It seemed like a simple enough question to answer, the kind of thing a kid would learn when lacing on his first pair of hockey skates: "Say, Dino, just how wide is that net you keep firing pucks at?" Dino Ciccarelli, the keenest sniper in the NHL, looked puzzled. "Uh, I don't know," he admitted. "I don't know how wide it is. And I don't know how high it is." Then he laughed. "But I sure as hell know where it is."
That he does. Take last Thursday night, for example, when Alain Chevrier, the New Jersey Devils goalie, braced himself protectively in front of the four-foot-high six-foot-wide bars as a Minnesota North Star power play swooped down upon him. Like a hawk circling above a crippled rabbit, Ciccarelli (pronounced siss-ah-RELL-ee) slowly cruised off to the side of the net, seemingly out of the action, as defenseman Ron Wilson, point in the Minnesota power play, charged straight at Chevrier.
Ciccarelli's eyes locked upon Chevrier and held fast. "Most of the time I'm sort of in a daze watching the goalie, thinking how he bothers me so much," Ciccarelli says. "I can't stand to miss a scoring chance. It haunts me and makes me stare even harder at the goalie."
With Wilson bearing in full bore, Chevrier moved out into the crease in order to cut the angle and give Wilson less of a target to shoot at. But at the same time he was opening up the angle on Ciccarelli's side of the goal. And the hawk struck. With three quick, choppy strides, Ciccarelli moved to the mouth of the goal. As Wilson's shot sailed in wide of the mark, Ciccarelli deflected it. The puck clunked into the post, spun and died. Almost disdainfully Ciccarelli tapped it in. A gimme putt.
December 15, 1986
For Ciccarelli it was his 26th goal, putting him four ahead of Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky. It was also his 14th power-play goal this season, making him the league's most deadly scorer when the enemy is skating with one stick in the penalty seats. After just 25 games the stocky kid with the funny stick was off to the fastest goal-scoring start in modern NHL history. (Back when the NHL season spanned only 22 games, Joe Malone of the Montreal Canadiens scored 35 goals in the first 14 games of the 1917-18 season. But that was when goalies wore scars instead of masks.)
Later in Minnesota's 5-3 victory over the Devils, which moved the North Stars into the Norris Division lead, Ciccarelli picked up three assists, and his four points for the night moved him into second place among league scorers, behind—need you ask?—Gretzky.
"Hey," a friend said to Ciccarelli after the Devils game, "you just moved [ahead of Mario Lemieux of Pittsburgh, who was idle Thursday night] into second place, behind Gretzky."
"Nah, I'm leading the NHL," Ciccarelli said, grinning. "Gretzky is in another league. Higher."
On Saturday night in a head-to-head shoot-out with Lemieux in Pittsburgh, the North Stars suffered a 5-2 loss but Ciccarelli scored the first of the North Stars' goals, while Lemieux was shut out. Thus at week's end Ciccarelli had 46 total points to Gretzky's 65. Ciccarelli's score in Pittsburgh came midway through the second period and, again, it came on a deflection while Minnesota was on a power play. That widened Ciccarelli's lead in man-advantage situations to five goals over Philadelphia's Tim Kerr and New Jersey's Pat Verbeek, who are tied with 10 each.
Fourteen months ago things were not nearly so bright for the chunky (5'10", 180-pound) rightwinger from Sarnia, Ont. He was in Philadelphia for a game on Oct. 19, 1985; his wife, Lynda, and their daughter, Jenna, then nine months old, were in Sarnia for the wedding of Lynda's brother. At the same time as Ciccarelli was sitting down for the team's pregame meal, Lynda's mother was heating water in an electric teakettle. After it boiled she moved to unplug the kettle. Seeing what her grandmother intended to do, Jenna scooted across the room in her four-wheeled walker and yanked on the electrical cord. The kettle toppled over, dumping boiling water on Jenna's left arm, shoulder and chest. Fortunately the child had reflexively turned her head away from the scalding cascade, so her face was untouched.
Ciccarelli attempted to play that night but finally gave up and rushed home. "It was awful seeing her there twitching like she was dying," he remembers. "Our first concern was to get her out of that small-town hospital and to a burn center."
Jenna was flown to Minneapolis, where two major skin-graft operations were performed. Ciccarelli missed the North Stars' next five games. He played the next 12, but it was as if someone else, someone slow and without skills, were inside his uniform.
"I never should have come back so soon," he says. "The only reason I did was because we had five home games. But I played, and I was terrible. Jenna was always in the back of my mind."
After 17 games he had yet to score his first goal. Then, following Jenna's second major operation, the doctors told Ciccarelli that she was going to heal perfectly. "They said she'd be a healthy little girl," he says, smiling as he remembers the doctors' words. "That was all I had to hear. I put that aside and went back to my job."
No longer handcuffed by worry, Ciccarelli scored 44 goals and totaled 89 points in his last 63 games. Once more the NHL goalies were wary of the hawk in North Star green.
"I remember one game last season," Toronto goalie Ken Wregget said recently. "He blew two by me, and I didn't even see them. People talk about how well Ciccarelli is playing this year, but they overlook how well he played the second half of last season."
"Like all big scorers, Dino takes a lot of shots, puts most of them in the net and has a built-in radar for rebounds," Lou Nanne, the North Stars general manager, once said. Nanne signed Ciccarelli as a free agent in 1979 (Ciccarelli, then 19, had gone undrafted after badly breaking the femur in his right leg while playing junior hockey two years before). "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 the guy that turns this team on—a sniper."
Beginning with the 18th game last season, Ciccarelli has scored 71 goals (and 134 points) in his last 88 games. This season he is going after the team record of 55 goals that he set during his first full season with the North Stars, 1981-82. Ciccarelli opened this season with two goals against Quebec, one against Montreal, two against Boston, one against Vancouver and two against both Chicago and St. Louis. In the first 15 games he scored 20 goals before his curiously tilted stick, the blade of which is canted like that of a sand wedge for more loft on his shots, was temporarily muffled.
"He has always been a gifted scorer, but this year—whether it's because luck is with him or he's making his own luck—everything is going in the net," says Toronto defenseman Chris Kotsopoulos. "I won't say he's scary fast, but he's shifty and elusive, which makes it tough to check him. It's no surprise the way he is scoring. He got those 55 goals in one season, and you don't score 55 goals in this league by fluke. I've heard a lot of people say he scores a lot of garbage goals. If garbage goals are so easy, why can't everybody do it?"
The secret is in the puck; somehow it always finds Ciccarelli, who plays skittering rebounds across the ice the way Carl Yastrzemski played the line drives off the great green wall in Fenway Park.
"He's an opportunist," says Minnesota coach Lorne Henning. "He just pounces on the loose puck. He has a great feeling for where the puck will end up. And he's an agitator. He gets people out of position, and then he takes advantage of what he creates."
The other morning at breakfast, about 10 hours before the New Jersey game, Ciccarelli tried to put a reason to his blazing entrance into the season. In street clothes, without the pads and lumps of a hockey uniform, he looked more like a young banker or stockbroker than a hockey player with an inclination to hang out around the enemy's net.
"I don't know. I can't pinpoint any one thing," he said. "I just feel good out there. Certainly the power play is helping. And scoring is no secret. You have to be in the right place at the right time, and I'm doing that. It's so tough. They ail are concentrating on you. Many of our goals are on deflections or shots from the point. I've got to time it, and so far my timing has been great.
"I don't like to stay in one place too long," he added, with a small grin. "I'm not as strong as some of these guys on defense. I've got to be quick, jump on the loose pucks. This is a tough sport, a tough job, especially when you're a little guy. I don't pick fights, but I'm not going to let anybody intimidate me, take a shot in the legs and not say anything. If I get a cheap shot, I'll retaliate. But if you score goals you have to expect that you're going to be checked hard. You've just got to want it more than they do."
Or as John Brophy, the Maple Leafs coach, says, "He sure is a feisty little guy."
He knows where that net is, too.