Teen Angel Can the Islanders' latest wunderkind goaltender, cocky 19-year-old Rick DiPietro, raise the woeful franchise from the dead? He certainly thinks so

February 19, 2001

"Ricky's going to need two seats on that plane: one in coach for
his body and one in first class for his ego."
--CHICAGO WOLVES GOALIE WENDELL YOUNG referring to then teammate
Rick DiPietro

Rick DiPietro settled into seat 6F on US Airways flight 1689 out
of Kansas City, Mo., bound for the Big Time. His suitcase was in
the overhead rack. His healthy sense of entitlement was stowed in
the upright and locked position for takeoff. For a goaltender
whose career seems destined to take flight--New York Islanders
general manager Mike Milbury has staked his career on it--the
whole day had been a trip.

It started at about 10 a.m. on Jan. 26 when DiPietro opened his
Chicago Wolves hockey bag at the Kansas City Blades' rink and saw
that an equipment manager in Chicago had mistakenly packed
mismatched goalie pads, a discovery that started DiPietro
chirping. DiPietro needs far less than the annoyance of having
one Itech pad and one Vaughn pad to chirp. As it is with birds,
sunrise is enough. Occasionally he doesn't even wait that long.
"He was talking in his sleep last night," said Kevin Dahl, a
Chicago defenseman who roomed with DiPietro on the road. "He
never shuts up."

The cacophony grew as more Wolves drifted in for the morning
skate. Their chatter was wry and ribald, the spartan visitors'
dressing room filling with happy and profane noise. The insults,
suspended for a half-hour skate, were resuming when general
manager Kevin Cheveldayoff burst into the locker room at 11:30 to
say that the Islanders had called up DiPietro, the first goalie
selected No. 1 in the NHL draft. New York's starting netminder,
John Vanbiesbrouck, was having back spasms, and a teammate had
stepped on goalie Stephen Valiquette's bare left foot with a
skate that morning as Valiquette, a 23-year-old Islanders
prospect with the Springfield Falcons in the American Hockey
League, had emerged from the shower. While Valiquette, the
Islanders' original choice to be recalled and play backup against
the New York Rangers that night, was preparing for surgery,
DiPietro was riding up a hotel elevator en route to his room to
pack.

"Buffalo tomorrow," said DiPietro, who had been recalled twice
earlier this season--for a total of two games--but hadn't played.
"Hey, imagine beating Dominik Hasek in my first game. The
Islanders would have to keep me then."

He hustled to the airport, boarded a 1:55 p.m. Midwest Express
flight to New York and figured that if everything went right, he
could make it to Madison Square Garden before the national anthem
that night. Of course not everything did. After 30 minutes the
passengers were herded off the plane because of a problem with
the DC-9's tail. "Man, I'm missing Fleury, Messier, Richter,"
DiPietro moaned.

DiPietro is 19. He hasn't lived long enough to recognize that a
maintenance worker examining an airplane is a terrific thing,
that the headlines he's aiming for should be only in the sports
section. The Midwest Express flight was canceled. He was rebooked
on the US Airways flight to Philadelphia and didn't arrive in New
York until 11:30 p.m., in a limo, after the Islanders had beaten
the Rangers. DiPietro didn't know he would start the next night
against the Sabres until the limo driver said he'd heard
something about it on the radio. "Every time I go up," DiPietro
says, "all the advice I get [from Wolves teammates] is, Keep your
mouth shut. Do what they say. Listen to everybody. Respect
everybody. Know your role."

This is the generation gap. The Wolves are an Antiques Roadshow
of mostly thirtysomething men--four Stanley Cup rings and 4,149
NHL regular-season games among them--who think DiPietro's role
should be to take a lot of their shots and to stay after
practice for extra work. DiPietro is a teenager who until two
weeks ago had not one minute of NHL experience, and he thinks
his role is to become an NHL All-Star, be the most valuable
player on the Islanders, win championships, be one of the best
goalies ever and be someone whom everyone--not only he--talks
about. "I always kid Rick that I tell people he believes there
are two great goaltenders in the world," Jack Parker, his coach
at Boston University, said before the 2000 NHL draft, "and he's
both."

DiPietro thinks big and dreams even bigger. Ultimately, he might
not be the best goaltender of his generation, but that won't stop
him from being one of the best things to happen to the NHL in
years. In a game constipated by exaggerated humility,
anesthetizing between-period TV interviews and an off-ice stupor
that belies hockey's inherent thrill, DiPietro can inject a Brett
Hull-like dose of frankness and fun. He can be the a la mode on
the daily servings of NHL humble pie. "He has a profound belief
in himself," says DiPietro's father, also named Rick. "He always
could judge his ability and weigh it against a competitor's and
then make an assessment. He's never been wrong."

Playing for an organization desperate for change, the brash
DiPietro represents changes in attitudes and platitudes. The once
model franchise, which has missed the playoffs for six seasons
running, has been shrouded in a comic-strip cloud that only a
goalie with killer looks, a quick glove and a sharp tongue might
dissipate. Milbury saw the possibilities before the draft, and
maybe he saw a bit of himself in DiPietro.

Milbury is a bold, Rotisserie-style general manager who makes
deals like a talk-show caller, and DiPietro is a 50,000-watt
personality who's trying to win a Stanley Cup in the next 17
minutes. In the history of the draft, no goalie, indisputably
the most important position on the ice, had been selected higher
than Roberto Luongo, whom Milbury took fourth in 1997. Then
Milbury outdid himself. On draft day last June he traded Luongo
to the Florida Panthers for a pair of young forwards to upgrade
the Islanders' offense and then grabbed DiPietro with the top
pick, which New York already owned.

The draft is a festival of bowing and scraping by teenagers in
expensive suits who "Mister" and "Sir" everyone to death, but
DiPietro, a native of suburban Boston who was leaving BU after
his freshman year, dropped the honorifics. In his post-draft
interviews he went on about "Mike" or "Milbury," which was, in
equal parts, shocking and refreshing.

Milbury cultivated the impression DiPietro was ticketed for the
NHL immediately, an idea that was sidetracked in training camp
after DiPietro pulled his groin. On Sept. 27 Milbury summoned
DiPietro to his office to tell him he was being demoted. DiPietro
wept. "He told me, 'But Mike, we haven't won a game yet,'"
Milbury says. "I told him it isn't about him. It's about the
situation."

DiPietro needed additional schooling in handling the puck, in
using his stick in the crease, in being a pro. "The game can
humble people," Milbury says. "Maybe Rick needed to take a little
bit of the edge off."

Playing with the Wolves seemed an ideal lesson in humility. They
were the defending International Hockey League champions, a
motley collection of veterans that included Jurassic goalie
Wendell Young, 37, NHL warhorse Brian Noonan, 35, and former
49-goal scorer Rob Brown, 32; they constituted Beau Geste's Fort
Zinderneuf with colder weather. There was inherent danger in a
rookie with an NHL salary of $1.075 million frolicking among men
who will never see anything close to seven figures, but somehow
all the pieces fell into place. DiPietro gave the vets energy.
They gave him a peek at pro life, minus the charter flights. "I
have three kids," says Dan Plante, a 29-year-old right wing who
played 159 NHL games over parts of four seasons. "A four-year-old
boy, a five-month-old girl and Ricky."

DiPietro, the favorite son, was in the middle of everything from
the start. In his first exhibition game he engaged the Manitoba
Moose goaltender during a brawl. When the Wolves were slumping
early in the season, he had his hair done in cornrows to give
everyone a laugh. The next day, with the cornrows out and his
hair frizzed like Ogie Oglethorpe's in Slap Shot, he played
superbly against the Cleveland Lumberjacks.

The problem was, there were too few of those games. DiPietro,
with a worrisome .880 save percentage, was giving up soft goals,
many the result of his puckhandling errors. While he handles the
puck adroitly, DiPietro, like a six-year-old with a loose tooth,
simply can't leave it alone. "In college everyone interpreted me
handling the puck so much as me trying to show off, to be the
star," DiPietro says, "but really I'm only focused on winning."

Some of the other Wolves, who were last in their division when
DiPietro was most recently called up, weren't. DiPietro became
exasperated. He developed what Milbury calls "a case of the
blues," a lethargy that lifted only after he joined players his
age on the U.S. team at the world junior championships in Moscow
over Christmas. Milbury told DiPietro not to worry about the NHL
but to concentrate on getting Chicago into the playoffs. All that
changed on Jan. 26.

The next night against Buffalo--with Martin Biron, not Hasek, in
goal for the Sabres--DiPietro made 29 saves. He flashed a splendid
glove to stop Curtis Brown from 20 feet and moved laterally to
foil a Doug Gilmour deflection. He also whipped a pass off the
glass to give the Islanders a three-on-two break, on which they
scored and he earned an assist, becoming the seventh goalie to
get a point in his first NHL game. Buffalo's goals in its 2-1
victory, however, were on the soft side. DiPietro also left some
messy rebounds in the third period, but Islanders goalies coach
Mike Palmateer was pleased. Like DiPietro, 25 years ago Palmateer
was a left-handed, puckhandling netminder with not an ounce of
self-doubt.

As a result of his debut performance Milbury announced that
DiPietro wasn't going back to Chicago, an expression of faith in
a goalie too confident to be buried in this landfill of a
franchise. He hasn't won in four starts through Sunday. He has
allowed a few whoppers among the 10 shots that have eluded him,
but his aura is undiminished. Watch out, world! The Ego has
landed!

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL Day and night As a minor leaguer, DiPietro clowned in his mismatched pads on Jan. 26. Thirty-six hours later he and his dad shared a quiet moment after his NHL debut.

"Rick believes there are two great goaltenders in the world," a
former coach says, "and he's both."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)