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DiPietro upbeat, eyeing NHL return with Hurricanes

by John Manasso

INDIAN TRAIL, N.C. -- Rick DiPietro was at his engaging best.

He required a volunteer to illustrate his point about how new, shorter pads will put additional strain on the groin muscles of butterfly-style goalies and explain a rash of goalie injuries. An employee of the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League, the team with which the No. 1 pick in the 2000 NHL Draft and former franchise goalie for the New York Islanders is currently on a tryout, was pressed into service.

"Do it for me a second, go down on your knees," instructed DiPietro, standing in the locker room of the Checkers' practice facility. "Flare your feet out like you're in a butterfly. So my legs are flatter like this. These pads used to be 37 [inches] now they're 33 so there's four inches [less] almost, OK?

"Now for me to get these closed where I don't have a five-hole anymore, I've got to pull my knees all the way together like this. Now pull your knees together and try to sit back and feel the … strain on your groin. … It's almost natural that something bad's going to happen."


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It was DiPietro in a microcosm: Even in the minor leagues the charisma showed through, but it did so in a discussion of injuries, which have derailed his career.

"As a goalie," he said, "none of what we do is meant to be done with the joints of a human being."

DiPietro is hoping to get his career back on track in Charlotte. Checkers coach Jeff Daniels said DiPietro arrived with a good attitude, which was evident as DiPietro discussed the trials and tribulations of his career for nearly 25 minutes. Daniels said DiPietro is like forward Manny Malhotra, who also came to the Checkers on a tryout this season and earned a contract with the Hurricanes.

"They have something to prove," said Daniels, who played 425 NHL games, most of them with Carolina. "They're not down here to play it out. They want to prove they're still capable of getting back to the next level. He's here to prove a lot of people wrong."

The Eastern Conference's starting goalie at the 2008 NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta, DiPietro's career began to unravel shortly after that point, as he sustained an injury during the SuperSkills competition but continued to play through it -- something he said he did too often and which he now regrets. From the start of the 2008-09 season DiPietro played only 50 games as knee, hip and a variety of other injuries ravaged him and took their toll on the quality of his play.

On Feb. 22 the Islanders put him on waivers and sent him to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL. In July the Islanders bought out the remaining eight years on his contract, bringing an end to what had become a messy relationship.

Enter the Carolina Hurricanes. With the Hurricanes going through a terrible run of luck with their goalies -- No. 1 goalie Cam Ward and backup Anton Khudobin remain out with lower-body injuries for what general manager Jim Rutherford said would be at least two more weeks -- the Hurricanes are hoping the 32-year-old DiPietro can provide the help they need in goal.

Rutherford said he plans on making the 150-mile trip from Raleigh next Wednesday to watch DiPietro play in person against the Hershey Bears. Ironically, Rutherford said he got to know DiPietro during collective bargaining sessions during last season's lockout; DiPietro was on the NHLPA's negotiating committee.

"I liked him," said Rutherford, himself a former NHL goalie. "I liked him as a goalie over the years. He's had a very unlucky career. He's had to deal with several injuries, so I feel once he gets in shape that he's a capable NHL goalie. How long is that going to take and is he going to at some point end up with the Hurricanes or will it end up being with another NHL team? We were going through the list of goalies and he was the goalie that we were the most familiar with."

Rutherford said if anything were to happen to Justin Peters, who has gone 1-5-0 while backstopping the Hurricanes in the absence of Ward and Khudobin, the Hurricanes would "accelerate" the timetable on which they want DiPietro potentially to arrive.

"It's always hard for any player, and I think especially a goalie, to miss training camp," Rutherford said. "You just get further and further behind. Yeah, he hasn't had many practices. He had one practice and he got thrown into the game. The two games he's played he's been OK. He has a couple more levels that he's capable of getting to and that's what we’re watching."

DiPietro joined the Checkers on a road trip during which they played six games in nine days. He started the fourth and sixth games, losing both. He stopped 25 of 29 shots in a 5-2 loss to the Grand Rapids Griffins last Wednesday and made 38 saves on 43 shots Saturday in a 5-3 loss to the San Antonio Rampage. In the latter game Daniels said his team had hit a wall in front of DiPietro but he thought DiPietro played better in it than he did in the first game.

For himself, DiPietro said the mental part of the game is what he needs to get back. Prior to the Checkers' offer he was working with Steve Valiquette, a friend and former teammate of with the Islanders. Valiquette is the goaltending coach in Bridgeport and DiPietro said working with Valiquette was the best part about his time there last season. DiPietro also spent a week working out with Boston University, where he played one season, before he joined Charlotte.

"I think that's the biggest thing you take for granted," DiPietro said of the mental aspect. "The first half of my career without injury, I was playing 65 games a year. Once you get on a roll the mental part of the game just kind of falls into place. Then having that period where I was injured and not playing every night and not playing for long periods of time, to get that mental edge back, especially as a goalie because you’re out there for 60 minutes, you want to keep that sharpness.

"You never know -- turnover, bad play -- it happens so fast. That's the hardest part to get back, that sharpness and that intensity. That's something you can only do with games and game shots and game actions."

In some ways it seems incongruous to see DiPietro still wearing equipment with Islanders colors and a toiletry bag in his locker stall bearing the Islanders' logo. He seems to struggle at times with the reality of being severed from the franchise, especially when it finally returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a six-year absence last season. He's in the process of selling his house on Long Island.

"The reason you sign a contract like that is to retire an Islander," he said of the 15-year, $67.5-million deal he signed September 2006. "I think the frustrating part for me was having gone through a lot of the bad times finally to see the team come to where the foundation was set and to see the team go in the right direction and making steps to becoming a formidable team, a team that was going to make the playoffs in the East on a consistent basis, and to not be a part of that was tough.

"It wasn't due to lack of effort or lack of caring or lack of love for an organization. My body kind of let me down. Maybe I was young and dumb trying to rush back from injuries too often. But at the end of the day the hardest thing for people to understand is how hard it is to be injured and to sit there and watch and feel that helpless feeling and not be able to play.

"But I made a lot of elderly friends, though, in rehab, so that was the one bonus."

"It wasn't due to lack of effort or lack of caring or lack of love for an organization. My body kind of let me down. Maybe I was young and dumb trying to rush back from injuries too often. But at the end of the day the hardest thing for people to understand is how hard it is to be injured and to sit there and watch and feel that helpless feeling and not be able to play. But I made a lot of elderly friends, though, in rehab, so that was the one bonus."
-- Charlotte Checkers G Rick DiPietro

DiPietro said he learned from an early age to play through injuries. He told the story of when he was a child and while horsing around with some friends he broke his toe, with the nail coming out of the back of his toe. He said his father, a Vietnam War veteran, told him he still would have to play in his hockey game that night as he was the only goalie on the team and could not let his teammates down.

"It doesn't always work out in your favor," he said of playing through injuries. "People think of Kirk Gibson in the [1988] World Series, you're a hero, or sometimes you try and play and you're hurt and you're the goat. You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. Hopefully you come out on the end of the good most of the time."

But that was not always the case for DiPietro, who said he became "so dejected" as he encountered one injury after another. Sometimes they would occur during rehab.

"Everything you could possibly imagine bad happening," he said. "It was like the more I rehabbed, the more [stuff] went bad."

In Charlotte he's trying to put all of that behind him. He said he has learned to take better care of his body, joking that it takes him 90 minutes to warm up. He has worked with a trainer in Toronto, doing Pilates to give himself greater flexibility.

He said he does not want to return to the NHL until he knows he is ready. An avid sports fan, he empathizes with the situations of Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose and New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, each of whom were criticized for taking longer than expected to return from injuries.

"Definitely, the goal is to get there but I want to get there and be helpful," he said. "I don't want to go up there -- I mean, I was telling the Islanders too, at the end -- I'm not going to put anyone in the situation where I'm going to go up there and not be good. I don't want to play if I'm brutal. It's definitely something where I feel like I have a lot left in the tank and I have a lot to prove because I have had a bunch of years where I haven't played and my body actually does feel good again for the first time in a long time, so that's exciting."

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