More than a decade ago as a seventh grader Michael Paliotta donned the Rangers jersey and played under Blueshirt legends Mark Messier and Adam Graves for the Pee Wee Rangers team. Now after signing as a free agent last Friday, Paliotta is hopeful of wearing that classic Rangers sweater in the National Hockey League and make his childhood dreams come true.
"I was a huge Rangers fan growing up," the 23 year-old Paliotta told BlueshirtsUnited.com earlier this week. "And I had the fortunate experience of playing for (the Pee Wee Rangers) team that played in a major tournament up in Quebec with Mark Messier, Adam Graves, and Mark's father (Doug Messier) coaching us. We practiced at the (MSG Training Center), so I was able to be around the team's facility and play for two of the team's true legends, which was an amazing experience. Being such a huge fan of the Rangers as kid, it was a really neat time for me."
A native of Westport, CT, Paliotta has continued to pay attention to the Rangers even as his career progressed, first with the U.S. National Development Team, then as a third-round selection of the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2011 NHL Draft, four years at the University of Vermont, and a pair of brief stops with the Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets organizations.
"I've continued to follow the Rangers because of where I grew up, plus my whole family remained big Rangers fans, so it's funny how it's all come full circle now," offered Paliotta, who wore the captain's C on his Rangers jersey for that youth hockey tournament in Quebec. "It is neat. My mom is now digging out all of these old pictures of me in a Rangers jersey, so it's really cool now to have the opportunity to play for this organization."
Make no mistake, though, that as excited as Paliotta is to sign with the Rangers, this was not a decision made to fulfill boyhood dreams. The 6-foot-3 Paliotta is a professional, and he is looking to play for a quality organization with a chance for him to reach the NHL.
Since turning pro after leaving Vermont in the spring of 2015, Paliotta has appeared in two NHL games--one with the Blackhawks near the end of the 2014-15 campaign and one last season with the Blue Jackets, to whom he was traded last summer in the Brandon Saad blockbuster deal.
A free agent this summer, Paliotta wanted the best possible situation in order to pursue his professional goals.
"At this point, after playing my first full year of pro in Columbus, I'm just looking for the best opportunity and fit for me personally, and the fact that it was with the Rangers is just very unique," explained Paliotta, a right-handed shooting defenseman. "I'm really excited about the opportunity with this organization and I just want to make the most out of it. At the end of the day this is my job and I'm a really competitive guy so I am looking to make the most out of any opportunity I get, no matter what team it would have been with. It's just cooler that it's the Rangers!"
It seems that cool experiences follow Paliotta around. After finishing his collegiate career, where he was Vermont's captain his senior season, Paliotta picked up an assist in his NHL debut with Chicago and then was along for the ride as a Black Ace as the Blackhawks captured the 2015 Stanley Cup.
"That was such a unique thing, coming right out of college and joining Chicago on their Stanley Cup run, and seeing all about that," said Paliotta. "I learned a lot during that time--how to act as a professional, how to take care of your body, what it takes to win a championship--and I've taken that with me; and I think it has made me a better player."
Then after being a part of the big Chicago-Columbus trade on June 30, 2015, Paliotta spent most of last season with Lake Erie in the AHL, helping the Monsters capture the Calder Cup championship.
"I had a lot of fun coming to the rink every day," Paliotta said of his Lake Erie experience. "We were a young team, guys were always pushing each other, and I think we hit our stride at the beginning of the playoffs and never really looked back. What that championship run showed me was that so many guys play an entire career and never have a chance to win, and I feel really fortunate to have won the Calder Cup in my first full professional season."
Now it's on to the Rangers organization with Paliotta hoping that his strong two-way skill set from the blue line leads to a lengthy stay in the organization.
"At the end of the day moving on was a better fit for me," explained Paliotta, who scored eight goals and totaled 23 points in 68 games a year ago with Lake Erie and was held scoreless in his one NHL game with Columbus. "I take a lot of pride in my defensive game, being a good puck mover; but I also take a lot of pride in being able to produce offense from the blue line. I want to be trusted in all situations."
With training camp still a couple of months away, the self-described "serious guy" is working out with the renowned Ben Prentiss in Connecticut to make sure he is prepared to play at a peak level come September for his first impression on Alain Vigneault and his coaching staff.
"I can't wait for camp. I am so excited already."