Nothing has been typical about Rocco Grimaldi's career to this point

Author: Thomas Waind, for
Date: Feb 22, 2018

“I ended up playing two games in one day. I don’t know if that will ever be done again.”

No, this quote was not from Deion Sanders in 1992 after famously playing in the NLCS for the MLB’s Atlanta Braves and then flying to Miami to suit up for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons on the same day.

Instead, on November 18, 2014, Rocco Grimaldi found himself in a rare situation as one of a handful of players in recent memory to play two professional hockey games in the same day.  An American Hockey League (AHL) player with the San Antonio Rampage at the time, Grimaldi was definitely surprised to get “the call” to the NHL mid-game.

“We had a 10:30am game in San Antonio,” Grimaldi explains. “A morning game for the kids that basically only happens once a year. We were playing against Oklahoma, and after the second period our General Manager came down the tunnel and told me that I was being called up to the Florida Panthers and that I would have to leave. I had to skate back on the ice real quick to tell our coach that I was leaving. I took off and went straight to the airport. I flew to LA to play a game against the Kings and ended up playing five periods of hockey that day. It was kind of like a really weird double overtime game.”

Nothing has been typical about Grimaldi’s career to this point. Born in Anaheim, California, hockey and beaches may not seem like an obvious fit, but Grimaldi naturally took to the game at a young age nonetheless. Introduced to the game as a four year-old by his older sister and her friends, he would pick up the game quickly and not let go.

With somewhat limited competition in the California minor hockey scene, Grimaldi separated himself from the pack by posting some truly gaudy scoring totals while playing with the Little Caesars program.

“One drawback was that there weren’t enough good teams,” reflects Grimaldi. “There were usually only two or three good teams and you’d be in a ten team league. So basically you’re running up the score every game except for the few against the stronger teams. It’s great for stats—everyone loves scoring goals—but in terms of development you want to play against good players and the league just lacked overall good teams at the time.”

But lack of competition did not mean that Grimaldi lacked in quality instruction.  He learned to play hockey under two highly respected California-based coaches in Jack Bowkus and Larry Barron.

“They’re the two coaches that I’ve been with the longest. Larry’s been my skating coach since I was seven years old and he now works with the Anaheim Ducks.  Jack Bowkus—I’ve played on his teams for a long time—and I probably first played for him when I was five. He started out with me. I still skate regularly with both guys and they’ve had a huge impact on me as a player. I skate the way I do because of Larry, and all of my puck work is because of Jack.”

Early on, Grimaldi showed dynamic skills in the way of blazing speed and a deft scoring touch to make up for his smaller frame.  He quickly garnered interest with the U.S. National Development program and would bring his scoring talents to America’s preeminent prospect development system. Even among the best young hockey players in America, Grimaldi found a way to rise to the top. On a 2010-11 National Development Junior team that featured future NHLers such as Ryan Hartman, Frank Vatrano, J.T. Miller, Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba, it was Grimaldi who led the team in scoring with 25 points in 23 games.

After a successful campaign in the US National Development system and two Under-18 World Junior tournaments, Grimaldi put himself in a great position heading into the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. While his knack for scoring certainly impressed many scouts, his 5’6, 180 pound stature made him a “wild card” in the draft. Hearing that he could be picked as high as eighth overall or as low as the fifties, Grimaldi didn’t know what to expect going into the draft. It was to his surprise to hear that it was Florida selecting him with the 33rd overall pick.

“I did not know at all that the Panthers were interested. I was pretty surprised that it was Florida. I didn’t think my meeting with them was anything special. Couldn’t get a read on if they loved me or not and it felt like just a meeting. Regardless I was excited. I took a look at who they were drafting and who they had drafted in the past and I actually knew a lot of guys. I thought ‘wow this could be a pretty special team’.”

For the next stage of his development as a hockey player, Grimaldi committed to playing for Dave Hakstol’s Fighting Hawks at the University of North Dakota. While many top prospects choose the major junior hockey route to hone their craft, Grimaldi explains that the NCAA route has its merits in terms of developing as a hockey player.

“I just think from a standpoint of developing, college was the best route for me personally. You get access to great facilities, especially the school that I picked where there aren’t better facilities in the world. You don’t play as many games, which some might say isn’t good but I think it is fine because your body recovers quicker so you have more time to work out and practice. There’s a lot more time to work on specific skills and so many opportunities to get better. Seeing all of the players that moved up through the college ranks to make the NHL—especially at North Dakota—speaks volumes about the college experience. Getting an education on top of that was huge and meant a lot to me.”

Grimaldi would end up playing three seasons with the Fighting Hawks before jumping to pro hockey. During his time at North Dakota, Grimaldi amassed 77 points in 86 regular season games, made the 2012-13 Conference All-Academic team, and helped lead the team to within one game of the NCAA championship in 2013-14. While the on-ice experience did not disappoint, his love for North Dakota went well beyond the rink.

“College was a special time.  I met my wife at North Dakota. I met some of my best friends there. I had awesome guys that I roomed with—some who weren’t even on the hockey team. Just being able to walk into that rink everyday was so special. Before I ever visited campus, people told me that I’ll be blown away by Ralph Engelstad Arena. But when you walk in for the first time you’re left speechless. It was ridiculous. The North Dakota fans are probably some of the best in the country. It was just so much fun to play there. I had a great group of teammates. I loved my time at North Dakota.”

The 2014-15 season saw Grimaldi begin his professional hockey career with the San Antonio Rampage; the AHL affiliate of the Panthers at the time.  As a 21 year-old rookie he didn’t skip a beat and amassed 42 points in 64 games which garnered the attention of Florida management. Grimaldi would get called up to the NHL for seven games in that first season, but none was more important to him than his first.

 “A couple of guys on Florida got hurt,” Grimadli recalled. “I was playing in San Antonio and we were playing Rockford that night. I just got off the ice from the morning skate. Coach called me and Vincent Trocheck into his office and told us that we had been called up and were leaving that night.  So I went home, grabbed some lunch, and just got around to telling everyone. My parents, girlfriend and college roommate were ordering flights right away and all got to be there. It was special to have them there in Florida.”

Both Grimaldi and Trocheck stood in the starting lineup for the national anthem which ensured they would take the game’s opening draw against Claude Giroux and the Philadelphia Flyers.

“I was ready. We ended up beating Philadelphia 2-1 so it was perfect.”

Grimaldi has split time between the NHL and AHL in each of his four seasons of pro and is now a member of the Colorado Avalanche organization after the Panthers traded him in the 2016 offseason for goaltender Reto Berra.

Grimaldi is stuck in a precarious spot as a player who just doesn’t seem to get an extended look at an NHL job, however, continues to put up impressive numbers when in the AHL. While professional hockey is a dream job for these players, the yo-yoing between levels can be hard on them and their families. 

“It’s harder now, especially since I’m married. When I get moved around I usually don’t know if I’m going to be gone for a day, week, or a month or longer. It can be tough on my wife to get a job when we don’t know if we’re going to be up or down. That’s probably the hardest thing, although it comes with the territory.”

While the constant bouncing between two leagues can be mentally taxing, Grimaldi still has a firm belief in himself and his game.  As a shorter player it can be tough to play against bigger guys, although Grimaldi’s style of play is certainly enough to overcome any adversity.

“My speed helps. I pride myself on being hard to play against. I have players from other teams tell me that I’m tough to play against pretty often. I don’t let them relax. They don’t want to play against me and that’s what I want. Between my speed, stick use and positioning I can be tough down low. I try to play a complete game and be a tough player to play against.”

It is this tenacity that keeps him sharp and producing on the scoresheet. Coming off last year’s impressive 31 goal, 55 point campaign with the Rampage, opponents remain warry when Grimaldi is on the ice.  He remains one of the premier offensive threats on a 25-20-6 Rampage squad and his 24 points in 40 games earned him a selection to this season’s AHL All-Star Classic in Utica. But the hard work is far from over.

 “My goal this year is to just get better. Last year I was third in the (AHL) in scoring and I’d like to get back on that pace. Anything to help my team get back in the playoffs would be great.”

While being selected for this year’s AHL All-Star team was an honor, Grimaldi’s hope is that in a year’s time he won’t be able to attend.  He’s registered three points in six games with the Avalanche so far this season and hopes to add to these totals.

“I want to be playing in the NHL. That’s my goal.  And I’ll keep working hard to get back.”


Follow the author on twitter @twaind4


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