New York Islanders prospect Michael Dal Colle was forced to grow up faster than most.
When he was 11, Dal Colle's mother, Wendy, was diagnosed with breast cancer. On his birthday, she was too ill to get out of bed to help him celebrate. She could only listen while friends and family were singing "Happy Birthday" downstairs.
Wendy Dal Colle nearly lost her battle more than once. Fortunately, she beat the deadly disease in 2009 after two long years.
Michael's older brother, Jonluca, has autism. Someday soon, little brother is going to play in the NHL. It will provide Michael the opportunity to give his brother the best life has to offer.
"Family is everything for me in my life," said Dal Colle, who completed his second development camp with the Islanders after being the fifth player selected at the 2014 NHL Draft. "They drive me every day. Obviously I have a brother who's always watched me play. Everything in life, I do for him. My mom, she's been through a lot as well. She's given me everything. I owe it all to friends and family. I have a huge support group and they're the reason where I am today."
Islanders coach Jack Capuano sympathizes with Dal Colle, and when asked about his level of maturity, Capuano mentioned defenseman Travis Hamonic, who lost his father to a heart attack when he was 10 years old. Hamonic has evolved into a leader for the Islanders on and off the ice. It probably won't be much longer before the same can be said about Dal Colle.
"It's an unfortunate situation," Capuano said. "I look at Travis handling a situation like that too, and there's no question that those kids have to [grow up earlier]. You have a life situation like that in your family and you have to mature a little quicker and have a real appreciation of life and what you go through. He was a real mature kid from the start and he's a good leader."
Dal Colle finds himself banging on the door of fulfilling his dream of playing in the NHL. He completed his third season with the Ontario Hockey League's Oshawa Generals, which culminated with a Memorial Cup championship. Dal Colle, a left wing, had 42 goals in 56 regular-season games and 31 points (eight goals, 23 assists) in 21 playoff games. Oshawa had to get past teams that featured fellow Islanders prospect Joshua-Ho Sang (Niagara IceDogs) and Connor McDavid (Erie Otters), selected by the Edmonton Oilers with the No. 1 pick at this year's draft.
"It was unbelievable," Dal Colle said. "Most people didn't think we were even going to be a top team in our conference. Obviously we had a great season, finished first place in the East. We went through some good teams in the OHL playoffs, made it to the [Memorial] Cup and then made the most of it. It was amazing.
"Personally, I think I had a good season. My draft year was obviously an important year for me, and landing in New York, I learned a lot from my first pro camp from guys like (Islanders captain) John Tavares not only on the ice but off the ice. I tried to take that into my third year of junior and I thought personally I had a pretty good year."
Capuano told NHL.com he's thrilled with the progress Dal Colle made over the past year, and that the Memorial Cup win can only help in his development.
"Anytime you win a championship, it's a great feeling," Capuano said. "Obviously everybody's in it for the same reason, to win, and we want to win a Stanley Cup. But he's got a little taste of what it takes to win a championship, and that's what you want. You want guys that like to win and are real disappointed when things don't go your way. It's a real valuable experience for him, to put himself in a pressure situation. But guys like Michael, it's not really pressure for them. They want to be in those situations; that's what great players want to do and he's no different. The experience and how he handled it, it's a great learning process.
"I thought he had a great Memorial Cup, a great season. He's really matured. It reminds me of John Tavares a little bit. Johnny was a real reserved guy and came out of his shell a couple of years later. Michael's the same way. He was real quiet last year, but real talkative this year. I thought he handled himself very well. I'm really pleased with his progress, that's for sure."
Islanders development camp provided Dal Colle an opportunity to play a scrimmage at Barclays Center, which will be New York's home this season after playing at Nassau Coliseum since 1972.
"It was awesome. Very unique building," Dal Colle said. "The crowd's kind of on top of you and it was a great turnout. It was awesome. I like the atmosphere."
Dal Colle hopes to experience that atmosphere a lot more this season, which gets underway Oct. 9 against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Islanders can give Dal Colle a nine-game look before a year of his entry-level contract kicks in, a discussion that won't be had until training camp begins in September.
"That hasn't really been brought up at all," Dal Colle said. "[Capuano] talked to me a bit. I'm just trying to progress from last year. Last year was kind of a learning experience for me and now I want to head into camp and really put myself in a position to at least compete for a spot.
"In my mind, I think I have a chance. I'm going to do my best to make that chance a real possibility. That's definitely going to be my goal going into next season."
Islanders general manager Garth Snow has more than two months to tinker with his roster, which could help or hinder Dal Colle's chances of being in the lineup opening night. But Capuano said he believes Dal Colle has the right attitude heading into training camp.
"We've had our meetings about some of our young players and we want to make it difficult for guys to not make the lineup," Capuano said. "Depending on what happens now until September, there's still free agency going on and you can only have a 23-man roster and Garth and I have talked a little bit about it. If he comes in and plays extremely well and makes it tough for management and coaches, we'll cross that path when we get to it. But he should be thinking he's coming in to make the team. That's what a lot of these guys should be thinking."
Should the Islanders opt to wait another season for Dal Colle to play in the NHL, the 19-year-old would have to be sent back to Oshawa because he is too young to play for Bridgeport in the American Hockey League. Despite everything he's already achieved at the junior level, Dal Colle said he wouldn't be frustrated. He has 96 goals and 140 assists in 186 games over the past three seasons in the OHL.
"It's part of the process," Dal Colle said. "Tons of great players have gone through it, a guy like (Islanders forward) Ryan Strome had to play four years in juniors as well. But obviously that's not my mindset. I want to play this year and I'm going to do everything I can to hopefully get my chance."