A day after signing his first professional contract - a two-year entry-level deal with the Edmonton Oilers - Joseph Gambardella can't shake the euphoric spell he's under.
"It doesn't feel real," the former UMass-Lowell River Hawks forward said.
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A Staten Island, New York native, Gambardella is having trouble coming to grips with reality because he believes, unabashedly, that inking an NHL contract - with the Oilers, no less - would remain a fantasy.
"I never knew that this day would come," said the left-shooting centre. "I was always told in my life that I couldn't do it by many, many people."
But the sheer honesty coming from the 23-year-old is all too real. The soon-to-be business management and marketing graduate knew the odds were against him. He loves his hometown, his background and appreciates everyone who assisted him along his path but New York is not typically considered synonymous with ice hockey and Staten Island isn't the easiest area to emerge from.
"Staten Island is not the biggest hockey town and New York itself isn't the biggest hockey state itself," Gambardella, who posted 18 goals and 52 points in 41 games this season, said. "Not many hockey players make it off Staten Island. I was very fortunate."
Typified as a hard worker on and off the ice, Gambardella made the most of Staten Island and its streetscape as a minor hockey player before launching into what could become a serious career.
"There were only two rinks on Staten Island at the time and now there's only one Staten Island Skating Pavilion," Gambardella said. "That rink is literally seven minutes away from my house. That's where I spent my entire youth hockey career until I was 15 and then I finally moved to New Jersey."
The centre played for the New Jersey Rockets of the Atlantic Junior Hockey League. Under head coach Bob Thornton's tutelage, Gambardella's play began to take form.
"It's a small place," said Gambardella. "From bridge to bridge, it's only 14 miles long. But it's a wonderful place and I'm just very fortunate to make the most of my hockey career on Staten Island before I left to go play in New Jersey where I believe my career really started to develop."
After a few seasons in The Garden State, the self-proclaimed grinder moved on to the United States Hockey League where he was a member of the Des Moines Buccaneers, putting up 45 points in 79 games over two campaigns.
From there, it was off to UMass-Lowell where the senior finished a successful student-athlete career registering 47 goals, 82 assists and 129 points in 150 games. He isn't leaving the program with just a degree and a bucket of points, though. Gambardella's earned plenty of accolades at the university including a Hockey East championship, the NCAA Hockey East Len Ceglarski Award twice and the Walter Brown Award, given to the best American-born skater in New England.
After all the success, Gambardella attributes much of it to his wealth of encouragement.
"The support system of my mom, my dad, my brothers, my girlfriend, coaches, friends, everybody - they got me to this point," he said. "I'm so incredibly happy to say that I made a dream become a reality."
Gambardella will depart for Bakersfield on Saturday to join the Condors and dig his skates into American Hockey League ice. It will be short-lived, however, because graduation ceremonies are coming up and there's no way Gambardella isn't walking.
"I'm expected to graduate on May 13 and I'm the first one in my family to graduate so it's something special," Gambardella said.
It might seem like a dream but the reality is Gambardella is now part of the Oilers organization.
"It still feels so surreal. It probably won't hit me until I'm actually suited up in gear in the minor league or once I'm on the flight on Saturday."