On loan from the Edmonton Oilers, Nate DiCasmirro has been a vital cog in the Griffins offensive machine this season
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Some hockey players need a gentle push, a little prodding, to make them go. Not Nate DiCasmirro.
In every sport, there are prospects who should come bearing a tag that reads Some Assembly Required guys who need instruction sheets and a kit of motivational tools to actually work. He isnt one of them.
Right out of the box, DiCasmirro is clearly different. If he marches to a different drummer, its because hes not content with being another cog in the machine. He wants to be the one who keeps the wheel turning.
Just wind him up and he keeps going and going and going...
Its a credit to DiCasmirros character that he didnt allow himself to get off on the wrong foot this season. To his shock, the Edmonton Oilers, who own his rights, sent him to the Griffins to play with a bunch of Detroit Red Wings prospects.
He was surprised to say the least.
Im sure they saw the look on my face, DiCasmirro says, recalling the news that he would be playing in Grand Rapids. They told me, Dont worry. Were not going to forget about you.
Its been a win-win situation for DiCasmirro and his new team. For DiCasmirro, its meant valuable playing time. For the Griffins, its meant the addition of a real sparkplug.
Hes been a big part of our team, says Griffins general manager Bob McNamara. Anytime you can get a non-veteran player of Nates caliber, its a perfect situation, both for him and for the team.
DiCasmirro says he felt welcomed from the very beginning. He already knew Griffins head coach Greg Ireland from his time as an assistant coach in Hamilton, plus he was happy to come to an organization with a winning tradition.
I was excited to come here because I knew the Griffins are good every year, he says. My mom asked me if I was nervous about the situation, but the hockey world is so small that everybody knows somebody else.
DiCasmirro has had enough opportunities to meet people since turning pro toward the end of the 2001-02 season. Grand Rapids marks his fourth city in four years, following stops in Hamilton, Toronto and Edmonton.
Its been hectic, he says. Right when you get used to a city, you pick up and go home and start over the next year. Its been interesting, seeing different parts of Canada and the U.S.
DiCasmirro is a rare breed, a dual citizen of both countries born in Atikokan, Ontario, not far from his fathers birthplace of Thunder Bay, and raised in Burnsville, Minnesota, where his mother grew up.
Border crossings are clearly not an issue for DiCasmirro; deciding for whom to root in the Olympics is definitely more problematic, however. I usually just jump on the bandwagon, he says.
Bouncing from city to city might be a bit easier for DiCasmirro, as the son of a truck driver well-acquainted to the rigors of the road. If his frequent moves have been a mixed blessing, his travels have given his father more opportunities to see him play.
Hes always looking at road maps, trying to figure out a way to squeeze in a few games, DiCasmirro says of his father, Bob. When I played in Toronto, hed park his truck at the rink and come in and watch the games, so he got to see me quite a bit.
Grand Rapids is a bit of a detour, but his father has already managed to see him play a couple of times this season. Chances are pretty good that hes liked what he has seen. Its certainly been the case for DiCasmirros former head coach, Geoff Ward.
On the Oilers web site, Ward now Edmontons development coach has sung the praises of the prodigal prospect. Every game Ive seen him play this year hes been one of the top three or four players on the ice, both sides, stated Ward. Hes playing really well.
For most of the season, DiCasmirro has been paired on a line with Donald MacLean and Matt Ellis. They create an awful lot of space for each other, Ward observes.
DiCasmirro is having the time of his life. Its been unbelievable, he says. My role is getting in the corners, battling for the puck and feeding Donny up high so he can blast it home. I know if we can get him the puck, theres a good chance of it going in.
Truth be told, DiCasmirro probably would enjoy hockey even if he were banished to Siberia. He literally grew up around the game.
His mother, Linda, worked for the Minnesota North Stars in the finance office of the teams ticket department, roughly the same position she holds today with the Minnesota Wild.
My mom had this pass that would get me down below at the Met Center, and I would hang out and watch the practices of teams like the Red Wings or the Kings when Gretzky was in town, he recalls.
I used to wait after games and ask for tape from the opposing bench. I dont think my parents had to buy me tape for about two years thats how much tape I got.
DiCasmirro got his share of autographs he still has a Red Wings hat signed by Steve Yzerman, Paul Coffey and Sergei Fedorov and remembers meetings guys like Pat LaFontaine, Felix Potvin and Mike Modano.
Not every player was so obliging, however, which taught him a valuable lesson.
Im not going to name any names, but I remember a couple of players who wouldnt sign a particular brand of card or magazine. My mom said, If you ever make it, you remember how you felt when they told you no.
Sometimes you have a bad game and you just want to go home. To this day, every time a little kid comes up for an autograph, I picture my moms face and her going, You better sign that!
When its that easy to put a smile on the face of a kid, its worth taking the time.
Thankfully, the bad games have been few and far between this season for DiCasmirro. His presence in the Griffins lineup has clearly made a difference this season.
When he was sidelined with a groin injury in mid-December, the Griffins dropped three straight games by a combined margin of 15 to 4.
While it would be overstating his role to say the outcome would have been any different, theres no denying DiCasmirro has had an impact on his new team.
Its been a pretty easy transition, but the guys here have made it so, he says. When youre playing with guys like Matty Ellis and Donny MacLean, its really fun to come to the rink every day.
Win or lose, DiCasmirro cant imagine himself ever being away from hockey. My mom says, You have to stay in hockey or youll drive whoever you marry crazy. To be honest, I couldnt ever see myself walking away from the game.
DiCasmirro majored in sports management at St. Cloud State University, but he is still several classes away from finishing. I was there to play hockey, but eventually I would like to get my degree and graduate, he says.
He looked at taking a couple of classes this past fall, but decided to put off his studies another year. He thinks about opening his own pro shop someday after his playing career is over.
Its the only real job I ever had where I actually liked going to work, says DiCasmirro, who worked four years in the pro shop at St. Cloud State. I love when the equipment reps come into our locker room and show their stuff. Its like Christmas for me.
DiCasmirro hopes he can delay any decisions about future career choices for at least another decade. Only 25, he still harbors dreams of becoming a regular in the NHL. Every day, youre hoping to get that phone call and finally make that dream come true, he says.
If hes worried about falling victim to the possibilities of being out of sight, out of mind, he doesnt let on. Of course, hes pretty good at blazing his own trail.
Most noticeable is his hair, a modified mohawk that he adopted last summer when he was living in Toronto. My ex-girlfriend suggested it and it was the style there, so we went to her stylist. I started dyeing it at the end of the summer.
First it was red, then blue and, lately, copper. Its something different and people seem to like it.
Then there are his tattoos, which started with a maple leaf filled in with the colors of the American flag. He added his birthdate in roman numerals around his wrist, then another on his back this past summer.
I got a Hawaiian tiki guy with a hockey stick on my back before (college teammate) Mark Hartigans wedding in Maui. All nine guys got the same tattoo, only in different places.
He figures to add maybe one or two more tattoos, and although the subject is yet to be determined, hes hopeful that his career will provide him a hint.
A championship and a trip to the NHL might offer good clues about what could come next.