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The hard road to the Hall

The hard road to the Hall
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Dino Ciccarelli was among five inductees Monday to the Hockey Hall of Fame

TORONTO – The rod is stainless steel, 16 to 18 inches long, with holes where the screws once were. It sits in a box with Dino Ciccarelli’s other hockey memorabilia. I say “other memorabilia,” because that rod is as much a symbol of Ciccarelli’s hockey career as the pictures and trophies and jerseys and blow-up dinosaur dolls – even as much as the ring Ciccarelli slipped on Monday when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

It might be more of a symbol than any of those things.

“It’s amazing,” Ciccarelli said. “It’s bent a little bit now. I don’t know why. Maybe something to do with my femur, but I can’t explain it. All I know is, whatever they did, it worked.”

Before Ciccarelli was a Hall of Famer, before he scored 608 goals and 1,200 points in the NHL, he was an undrafted free agent. No one wanted to take a chance on him. He had scored 72 goals for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League in 1977-78 – two more than Wayne Gretzky scored in that league that season – but then came a practice, a two-on-none drill, a rut, a tumble into the boards and a badly broken right femur.

“It snapped,” Ciccarelli said. “You could hear it all over the arena. It was awful.”

The rod was inserted to stabilize the bone. It was taken out a year later, but the leg didn’t feel the same. It didn’t feel the same for two years. And Ciccarelli already had two strikes against him: his height and weight.

Ciccarelli was listed as a 5-foot-10, 185-pound winger as an NHLer, and this wasn’t the speed-and-skill NHL of today. “The emphasis was on big, strong wingers,” said Jimmy Devellano, a fellow inductee Monday, who scouted Ciccarelli for the New York Islanders at the time. “And Dino was not a big guy.”

“What’s the old saying?” Ciccarelli said. “The bigger guys had to prove they couldn’t play, and the smaller guys had to prove they could play. It’s actually the reverse of that now. … I think this current era would probably have been a little easier for me – easier on the body, too.”

The injury and long recovery got Ciccarelli down. But he didn’t give up. “A lot of people helped me just to hold onto that dream, especially my dad,” Ciccarelli said. “I wasn’t going to let a broken leg get in the way of stopping my dream.”

Ciccarelli’s dad, Vic, had come to Canada from Italy. He had raised a family in a small house without much money in Sarnia, Ontario. He had taught Dino to never be intimated, to never be satisfied. “If we lost, I could have done more to help the team,” Ciccarelli said, “and if we won and I got a couple goals, well, I could have got three or four.”

Even though Ciccarelli scored 50 goals for the Knights in 1979-80, it wasn’t enough. He had to sign a two-way contract with the Minnesota North Stars. He had to prove himself with the Oklahoma City Stars of the Central Hockey League. But in his first full NHL season, he scored 55 goals.

Ciccarelli kept scoring and scoring – playing for the North Stars, Washington Capitals, Detroit Red Wings, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers over 19 seasons. He became only the ninth player in NHL history to score 600 goals. Despite his size, he was famous for parking himself in front of the net, taking abuse and dishing it out.

“He wasn’t a big guy,” said Hall of Fame winger Luc Robitaille, who scored many of his 668 goals in front of the net, too, but without the nastiness. “Not everyone said he was going to be successful, but man, when he was on the ice, you knew he was on the ice, because someone was going to whacked. If there was a whistle around the net, you knew he was always involved. He played hard. He played hard every game.”

“It’d hurt, but it would still feel good,” Ciccarelli said. “That’s why we play the game. That’s part of competing and having fun. My dad taught me you’ve got to have fun. You’ve got to have passion for the game. It’s going to come with bumps and bruises along the way, but you just suck that up.”

For so many years, Ciccarelli fought to make the NHL, to stay in the NHL, to rank with the best in the NHL. He did it on the ice and even at the bargaining table. He acted as his own agent at times, and Devellano squabbled with him over contracts as senior vice president of the Red Wings. “As hard as Dino played on the ice,” Devellano said, “he played hard when it came time to get a contract.”

Of course he did. The way Ciccarelli looked at it, the North Stars had traded him to the Capitals in 1989 for Mike Gartner and Larry Murphy, both eventual Hall of Famers. He wanted what he was due. He remembered what his dad taught him. “When you’re negotiating, they’re trying to intimidate you,” Ciccarelli said. “It’s just like playing a game, you know? You don’t back down.”

But the Hall of Fame has humbled him.

His dad died in 2006. His mother, Celeste, died in February. He brought home boxes of memorabilia his mother had saved, and he went through everything – the pictures and trophies and jerseys and blow-up dinosaurs and, of course, the rod. “It’s like a trophy,” he said. He was going through all of it, anyway. Then the Hall called June 22, and soon Hall officials were going through all of it, too, to put together an exhibit.

“It seems like yesterday I was Davey Keon on the streets, in my basement, playing with my brothers with a rolled-tin-foil ball and knocking each other, putting holes in the drywall,” Ciccarelli said. “Then going into junior when I was 16, watching [Darryl] Sittler and [Lanny] MacDonald and all those guys and idolizing them, I kind of still feel like a kid a little bit. It just doesn’t feel right, having my name mentioned with all these greats.”

Dino, you were never intimidated before. No need to be now.