The Long Island mansion that Rick DiPietro bought in the heyday of his career with the New York Islanders is on the market. These days, he is downsizing. Home, for now, is a room at a Residence Inn in suburban Charlotte, N.C. – a place where hockey is about as popular as surfing is in Winnipeg.
DiPietro, the former franchise goalie for the Islanders, signed a 25-game contract with the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League in late October. Far from the focus of the news media and the intense criticism from fans, DiPietro hopes to begin resurrecting a career that once made him a National Hockey League all-star and an Olympian.
"Out of sight, out of mind sometimes isn't a bad thing," DiPietro, 32, said after a recent practice. "I definitely appreciate the fact that I'm kind of under the radar here."
With the Islanders, DiPietro never matched the expectations that came with a 15-year, $67.5-million (U.S.) contract he signed in 2006. A series of hip, knee and head injuries limited DiPietro to 50 games in his last five NHL seasons before the Islanders sent him to Bridgeport of the AHL in February. They bought out his contract in July at $1.5-million a year through 2029.
DiPietro, the No. 1 overall pick in 2000 out of Boston University, could have walked away from hockey a rich man. Instead, he spent the summer and fall working out with a goalie coach in Connecticut and a trainer in Toronto, driving back and forth while waiting for the phone to ring.
"I don't think I could go to sleep at night not knowing that I gave it one last try to see what I could do," he said.
DiPietro finally got his shot when injuries last month left the Carolina Hurricanes short-handed in goal. Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford signed DiPietro for the Checkers, his team's AHL affiliate.
"There's been some really dark, tough, trying times," said DiPietro, who credits his wife, Cassandra, and renewed faith for helping him through the lows. Although he said jokingly last season that he had thought about driving off the Throgs Neck Bridge, DiPietro dismisses reports that he seriously considered suicide.
A humble DiPietro has worked to fit in with his Charlotte teammates, earning praise from Checkers coach Jeff Daniels for his attitude and approach. DiPietro is trying not to look too far ahead. Or back.
The Checkers were recently in Toronto to play the Marlies at the same time the Islanders were there to play the Maple Leafs. The teams stayed at the same hotel. DiPietro kept his distance.
"I've talked to a bunch of them on the phone and text messages," he said of his former teammates, "but it might have been a little bit hard for me maybe, at this point. I don't know if it's all actually sunk in yet. I always thought I'd end up with one team the rest of my career, retired, be a part of the organization, all that kind of stuff you dream about when you sign a deal like that. But it didn't work out."
DiPietro has had a difficult start with Charlotte. He is 0-4 with a 5.18 goals-against average and an .846 save percentage in his first five games, including a 4-3 loss to the Rockford IceHogs on Sunday in which he made 26 saves. On a recent night when Rutherford went to a mostly empty Time Warner Cable Arena to watch him play, DiPietro allowed five goals on 15 shots against the Hershey Bears and was pulled midway through the second period of a 5-3 loss.
"He doesn't have his confidence now," said Rutherford, a former NHL goalie. "That position, more than any other position in hockey, it's important to have your confidence, and so he's probably thinking too much while the game's on, which isn't a good thing."
DiPietro conceded that it had been tough.
"I came here having not practised with a professional team or really organized practices at all, and having new equipment and new skates and everything else, and then just jumping into a game probably wasn't the best thing to do," he said. "But at the end of the day, games are the only way you can really get that exposure to what you need to try to get sharp."
But DiPietro may be running out of time. The Hurricanes' starting goalie, Cam Ward, is back from a groin injury. Although Ward's backup, Anton Khudobin, remains out, the third-string goalie, Justin Peters, has played well. The Hurricanes and the Checkers have six goalies between them. Rutherford said a move would most likely be made this week.
"Best-case scenario for him was he came in immediately and played well and Justin Peters didn't play well," Rutherford said of DiPietro. "But it didn't work that way. Justin Peters played extremely well, and Rick didn't get back to the level that we would have expected him to in a short period of time."
Will Charlotte be DiPietro's last stop? He does not know and is not looking that far ahead. But in the end, he may not be the one who makes that call.
"It's something every athlete struggles with – when's the right time," he said. "I don't know if I'll ever know when the right time is. I said it to my wife the other day: I'd rather someone just tell me when the time is. I know it's tough to make that decision on your own."