KITCHENER, ONT – Jerry D’Amigo’s first foray into junior hockey hasn’t been met as much with a welcome wagon as it has with an armored tank.
First, there was the rapid fire trash talk, with opponents giving him the gears about being sent to junior after spending the first half of the season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
Then, three games into the junior season with his new Kitchener Rangers, it was a full out physical assault.
Against the Guelph Storm, he was hit from behind into the glass where he split his lip, lost a couple of teeth and was believed to have broken his nose. Then, roughly two shifts later, he went to check an opponent and was summarily cross-checked in the face. After that it was a knee-on-knee hit which resulted in a charley horse.
Welcome to the Ontario Hockey League, kid.
“I don’t like it, it damages my face and this is the money maker,” says D’Amigo with a devilish smile, his upper lip still slightly swollen. “I’m just kidding. I guess it’s just one of those things where they’re trying to get under my skin and do whatever they can.”
Adding any insult to the injury of being sent down can’t possibly smart any more than it already has for D’Amigo, considering he forfeited his NCAA eligibility and university education at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in August to sign a pro contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. In September, at the Leafs’ rookie camp in London, Ont., Kitchener wasn’t even on the radar for D’Amigo, as the 19-year-old played off questions about the possibility of playing in the OHL.
“It was one of those things where you’re recently signed and all you want is to make the big club, you want to be there (in the NHL),” says D’Amigo of his attitude over the summer. “It didn’t work out there and I went with the Marlies and things were going well there, but they thought I could do better here (in Kitchener).”
And while his face has mended quickly, the sting of ending up in Kitchener might take longer to heal not only for D’Amigo, but for his family as well. In the Feb. 4, edition of the Waterloo Region Record, D’Amigo’s father, Peter was quoted as being upset with the news his son was being sent to the OHL.
“I’ve heard great things about Kitchener but Jerry didn’t leave RPI to go to Kitchener,” Peter D’Amigo told the paper. “He left to sign a contract to play for the Maple Leafs, for the Marlies.”
The younger D’Amigo says his father was overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment, having only learned the news.
“What he said was that I was definitely going to be mad getting sent from the AHL to Kitchener, which – I was a little bit upset about it – it was one of those things where he was caught right after hearing about (the demotion) and you’re not really thinking clearly,” says D’Amigo. “He was mad about it because he didn’t want people in Kitchener to feel that I don’t want to be here.
“If the Leaf management wants me to be here, then I want to be here, too.”
Kitchener Rangers GM and head coach Steve Spott says he hopes to meet with the D’Amigo family once Peter is back from a business trip, to quell any reservations they might have about the OHL and Kitchener. He wants them to know that if there’s any coach or GM in the OHL that truly understands the kind of atmosphere D’Amigo is coming from, it’s him.
Spott was a NCAA standout with Colgate University in the late 1980s, helping the Red Raiders win an Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) title and a berth in the 1990 Frozen Four.
“Colgate’s about 60 miles (100 kilometres) from Binghamton, and I’ve been there,” says Spott. “I think that’s important that they recognize that their son is being sent to a coach and manager that understands. I’ve played in the ECAC, I’ve played at RPI. So I’m hoping that once they have the chance to come up and meet with me, they’ll see that (Jerry) is in good hands and he is going to be well looked after.”
Spott isn't alone in wanting to make sure D'Amigo is a happy camper. Last Tuesday, when the Rangers hosted Guelph, Leafs general manager Brian Burke made a special trip up to Kitchener to check on his charge. On Thursday, it was agent Pat Morris who took D’Amigo out for lunch to make sure he was settling into his new surroundings.
“It’s nice to be cared about,” says D’Amigo. “It’s nice to have (Burke) in the stands to see how I’m doing here. I like to have that and it shows how much they care about me and that they think highly of me.”
On this day, Spott has given up his own office inside the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium for D'Amigo to chat with a reporter. The Leafs' sixth-round pick with first-round promise is already 10 minutes late for afternoon practice – not that anyone seems overly concerned about the teen who has been living the pro-hockey life in hockey's "centre of the universe" for the past four months.
“It’s a big difference coming from the AHL, here,” says D’Amigo. “You’re playing with 30-year-olds, there were a couple older guys on the (Marlies), so you were playing with men. Now you come here and it's younger guys, but they’re still highly talented.”
The news of D’Amigo’s demotion came to Spott in a phone call from Dave Poulin, the Leafs vice-president of hockey operations. After hanging up the phone, the first thing Spott began considering was who would play alongside the highly skilled left-winger. The Rangers (31-14-3-5) are one of the top teams in the OHL Western Conference and D’Amigo has immediately made them a title threat with his addition.
“Line combinations, right off the bat, first thing,” says Spott. “That was the very first thing to go through my mind and it’s terrible because I probably should have thought about billeting and stuff like that.”
The Leafs told Spott that they wanted D’Amigo to work on the offensive side of his game, putting up points and earning minutes on the OHL team’s power play. With the Marlies, the Binghamton, N.Y., native had been in a funk scoring only five goals and nine assists in 41 AHL games in Toronto.
“I definitely was at a standstill (offensively) with the Marlies,” says D’Amigo, who turns 20 next week. “They said to me before I left, ‘Your defensive game is fine, it’s not like you were doing anything bad. It’s just we feel that we don’t want you to be at the standstill next year. We want you to have that confidence and have that scoring ability that you usually do.’”
In his first four games with Kitchener, D'Amigo has been averaging 20 minutes of ice time and has been earning key minutes at critical points in games, on the power play and penalty kill. That time has paid dividends for both player and team, as D’Amigo has been on a tear with linemates Michael Catenacci and Gabriel Landeskog, the potential first overall pick for the NHL entry draft in June. D'Amigo has scored three times and added five assists.
In addition to getting used to his linemates, he’s also getting adjusting to his new billets - a young couple that has billeted the likes of future NHLer Jeremy Morin and Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steve Downie in the past. In Toronto he was living the bachelor life with friend and former Marlies teammate Christian Hanson. D'Amigo was kept busy doing the cooking for the pair, trying to keep it simple with pasta and the occasional steaks.
“It’s like being at home where your mom makes all your meals and does your laundry,” says D’Amigo of his new setup. “When you’re on your own you think of how difficult it is, so it’s nice to have someone help you out. It makes it a lot easier on you.”
And Spott, along with the Leafs organization, wants to make sure that transition from NCAA to pro hockey in the AHL to the U.S. world junior squad and then to the OHL, is as easy as possible given the tumultuous season D’Amigo has been through.
“We all want the same thing – we all want Jerry D’Amigo in the NHL,” says Spott, who watched Calder Trophy candidate Jeff Skinner leave Kitchener for Carolina as an 18-year-old last fall. “It’s just a matter of how we’re going to get him there. I think collectively he has to understand that we are doing this for Jerry and for no other reason. It’s to get him to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs one day. So everybody is on the same page and I think he recognizes that.”
In hindsight, if D'Amigo could go back before giving up his NCAA eligibility, would he have still left RPI knowing he’d end up in the OHL?
“I can’t really answer that,” says D’Amigo earnestly. “I like to live my life with no regrets. RPI was great with me for the year and I know they would have given me more, but this was a step I had to make to go to the Maple Leafs and it was working out well… no regrets.
“Hockey is my love and these steps are just (part of) the process."