Nov. 3, 2014
Notre Dame, Indiana - Thomas DiPauli has a scar on his right cheek, determination in his eyes and a hockey player's smile--the kind that wins admiration from someone who understands the courage it takes to lace up the skates and pick up a stick.
"That one tooth missing--that's a sign of who he is," University of Notre Dame hockey coach Jeff Jackson said about DiPauli, a junior left winger whose smile may be interrupted by a telltale gap but whose passion for the game never takes a break.
Hockey-tough and loving every minute of it, DiPauli dishes out more punishment than he takes. He helped the Fighting Irish pick up three critical points in rugged Hockey East competition this weekend. A 5-foot-11, 191-pound native of Caldaro, Italy, DiPauli lit the lamp twice in Notre Dame's 3-2 victory against No. 13 Vermont Friday. He made a critical block that proved to be huge as the Irish hung on for a 2-2 tie against the Catamounts Saturday.
As DiPauli has kicked up his game, the Irish are surging. After opening the season with two losses, the young Irish are growing up quickly, boasting five victories and one tie in their last six games.
Carving out a reputation as a fierce forechecker and flashing lightning-quick speed, DiPauli caught the attention of the Washington Capitals, who drafted him in the fourth round of the 2012 NHL entry draft.
Jackson also loves the drive DiPauli brings to the game.
"He's such an energy guy," Jackson said of DiPauli. "You wish you had 10 guys who play at that pace and that competitive level. He battles. He's a great kid. He'll do what you ask him to do. If I say, 'Hey, we need this face off,' he goes out there and wins the face off."
DiPauli scored five goals and dished out seven assists his freshman season. Last season, a pair of injuries kept him out of 14 games, and DiPauli finished with three goals and two assists in 26 games.
Through eight games this season, DiPauli has three goals and five assists.
"Right now, (DiPauli is) playing a great two-way game for us," Jackson said. "That's what we thought we were getting when we recruited him. He kind of got pigeon-holed a little bit in the national program, to be more of a defensive player. When we recruited him out of Chicago Mission, he was a really good offensive player. He got transformed into a defensive player when he was with USA Hockey. He's finally coming into his own at our level."
DiPauli has been striving to sharpen his offensive game in order to help the Irish attack.
"I'm pleased that I got those two goals, obviously, because it helped us win on Friday," DiPauli said. "At the same time, the block (Saturday) was just as important, because if they would have scored that late in the second period, I don't know what would have happened if they would have come out firing to start the third period.
"Defensively, I'm pretty solid. Coaches trust me. They put me out there at the end of the game to block some shots. I'm the PK in five on three, but at the same time, I want to prove to myself that I can get a point per game this season. The points help us with how you play, but at the same time you can't let that affect how you play. Doing the little things are important for me, always has been, always will be."
DiPauli said he understands his strengths defensively, but knows his stock will increase if he can put the puck in the back of the net.
"Obviously, I'm not going to be like a Mario Lucia, who can score, who is always in the right spot," DiPauli said. "That's not me. I'm not a natural goal-scorer like that. But at the same time, it's always nice to chip in a few goals. As a third-liner, maybe eventually someday playing in the NHL, you need those third-liners to also produce, and at the same time, shutting teams down, creating some energy, creating momentum, and being in on some big goals. That's something I'm focusing on while keeping my defensive play really sound."
Born in Caldaro, which is in the northern mountainous region of Italy, Caldaro was introduced to hockey at an early age. He started playing at age 3, with his brother Theo, who is one year older.
"I hated hockey at first," DiPauli said with a laugh. "My coach had to convince me to keep trying. He carried me around the ice during drills. Finally, I loved it, at about the age of 8 or 9."
As DiPauli's hockey skills flourished, and his brother's hockey skills did likewise, their parents decided to make significant sacrifices in their lives for the future of their children.
"My brother and I dreamed of playing professionally," DiPauli said. "The best way to do that is to play college hockey, to come to the United States. When hockey got really serious for my brother and me, my parents decided to move to the United States, where my mother is originally from. We moved to the United States when I was 12.
"My parents (Alexander and Christina) are amazing. I couldn't thank them enough, ever, same with my brother. My dad still has a job in Italy, so he has to travel back and forth to Italy. It's a tough life for them, but they did it so my brother and I could have a chance to play hockey, and I'm extremely grateful for what they've done.
DiPauli's brother, Theo, plays for 2014 NCAA champion Union. DiPauli is looking forward to Nov. 28, when Union visits Notre Dame.
"My brother is one year older than me," DiPauli said. "I wanted to be like him in everything I did. He's my best friend. I look up to him incredibly."
As DiPauli continues to gain momentum and forge a game that makes an impact at both ends of the ice, the Nov. 28 clash between the Irish and Union could be just a preliminary.
"That would be amazing," the Irish start said about the possibility of a DiPauli family reunion at the Frozen Four. "I would love every minute of it."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent