Before Rocco Grimaldi arrived under his tutelage, San Antonio Rampage coach Tom Rowe already knew a fair amount about what exactly the 5-foot-6 wing could do on the ice.
"I watched him on video quite a bit, and I'd watch him on TV, which sometimes isn't the best way to do it, but it gives you a good idea," Rowe said. "I loved the fact that he's quick, and he moved the puck well and could beat guys one-on-one. Those were the things that stood out to me."
Finding Grimaldi wasn't hard. A product of the U.S. National Team Development Program and the University of North Dakota, the California-born 21-year-old had already won three gold medals in international play before the Florida Panthers selected him No. 33 at the 2011 NHL Draft. He added a fourth gold medal with the United States at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championships, scoring twice in a 3-1 win against Sweden in the final game.
"Both of those programs really taught me how to be a professional, not just play professional, but act professional as well," Grimaldi said. "I think it definitely shaped me, but I also had coaches growing up who had played at the pro level or had coached guys that are at the pro level now, so I think I always sort of had it running through me."
Panthers prospect Rocco Grimaldi has 10 points in 22 games this season with San Antonio of the AHL. (Darren Abate)
Grimaldi was introduced to hockey by a friend of his older sister who played the sport. After the entire family went out to a game, Grimaldi, like many who see the game for the first time in person, fell in love. First, it was roller hockey, then a swift graduation into ice hockey. Those humble beginnings were shared with San Jose Sharks forward, Matt Nieto, another California kid whose path to the NHL included stops with the U.S. National Team, Boston University and time in the American Hockey League.
During his draft year, there were rumblings about his height, but for Grimaldi, even-keeled and highly skilled, the concerns of others always bounced right off of him.
"People say a lot of stuff. You've just have to take it in one ear and out the other," he said. "I knew that I was created at this size and there's nothing I can do about that, but there is something I can do about how hard I work and the time I put in and shaping my skills and things like that. It never has really bothered me."
Rowe, too, is in his first full season with the Rampage after replacing Peter Horachek last November when Horachek became interim coach of the Panthers. Most professional hockey coaches demand a lot from their players and Rowe is no different. But with Grimaldi, the drive to succeed and to continue fine-tuning his game is already there, already integrated into his play and his mindset.
"He competes. He'll compete as hard in practice as he does in a game, which has really been impressive to watch," Rowe said. "He's an extremely focused young guy. He obviously wants to be a pro, wants to be in the NHL like everybody, but he is dialed in."
Grimaldi has made a few impressions. He made his NHL debut on Nov. 1 against the Philadelphia Flyers and scored his first NHL goal on Nov. 22 at the Nashville Predators. Most notably on Nov. 18, he became one of the rare players in pro hockey history to play games in two leagues on the same day.
Starting the morning with the Rampage's annual school-day game, Grimaldi was pulled aside before the start of the third period, told to go home, pack a bag and get on the next flight to Los Angeles to be ready in time for warm-ups with the Panthers that night against the Los Angeles Kings. The proximity from Staples Center to his southern California home allowed Grimaldi's parents and grandparents, one of his former coaches, and a small group of childhood friends to see the game, making it one for the books.
"You know, I woke up that morning and was only focusing on playing Oklahoma City," Grimaldi said. "Then our general manager pulled me aside and said, 'You're leaving right now,' so I was like, 'Well, OK.' It was in my hometown, too, so if I wasn't excited for that game, I don't know what would excite me."
Grimaldi has 10 points in 22 games in San Antonio and one goal in seven games with Florida. He's adjusting nicely on the Rampage roster after scoring 77 points in 86 games for North Dakota. When asked about his goals for the season, Grimaldi, who will graduate in May as a communications major with a leadership minor, doesn't immediately reel off a laundry list. Instead, he repeats a nugget of advice recently given to him: Set goals that are attainable and do things each day to actively improve. For instance, if he goes out there and actively counts his goals and his points, he says his focus narrows, and if the production doesn't come, his confidence falters and his game suffers.
"I just try to develop everything that I can right now, and I really take that advice to heart," he said. "I'm developing my shot, and I'm just trying to develop all the little areas in my game. I know a lot of people say that I'm a goal scorer, or an offensive player, but I really take pride in being a defensive player, too. I really take pride in the little things that nobody notices."
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