|(UND Athletics/Eric Classen)
Rocco Grimaldi is ready for whatever comes next.
The 21-year-old forward signed an entry-level contract with the Florida Panthers on Wednesday, closing the book on a successful collegiate career with the University of North Dakota, while bringing him a step closer to realizing his professional potential. The 5’6” Grimaldi was drafted by the Panthers in the second round (33rd overall) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, but his immense talent was evident long before draft day.
A native of Southern California, Grimaldi got his start playing roller hockey at the age of five. He soon transitioned to the ice, where his talent became hard to ignore. In 2005, at the age of 12, Grimaldi and his family moved to Michigan, a move that allowed the youngster to face stronger talent and further develop his game. From there, it did not take Grimaldi long to catch on with the US National Team Development Program.
After a successful 2009-10 season with the US U-17 National Team, Grimaldi was promoted to the U-18 squad, where he helped the team win the World Junior U-18 Championship, scoring 10 points (2-8-10) in seven games, including a goal and an assist in the gold medal game against Sweden. Grimaldi would win gold again with the U-18’s the following season, and he added to his medal count again in 2013 when he helped the US take gold at the World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia. All that big-game experience at such a young age has been instrumental in Grimaldi’s development.
“I played in many big games and I’ve been blessed to win and I’ve been blessed to play with great teammates and great coaches,” Grimaldi said. “It’s a lot of fun playing there. I feel it really helped my game, my smarts, my strengths, my speed and all of that.”
Grimaldi’s stand-out performances garnered him a spot in Sports Illustrated’s ‘Where Will They Be’ feature in August, 2010, which highlights young ascendant players in their respective sports. From there, he moved on to college where he overcame the adversity of a major knee surgery in his first season with the North Dakota in 2011-12. The injury, and the subsequent rehab, resulted in a difficult year for Grimaldi.
“That was definitely one of the toughest years of my life,” Grimaldi said. “Coming in, I had expectations to have a huge freshman year and to be a big part of the team and hopefully win a national championship, and that didn’t happen.”
|Grimaldi celebrates one of his three goals against Wisconsin in the Midwest Regionals. (UND Athletics/Eric Classen) |
Grimaldi bounced back from the injury, putting his strong character and enviable make-up on full display as he returned to become UND’s go-to scorer, tallying 77 points (31-46-77) in his 86 game college career. Grimaldi was a force to be reckoned with this season, as he led his team in goals (17) and assists (22) while being named MVP of the NCAA Midwest Regional after leading UND past both Wisconsin and Ferris State en route to the Frozen Four. UND was dropped by the University of Minnesota in the final seconds of their Frozen Four semifinal battle, falling just short of the National Championship, something Grimaldi would have loved to have won before turning pro.
“The biggest thing that was hindering my decision [to turn pro] was not being to win a national championship here [at UND], which was something that was one of my goals and that I wanted to do,” Grimaldi said. “That was probably the toughest thing for me to walk away from, but I think overall it’s the best decision for me and the best for my career and my development and I’m very excited about it.”
After signing his entry-level contract with the Panthers, the future looks bright for the young Grimaldi, who grew up idolizing Hockey Hall of Famer and former Panther Pavel Bure. Grimaldi is looking forward to a summer full of training and hard work and he says his goal is to be on the Panthers roster when the season begins in October.
“I’m just looking to go into the summer and work as hard as I can, work on every area of my game that I can,” Grimaldi said. “Get stronger, get faster, and go into camp and hopefully make a big splash and be able to make the team. That’s my overall goal.”
Grimaldi does not think the height disadvantage will be a hindrance to his game; in fact, Grimaldi looks at his size as a unique advantage, something that allows him to play the exciting and dynamic style that he likes to play.
“To be honest, I think my size is one of my strengths,” Grimaldi said. “People may look at it as a weakness or look down upon it, but I think it’s one of my strengths because I wouldn’t be able to play the style of game that I do if I wasn’t this size.”
Grimaldi describes himself as “Someone that can do things that the crowd is kind of in awe of,” and to this point in his career, he has definitely delivered on that description.
After signing with the Panthers on Wednesday, he is one step closer to being the guy that leaves crowds in awe in Sunrise.