Why do you think the shortest player at the NHL Scouting Combine attracted so much attention earlier this month?
Well, unless you know 5-foot-6, 163-pound Rocco Grimaldi of the U.S. National Team Development Program on a personal level, words couldn't possibly paint the complete picture.
"When we asked him if he was 5-foot-7, he said, 'No, I'm only 5-foot-6' and we all laughed because he's not afraid of his size," one veteran Eastern Conference amateur scout, who interviewed Grimaldi at the Combine, told NHL.com. "He's very honest and focused, and at that size, if you're not focused you won't be able to play this game."
Make no mistake, Grimaldi can play the game and he does so with a passion and determination any NHL general manager would crave -- he is No. 32 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2011 Entry Draft. He also happens to be a devout Christian, willing to share his strong religious beliefs with anyone willing to listen.
"My faith in Jesus Christ is the most important thing in my life and that is what runs my life, so everything evolves itself around that," Grimaldi told NHL.com.
On the ice, Grimaldi certainly gave scouts and GMs something to remember him by prior to the Draft by striking for a team-leading 34 goals, 62 points, 13 power-play goals, and 5 game-winning goals in 50 games for the USNTDP this past season.
"If ever I lose a battle in the corner with a big guy, it's not because he's bigger or stronger than me, it's because I did something wrong and he just took advantage." -- Rocco Grimaldi
"His numbers speak for themselves," USNTDP Under-18 team captain Tyler Biggs told NHL.com. "He's a guy that's definitely going to bring 110 percent every night. You never have to worry about him taking shifts off, and when you have those kinds of players you never have to worry about, who can also put up the numbers Rocco does, that's a pretty big package."
The charismatic Grimaldi, one of seven members from the USNTDP invited to the USA Hockey National Junior evaluation camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., in August, one day would like to be considered a role model for star athletes.
"It's great to always be the underdog and have people doubt you," Grimaldi said. "I feel I could be a role model for kids my size -- not even in hockey, but in general. I could be a really good example for them on how I go about my business, not caring about what people say and how I live my life. I'm always thinking about the next generation under me and trying to help them out as well."
He helped the present generation of players at the last two World Under-18 Championships. Last year in Belarus, he tied for the team lead with 10 points in seven games to help the U.S. win a gold medal. At this year's tournament, in April in Germany, he had 2 goals, 8 points and a plus-5 rating in another gold-medal winning effort.
Grimaldi had a chance to make a further impression at the Scouting Combine, interviewing with all 30 teams and then putting on an impressive display during the fitness testing. His 6.8-percent body fat tied him with Ryan Tesink of the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League as the leanest players. He also impressed in the vertical jump by finishing fifth at 29.8 inches, and was fourth with 39 pushups.
"The game has changed since the lockout; it's more of a high-end skilled game and smaller guys are making names for themselves in the League with (Martin) St. Louis and Nathan Gerbe," Grimaldi said. "That's great to see those guys having an impact. It's really good for me, being a small guy, and seeing how others are able to make an impact right away."
Born in Anaheim, Calif., Grimaldi and his family moved to Auburn Hills, Mich., when he was 12 years old, and then he left them for Ann Arbor to play for the USNTDP.
He never worried about not having an impact despite his stature as he had been doing it since the age of 5, when he began competing against kids twice his age in Southern California on travel roller and ice hockey teams.
"If ever I lose a battle in the corner with a big guy, it's not because he's bigger or stronger than me, it's because I did something wrong and he just took advantage," Grimaldi said. "It really makes no difference to me how much a guy weighs. I'll go in there no matter what, because if I'm not willing to do that, then my teammates wouldn't be able to rely on me."
According to NHL Central Scouting's Jack Barzee, Grimaldi one day might be compared to Montreal Canadiens captain and fellow American Brian Gionta.
"I have a lot of respect for Rocco; he's an unbelievable player with a lot of skill and creativity," fellow USNTDP forward Jonathan Miller said. "Playing on a line with him at the Under-18 World Championship made it easier for me and him. With the two of us, it was hard for the other team to stop. All I have to do is allow him to break into the puck and do his thing."
"He's not very big, but in terms of his ability to make things happen, especially offensively, he's unbelievably dynamic," USNTDP U-18 coach Ron Rolston said. "He skates well and has a great first step. In terms of his skills, he's outstanding. He's someone on our team we looked to create offense every game and, without question, he was one of our most dynamic forwards." Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer