When you ask General Manager Lou Nanne to nail down exactly what Right Wing Dino Ciccarelli means to the Minnesota North Stars, he doesn't say "plenty of goals," because that's obvious. Nor does he say "putting life into the team," because once you've watched Ciccarelli (pronounced Siss-a-RELL-i) crash into a net or celebrate a routine goal as if he'd just clinched the Stanley Cup, that's pretty obvious, too. Nor does Nanne mention that Dino's his No. 1 gate attraction, although Minnesota so far is drawing nearly 1,000 more spectators a game this season than last and the biggest new addition to the North Stars is Dino. What Nanne says is, "Ciccarelli gives us an identity."
Yes, he does. Minnesota is no longer the No Stars. "Dino came along at a time when fans were getting tired of athletes who act like the world owes them a living, guys who act like their sport is drudgery," says North Star Coach Glen Sonmor. "The sheer love of what he's doing shows all over him. And it's terribly infectious."
Dancing, waving his stick, trying to draw a penalty by crashing to the ice as if shot dead, Ciccarelli is not only the National Hockey League's most exuberant player, but at 22 one of its offensive stars as well. He was called up to Minnesota two-thirds of the way through last season, and by the playoffs he was rolling; he set an NHL rookie record for playoff goals, with 14 in 19 games. At week's end, after 57 games, he had 44 goals for 1981-82, just four shy of the club record and was third behind Wayne Gretzky and Dennis Maruk of Washington in the NHL goal-scoring race.
"Like all big goal scorers, Dino gets himself a lot of shots, puts most of them on the net and has a radar for rebounds," Nanne says. "He holds his space, works himself open and has that classic ability to pop up like a Jack-in-the-box at just the right moment. He's what we always needed—a sniper."
Ciccarelli snipes when it counts. The first goal of a game is considered a biggie, and Ciccarelli has scored 11 of them, more than anyone else in the league. What else does he mean to the North Stars? Well, he's scored or assisted on nearly one-third of their 242 goals. Given the Dino dimension from the beginning of the season, Minnesota has its fewest losses ever (18) this deep into the schedule. Moreover, the North Stars have been at the top of the Norris Division since the first week of the season.
At 5'10", 180 pounds, Ciccarelli looks chunky out on the ice, an image enhanced by his hopping, staccato stride. He says that end-to-end he's among the slowest skaters on the team. "But put a loose puck in front of the net," he adds, "and my money's on me." He cannot explain his goal-scoring talent but gives two clues, one of which is his stick. While the blade of a normal NHL stick has a slight loft, Ciccarelli's looks like a nine-iron. This gives his shots exaggerated lift, which helps him hit high corners even from in close. Second, between shifts he seldom follows the play. He keeps his eyes locked on the goalie. "A lot of the time I'll be in sort of a daze, watching him, thinking how he bothers me so much," he says. "I can't stand missing a scoring chance. It haunts me and makes me stare even harder at the goalie."
Such intensity made Ciccarelli's name long before he arrived in Minnesota. At London in the Ontario Hockey League for juniors, his enemies were legion. One was Jeff Brubaker, a beefy forward now in the Canadiens' organization. As a junior at Peterborough, Brubaker was usually assigned to muscle up Ciccarelli. Once Ciccarelli scored a game-winning goal while Brubaker lay sprawled at his feet. A picture of the scene appeared the next morning in the London Free Press. Ciccarelli went to the newspaper, got a glossy print of the photo and mailed it to Brubaker with the inscription: "Cement-head, isn't this your check?" Another time Ciccarelli was in the midst of a shoving match at the blue line with Mark Hunter, then playing for Brantford, now a Canadien. As the scuffle began, the Brantford mascot, Alex the Gator, rushed down to the boards and grabbed at Ciccarelli. Dino hoisted his stick and whacked Alex in the snoot.
His toughest battles have been with Al Secord, formerly a junior at Hamilton, now a Chicago Black Hawk. They've been archrivals since 1976. Ciccarelli says Secord has challenged him five different times and beat him up every one of them. "I hate him," Ciccarelli says, "but whenever he calls again, I'll answer." Last week Secord and Ciccarelli found themselves on the same bus headed for Washington's Capital Centre, teammates for the All-Star Game. When Ciccarelli boarded, Secord asked him how he was feeling. "Bleep you," Ciccarelli replied. "You don't care."
Perhaps what is most unusual about Ciccarelli is that he's playing hockey at all. On April 18, 1978, Ciccarelli led the OHL in goals, edging out another budding sensation named Wayne Gretzky. Thanks mainly to Ciccarelli, the London Knights were in the playoff semifinals. Ciccarelli was 18 and—like Gretzky—on the verge of signing a big-money pro contract, Dino with the Birmingham Bulls of the World Hockey Association. It didn't happen. At practice that morning, going full tilt in a two-man passing drill, Ciccarelli tripped over a piece of a splintered hockey stick and slammed into the end boards. At first, his teammates howled with laughter as he lay on the ice; a few of them playfully shot pucks at him. Suddenly they realized that Ciccarelli couldn't get up. He had snapped the femur—the heavy thighbone—in his right leg. "I still remember those pucks whizzing toward me," he said last week. "That and me thinking, 'God, no! I'm through as a hockey player.' "
To repair the break, doctors cut into Ciccarelli's leg, set the bone and inserted a steel rod 16 inches long. The rod stayed in place for 25 months. But by September Ciccarelli was off crutches and undergoing therapy to regain movement in the leg. "The pain was unbearable but not seeing any progress was worse," he says. Doctors measured improvement by each new quarter-inch of flex in the knee.
In October he rejoined the Knights and practiced with his leg so heavily taped it lost circulation. "I thought I could still score if I could skate at all," he says. "But I couldn't. I could barely stand up. I was a nobody. It was the beginning of Dino Who?"
Ciccarelli's lowest moment came in January of 1979. By then he was skating well enough to fill in at spot duty and felt ready to take his regular shift. Coach Bill Long thought otherwise. One night a bench-clearing brawl broke out. All but seven Knights were ejected from the game, and Ciccarelli figured, "I've got to play now." Long needed one of the seven players to serve a bench penalty; he sent Ciccarelli.
"He was crying as he skated toward the penalty box," says Roy Chaffey, in whose house Ciccarelli was a boarder. "The next morning we had a long talk. I told him to stop thinking he had a guaranteed spot on the team. I used to work as a security guard at the Montreal Forum and so I knew many of the Canadiens. Serge Savard had broken his leg twice, and twice had to fight to get back his job. I told Dino that if Savard had no guarantees, Ciccarelli didn't either."
"After that," Ciccarelli says, "I began extra work—riding the bicycle twice as long as I was supposed to, lifting extra weights until the pain made me scream." He returned to the Knights lineup, played in 30 games and scored eight goals. But word had spread among NHL scouts: The kid can't make it back.
When the NHL draft came that June, Dino sat by the phone. It didn't ring. "When the draft was over," Ciccarelli says, "I went upstairs, saw my dad and started to cry."
Meanwhile, Nanne was crying over his team's inability to score goals. He recalled how Ciccarelli had played before his injury. Nanne phoned Ciccarelli's doctors. In their opinion, the right leg was stronger than the left, and that once the rod was removed, Ciccarelli's mobility ought to return. That was enough for Nanne. He signed Ciccarelli to a three-year contract. "The best move I've ever made as a general manager," he says.
Up with the North Stars last February, Dino was an overnight sensation. On Feb. 15 he scored two goals against Vancouver, one while sliding across the crease on his belly. He also made his NHL boxing debut in a brawl that night, and the North Star fans began a new chant: "Dee-no! Dee-no! Dee-no!" Soon, the Met Center souvenir shops had Dino buttons and T shirts. They also had 400 toy balloon dinosaurs, which they touched up to read DINO THE DINOSAUR, and sold out at $8 a pop.
Indeed, Ciccarelli is a bit dinosaurian in the mental processes department. "It's a thinking game, and Dino doesn't always think," says Nanne. "He forgets to get position on defense and doesn't remember to stay active when the puck isn't in a goal-chance position. But he's only 22. The thinking will come."
Meanwhile, in payment for his enthusiasm, Ciccarelli probably gets knocked down more than any other big scorer. "He's one of those little guys who makes you mad," says Philadelphia Flyers Coach Pat Quinn. "Just looking at him, you want to grind him."
So far, though, grind jobs haven't had even a slight effect on the man who was a washed-up 18-year-old. "Nothing's scary like it is when you think all your dreams are over," Ciccarelli says. "The scouts used to ask me about my leg, and it was sickening the way they'd shake their heads. Now they shake their heads when they see the game summaries, but it's a different kind of shake."