TRENTON, USA – It is far from uncommon for European hockey players to play professionally for teams in or near their hometowns.
A lesser percentage but still a reasonably high number of Canadian players have also done it. But for young hockey players growing up in the USA, the chances of someday playing professional hockey close to home are even lower.
As with many young hockey players growing up in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, defenseman Ray DiLauro dreamed as a child of someday donning the orange and black uniform of the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers.
Now 33 years of age, DiLauro has never gotten to live out that particular childhood wish. He has also never donned the uniform of Team USA in IIHF-sanctioned competition. Instead, DiLauro has gotten to do the next best thing.
DiLauro has traveled the world, playing professional hockey on three different continents. DiLauro has played in various North American minor leagues – including the American Hockey League and East Coast Hockey League – and spent four-plus seasons playing overseas.
He played two full seasons in Germany’s DEL with Krefeld Pinguine and EV Duisburg, one full season apiece in Austria’s EBEL with EHC Linz and Italy’s Serie A with the Bolzano Foxes and a partial season in the Asia League with the Nippon Paper Cranes of Kushiro, Japan.
Last season, DiLauro came home, literally. The native of Bensalem, Pennsylvania, joined the ECHL’s Trenton Titans; located roughly 25.1 kilometers north of Bensalem in New Jersey. The team named DiLauro its captain for the 2012-13 season. It’s an honor in which he takes pride.
“It’s really nice to be playing so close to a lot of my family and friends,” he said. “This is something I always wanted to do. I almost played in Trenton years ago when I finished college hockey [at St. Lawrence University] but it didn’t work out at the time. I hope I get to finish my career here in Trenton. To get to play here now has been a lot of fun. I was really happy to be asked to be the Titans captain. That means a lot at any level of hockey.”
DiLauro first started playing ice hockey at age eight. That is a relatively late start for a player who went on to play professional hockey, but he made up for lost time with his combination of hard work and physical strength. He attended Bensalem High School, playing baseball as well as hockey. He left home at age 15 to attend a prep school in New York, in order to advance the pursuit of his dream of a hockey career.
That began a journey in which DiLauro spent the better part of the next 17 years living out of a suitcase. Selected in the ninth round of the 1999 NHL Draft by the Atlanta Thrashers (now Winnipeg Jets), DiLauro enjoyed a productive four-year collegiate career at St. Lawrence.
DiLauro is naturally blessed with size and strength (6-foot-2, 229 pounds) and a heavy shot. While he wasn’t a swift skater, his work ethic and determination to be a complete player made him a versatile all-around player at the various levels he played. DiLauro was hard to pigeonhole into any one particular role. There were better pure offensive defensemen, more natural shutdown defenders and more consistently aggressive bodycheckers but not that many with elements of every style in their games.
“I try to play to the game situation, and do whatever it takes to win,” he says. “Sometimes that means pressing the attack a little bit more. Maybe I need to be a little more stay-at-home in another situation. I might try to play a little more physical one game, or be a little more positional and disciplined another time. It all depends on the particular game, the situation, and the matchup.”
After completing his collegiate career in 2002, DiLauro went on to play professionally for 16 different teams in the North American minor leagues and in Europe. The early part of his travels included parts of two seasons in Pennsylvania with the ECHL’s Reading Royals (125 kilometers northwest of Bensalem) and took him through portions of seasons in AHL and ECHL towns ranging from Binghamton, New York the Scranton/Wilkes Barre area of Pennsylvania (205 kilometers north of Bensalem), Wheeling, West Virginia and even Fresno, California.
Shortly before the start of the 2006-07 season, an unsigned DiLauro received an invitation to play in Germany for Krefeld. He jumped at the chance.
“I think I signed on a Thursday and was playing for the first time on Sunday,” he said. “That was fine by me. I’m pretty easy-going and I don’t mind going with the flow. It wasn’t really a plan or anything to go play in Europe for a few years or return at a certain point. I had the chance for some new experiences, both for the hockey and to see some different countries and make new friends.”
The DEL has long been an import-dominated league. At the time DiLauro first signed in Germany, teams were allowed 11 import players. As a more modestly budgeted team, Krefeld carried three North Americans; most notably, former NHL player Ted Drury.
“I thought the hockey in the DEL was pretty good, right about equal with the AHL in terms of skill,” recalls DiLauro. “A lot of guys there played in the American League and some even played in the NHL, so it was a good league. The playing style was a little bit different, because it was on the Olympic-size ice and there was a little more dangling with the puck and that sort of thing.”
DiLauro’s teammates helped him immensely with some of the off-ice adjustments he faced when he relocated from the U.S. to Germany.
“I didn’t speak any German, so that was a challenge,” DiLauro said. “But the other guys helped me a lot with stuff I needed; basic things like ordering food, paying a bill or getting set up with a place to live and a cell phone plan. So I figured things out pretty quick, and I decided to come back for a second year [transferring teams from Krefeld to Duisburg].”
DiLauro’s next stop was Austria, where he played for Linz during the 2008-09 season. The player found it to be an even better fit, on and off the ice.
“I met so many really nice people in Austria, both with the team and just people I met while living there,” he said. “It’s a really beautiful country, too. In terms of the hockey, it wasn’t quite at the AHL skill level but it was a little closer to the North American style than with my German teams. There were a lot of guys from North America in Linz and some others from Europe who had played college or minor league hockey in the U.S. or Canada before they returned home. A lot of the Austrian teams were kind of similar, so the style they played in the league was a little closer to what I grew up with.”
The next season, DiLauro added Italy to his ever-expanding international resume. Living in Bolzano and traveling throughout his family’s ancestral homeland was a thrill.
“Italy was such an amazing experience; so much fun to spend a season living there,” he said. “I lived near a winery, and there were all these little restaurants and small shops in the towns where we could go. As far the hockey goes, you just accept it for what it is. Teams in Italy don’t always run as professionally as they do in North America or the main hockey countries in Europe.”
“For example, over here in North America, you know exactly when you’ll get paid. It was the same thing in the DEL. In Italy, it might be on the fifth or the tenth of the month instead of the first. The league was OK in terms of being competitive even if the skill wasn’t up to some other leagues where I’ve played. But the big benefit is that you get to live in Italy and experience the country.”
DiLauro returned to North America for the 2010-11 season. He played the season in the Central Hockey League with the Missouri Mavericks. The next season, he packed his bags yet again and headed across the Pacific Ocean to play for the Nippon Paper Cranes.
Although DiLauro’s stay was relatively short (19 games), he got a taste of life in Japan and also had the opportunity to travel the widely dispersed Asia League circuit, which includes two Korean teams and one in China in addition to five Japanese entries. For example, DiLauro was still with the Cranes when the team took a road trip to Korea play against Anyang Halla.
“I think that was one of the coolest things I’ve gotten to do in hockey,” said DiLauro. “To visit Japan is an interesting experience but to live there for a while is something really different. I remember one night where I start thinking, ‘Wow, I’m actually here! I’m in Japan, sitting on the floor on the floor and eating noodles.’ That’s something that not a lot of players get to do, and I’m glad I got the chance.”
“It’s a major change of culture, of course. Not a lot of people speak English, including the other players on the team. But with playing hockey, you figure it out, because the game is still basically the same.”
One thing that helped DiLauro and other North Americans who have passed through the Cranes and other Japanese teams was the assistance of veteran Chris Yule. The Canadian-born forward has lived and played in Japan since the mid-1990s, and has been a member the Cranes since 2008. Yule, who has suited up for the Japanese national team, does not count against his team’s import player limit.
In the second half of the 2011-12 season, DiLauro finally had his homecoming. After starting the year halfway around the world, he finished it with 48 productive ECHL games with Trenton. He was happy to stay put for once, and assumed the captaincy for the 2012-13 season. Now in his 30s, he put in extra work over the offseason to prepare for the rigors of the North American minor league schedule.
“The seasons in Europe are shorter, and there’s less travel and wear-and-tear during the season, so that’s something you have adjust back to when you come back over here,” he said. “I’d like to play for as long as I can and, like I said, I really hope the Titans are successful and I can finish my career here. We got off to a pretty good start this year, but it’s a long season. The ECHL is a development league, and we’ve got a lot of young players here.”
Although DiLauro has never played in the NHL or for Team USA, he has accumulated a wealth of valuable personal and professional experiences and made friends around the world whom he never would met otherwise. Even so, he’s always kept his hometown in his heart.
“I loved the Flyers as a kid, and I still do,” he said. “I’m still a fan of all the Philadelphia sports teams, actually. I went to some of the Flyers’ playoff games last season, and was rooting for them to win. I never got to play for the Flyers but it’s pretty cool to play on their ECHL affiliate and to be back home. I can’t complain at all. I’ve had a lot of great experiences and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”