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'Tireless worker' DeGregorio lifted USA Hockey

by Mike G. Morreale

The United States Hockey Hall of Fame will induct four new members on Thursday during a ceremony that includes two Lester Patrick Award winners. This week, profiles the six people to be honored.

The passion and determination Ron DeGregorio exhibits each time he's faced with a challenge was probably best exemplified during a USA Hockey fundraiser 13 years ago.

The event featured the Olympic men's old-timers against the U.S. women's Olympic team at Walter Brown Arena on the campus of Boston University.

DeGregorio, a former goaltender at Middlebury College in Vermont, had to deny U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Karyn Bye Dietz from scoring from close range in a shootout during a break in the action.

"Karyn can really unload a puck," former U.S. women's Olympic coach Ben Smith said. "I think [DeGregorio] got 10 shots from the top of the circle; it was bang-bang-bang. Ron was there. He made a couple saves but then lost his balance and Karyn wasn't about to stop. She's firing slappers from around 30 feet and Ron is like a beached seal leaping and battling and getting hit off the head.

"He would not give in, even though he looked like he was down and out on his [rear]. It was 'Digger' being 'Digger.'"

DeGregorio, who was 55 years old at the time, recalls the moment well.

"What I loved about it was that she was going to drill me even though I was down," DeGregorio said. "That's the kind of energy you're supposed to have. But the thing is, I wasn't going to give in either."

It's the same relentless approach DeGregorio had in four terms spanning 12 years as president of USA Hockey before announcing his resignation in June. His vision helped institute the highly successful United States National Team Development Program, the American Development Model, and the Progressive Checking Skill Development Program.

"Ron drove the main engine better than any president we've ever had," said Hockey Hall of Fame member Walter Bush, who was USA Hockey president from 1986-2003. "When he said he was going to get something done, he did it. I did it with the help of people behind me, but Ron was self-motivated."

DeGregorio will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame during the 43rd enshrinement dinner and ceremony at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel. He was awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy in 2003.

"He has an enthusiasm that can bowl you over if you don't have both feet planted," Smith said. "He doesn't take a shift off. They call him 'Digger' for a reason; it's a highlight of how he conducts himself. He's a tireless worker for hockey in America."

DeGregorio will continue to serve as co-chairman of USA Hockey, along with Bush, and be a source of wisdom and advice for new president Jim Smith. DeGregorio could eventually succeed Tony Rossi as the United States' International Ice Hockey Federation council representative. Rossi has served since 2008 and is ineligible for another term.

DeGregorio credits Bush for providing him the opportunity to turn his incredible foresight into reality when he was hired as USA Hockey president in 2003.

"I remember training in Minneapolis with the U.S. national team in 1970-71 for participation in the World Championship that would take place in 1972, and I had a lot of free time as the No. 3 goalie," DeGregorio said. "That's when I first met Walter Bush, who was president of the Minnesota North Stars at the time. I wanted to learn more about USA Hockey, so I thought meeting with Walter would be a good idea."

DeGregorio did meet with his future mentor, but only to discuss the North Stars.

"We talked a little bit about USA Hockey, but our main conversation centered around running a hockey team," Bush said. "I could see his ability to have this passion that he wanted to move ahead in hockey. He didn't actually come out and say he wanted to one day be president, but it was about being involved."

DeGregorio's first appointment with USA Hockey came in 1973, when he was named registrar for the New England District. He oversaw the reorganization of the district into several smaller, more manageable affiliates. He also was the first registrar to appoint associate registrars, which helped increase USA Hockey's efficiency and visibility at the local level. He was elected to the USA Hockey Board of Directors in 1975 and was the organization's first vice president of youth hockey.

In the 1980s, DeGregorio served as treasurer of USA Hockey, and in 1995 was elected vice president and international council chairperson, positions he held until being named president.

"Ron was as diverse and well-suited for the position [as president] as you could possibly be because as a volunteer he walked in the shoes of almost everybody who is a volunteer with USA Hockey," USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean said. "He served so many roles, so many positions over time. That equipped him very well to have a real appreciation of what could and couldn't be done, and how far we could push."

DeGregorio's most notable contribution might be the U.S. National Team Development Program. Founded in 1996, the USNTDP is a two-year residency program for the top 16- and 17-year-old players in the United States.

"When we created the NTDP, internally it was not an easy sell," Ogrean said, "but the proof has been in the pudding, not only from the standpoint of the NHL now stepping up financially, but beyond that it's produced the results.

"You see it in the number of Americans in the NHL and medal performance internationally. It created within our own domestic program a new level for a lot of other programs to aspire to, including the United States Hockey League."

DeGregorio's vision was to build teams that could compete with the best players in the world.

"There were mixed emotions at first," he said. "Some junior programs and high schools asked why we were spending so much money and if it could be spent effectively elsewhere. But we needed to have a statement that showed we were in the development business."

DeGregorio said hiring Jeff Jackson as coach proved to be pivotal in the early stages of the NTDP. Original NTDP staff members Bob Mancini and Scott Monaghan also were keys to DeGregorio's vision.

Jackson, now coach at the University of Notre Dame, spent a year scouting players for the initial NTDP class. One of the earlier members of the USNTDP was Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter.

"[DeGregorio] would do anything for USA Hockey, or hockey in general," Suter said. "It didn't matter if you were from the United States or Canada or Russia. He was a true hockey fan and he loved everything that it brought. He was the face of USA Hockey for the last 10 years or so. He was a special guy, a great guy. It was really fun when he was around."

No longer working 60-hour weeks, DeGregorio remains actively involved with USA Hockey.

"The thing about [DeGregorio] is I don't think he knows a word that begins with the letter 'Q'," Smith said. "People can look at USA Hockey over the last number of years and see how far it's come and the development and support of youth hockey in America and the success of some of our national teams.

"Ron has been involved in every nook and cranny of all of that forward progress."


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