Kevin SchultzEarlier this year, about a week before the Islanders waived Rick DiPietro to Bridgeport, I was sitting in the dressing room with Michael Grabner for a Q&A. Across the room, Casey Cizikas was giving an interview to a television camera for Islanders TV.
All of a sudden everyone’s attention in room sort of shifts as from the stall next to Cizikas, a voice pipes up. It was hard to tell what DiPietro was saying from across the room, but it was along the lines of giving interview advice to the rookie Cizikas who had been a little reserved and/or nervous in front of the camera. Within moments, DiPietro was next to him and giving an up-close tutoring session on how to be a good interview. It seemed to have turned into a great interview from the improv.
That’s how Rick always seemed to carry himself, assuming if it wasn’t following a loss, after which players are by NHL law required to look down at the ground and talk in somber tones. Ready for fun, going for the big joke, that’s what DiPietro did whether everyone else ended up laughing or not. After all he had been through, it was still the same old Rick.
Two weeks later it was still the same old Rick at the bitter end, when a News12 reporter caught him making an off-hand suicide joke upon his arrival in the AHL, the type of joke everyone forgot he had made in the New York Times a year earlier. Joking around in front of the media was something he did a lot and sometimes it was funny and sometimes is was a bit bizarre.
This was — is — Rick DiPietro. The personality in the room, the guy who seemed like he still wanted to be your buddy and your friend — or maybe just wanted a sense of normalcy — even after all the crud, rightly or wrongly, that had been thrown at him by fans and media alike. He went “balls to the wall,” as the expression goes, on the ice (more than once that bit him in the ass) and in practice (way more than once, he worked his way back from injury).
The next day following the Cizikas intervention, I searched around trying to see if the video had been posted by the Islanders. As far as I can tell, it never was, whether it wasn’t posted because it wasn’t all that interesting or because the team was distancing itself from the Human Lightning Rod DiPietro we’ll never know.
Whether or not the team’s attitude had changed, its direction sure had thanks to a huge infusion of youth and the long, five-year rebuild that is only now starting to turn the corner. But it was still the same old Rick with jokes — some funny and some weird — and a smile playing for the camera, even if it was after a multitude of injuries and even if it was a different team and organization around him, one that was about to break ties with him.
There’s no one else around on the roster that was around when DiPietro was drafted in 2000. Assuming Radek Martinek doesn’t return, Frans Nielsen is now the longest tenured Islander, having made his debut in 2006, a full six years after DiPietro (Martinek and Nielsen are also the only players left with connections to Mike Milbury, who drafted DiPietro first overall).
In fact, almost the entirety of the roster has been built over the last five years while DiPietro was away with injury. He has only played 50 NHL games since 2008-09. The summer prior to that, the Islanders started their rebuild with the draft selection of Josh Bailey at ninth overall. Bailey’s now an NHL veteran of 329 games, the most for an Islander draft pick selected 2005 or later, and only a fraction of those games were played with DiPietro in the crease. While one wouldn’t expect teammates to be totally unfamiliar with each other, there’s every chance that most of the guys walking around in the dressing room this past season had not spent a whole lot of time, if any, around the former franchise goaltender.
The decision to buyout DiPietro’s massive contract wasn’t made on a moment’s whim. It came from a team that slowly and surely realized what the outside world had years earlier: that their relationship wasn’t working out. The team tried everything to make it work — for way too long — by giving him numerous chances to return to form, even instituting a joke of a three-goalie carousel in 2011-12. The decision to cut ties finally came, slowly and surely, from a team and organization that has changed an awful lot since 2008 when the rebuild and DiPietro’s injuries both started in earnest after a fateful trip to the NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta. Now headed to Brooklyn, with a new face of the franchise in John Tavares and a youthful outlook, it’s a different team than the one that DiPietro led years ago. But this spring, it was still the same Rick and the same contract, one forever linked with the other.
His massive 15-year, $67.5 million contract was the first of its kind, laughed at by other teams even though they followed down that path with their own players. The buyout is also the end of the that long-term contract era, as the NHL has instituted a maximum eight-year contract in the newest CBA to save owners from themselves.
DiPietro worked hard at least half a dozen times to come back from injury, that shouldn’t be disputed. No one can ever take that away from him. No one can take away the $1.5 million he’ll be getting for each of the next 16 years either and the fact that all of this, like his contract, went on for way too long.