olympics. You've been there. Do the Americans have a legitimate chance to win gold in Calgary? 

DiPietro: Having been in Torino, you get a feel for that experience. It was amazing, the highlight of my career. The level of intensity and the level of focus is so high. I'm a USA guy through and through.

If they asked me to go sharpen skates I'd go sharpen skates. I love representing my country. Without the U.S. national program who knows we're I'd be. My dad's a Vietnam vet and I've got the USA helmet.

But to answer your question, I think they have a great chance. They're young and enthusiastic and that's a dangerous combination. They have some heavy hitters in an NHL-size rink. And there's a lot of pressure on Canada. It's going to be interesting. But there's no margin for error in a short tournament. You sound pretty passionate about being an Olympian. Are you already shooting for 2014?

DiPietro: Absolutely. Any time they call I'm ready to answer the phone and do whatever they want me to do.

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