ZUG, Switzerland – When talking about remarkable careers, Paul DiPietro’s must be right up there. Instrumental in a Stanley Cup win at 22, international debut at 35; beating his own country in an historic Olympic game; starting a new life in Europe. Last Friday, EV Zug held a retirement ceremony for the 41-year-old who refuses to stop skating.
After eleven years at EV Zug of the Swiss top league, Paul DiPietro retired from the club after the 2010-11 season. After all, at 41, enough could be enough. Last Friday, Zug honored the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario native with a ceremony prior to the club’s game against champion HC Davos.
It was a moving ceremony where the capacity crowd gave DiPietro a standing ovation and every player from both teams skated by and shook his hand. His name was added to the arena’s Wall of Fame.
DiPietro’s numbers in one of Europe’s prime leagues are truly impressive. Including his first Swiss season with Ambri-Piotta (1998-1999), DiPietro amassed 520 points (201 goals+319 assists) in 545 games. He is most probably done with the top pro league, but that doesn’t mean he is out of pro hockey. Upon retiring from Zug, he signed for three years with second-tier club Sierre, a deal which will take him through 2013-2014.
“I love getting up every day and going to practice,” says DiPietro. “I love the game and the key is to stay in shape. Just look at Mark Recchi who was so good last season with the Boston Bruins at 43.”
But let’s rewind and see how this extraordinary career started 21 years ago. In 1990, Paul DiPietro was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the fifth round after scoring 119 points in 66 games with the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League. Players who were 175 cm (5’9’’) were often not drafted at all.
He split his rookie pro season between Fredericton of the AHL and Montreal, but prior to his sophomore season he was sidelined with mononucleosis.
“I missed the first four months of the season and returned to Fredericton in December,” recalls DiPitero. “But things went well and I was called up to Montreal in January.”
Nobody could have imagined how things would unfold at the end of 1992-1993. Paul DiPietro was virtually a rookie and a marginal player on a middle-of-the pack NHL team. The Canadiens finished only third in their division and DiPietro had four goals and 13 assists in the 29 NHL games he played from January to April.
But in the playoffs, incredible things started to happen. DiPietro suddenly became a notable scorer on a line with other overachievers, on a team which won a record ten (!) consecutive overtime games en route to the clubs 24th Stanley Cup.
In the series against the Quebec Nordiques, Buffalo Sabres, NY Islanders and in the finals against Los Angeles, DiPietro collected eight goals and five assists in 17 games. Only four Canadiens’ forwards had better numbers. In the final game, at the Montreal Forum, when the Kings were trying to get back from being 3-1 down, Paul DiPietro put things to an end with the 4-1 goal.
It is still the last goal scored in a Stanley Cup final by a member of the Montreal Canadiens.
The 1993 Canadiens are not only the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup, but also the last team who won it with only North American players. And DiPietro is the last from that team still playing professional hockey.
“Yes, I am the last guy standing,” confirms Paul. “Zug’s coach Doug Shedden reminded me about that some time ago. I believe that [defenceman] Mathieu Schneider still played two seasons ago. But now it’s only me.”
What does he remember most from the Stanley Cup run? “I don’t remember much,” he admits. “When you are 22, you just don’t take in all those things. They just happen. But I have a blurry recollection of all those overtime wins and how great Patrick Roy was in goal.”
Was he disappointed when he was traded to Toronto two seasons after the Cup win?
“It’s all part of the business, and you can’t be disappointed,” he says, philosophically. “This was the year when the Canadiens basically blew up the Cup-winning team and many players were traded.”
But it was in the mid-90s in Toronto where DiPietro met Leafs star Doug Gilmour, who told Paul about the opportunities in Switzerland.
“Gilmour played in Rapperswil during the shortened 1994-95 NHL lockout season and he really liked it. He said I should try it if I couldn’t stay in the NHL.”
After yet another trade, this time to Los Angeles, and only six games with the Kings in 1996-97, DiPietro decided to follow Gilmour’s advice. After scoring two points per game with Kassel of the German league in 97-98 and 82 points in 45 games with Swiss league Ambri-Piotta the next season, DiPietro signed with EV Zug in 1999.
Little did he know at that time that this little beautiful town in central Switzerland would become his permanent home, where he would meet his wife-to-be and where he’d eventually apply for – and get – Swiss citizenship.
And this eventually led to DiPietro’s third career – as an international competitor for Switzerland — not Canada — at the age of 35.
“Yes, this turned my career over again. Before the 2005 World Championships, [national team coach] Ralph Krueger called me and asked if I was willing to play for Switzerland. And I said okay.”
Little would DiPietro know that what would happen at the Olympics in Turin one year later, would eventually earn him a listing on the IIHF’s “100 Top Stories of the Century” (as story #87), a list produced in 2008 in connection with the 100-year anniversary of the IIHF.
How could you? Maybe this is what Canada’s goalie Martin Brodeur was thinking when shaking hands after Paul DiPietro’s two goals against his former country in the 2006 Olympics. Photo: IIHF Archive
Just like DiPietro will never forget June 9, 1993 (the day he laid his hands on the Stanley Cup), he will always remember February 18, 2006, when Switzerland met Canada in Turin.
The reigning Olympic champions featured a team with goaltender Martin Brodeur and skaters like Joe Sakic, Rick Nash, Jarome Iginla, Martin St. Louis, Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton, Vincent Lecavalier and Chris Pronger. In all honesty, Paul DiPietro was probably not among the 300 best Canadian players at that time.
But the only player who found the net in a game which would forever go into the history books of Swiss hockey was DiPietro. In one of the most remarkable displays in Olympic hockey history, Switzerland defeated Canada 2-0 – and DiPietro scored both goals against his home and native land.
“As a kid in Canada, when I grew up, you never thought about playing in the Olympics. All you thought about was the Stanley Cup. But here I was, playing for my new country on the biggest international stage there is. When you are part of something like this, you realize how big it is for an entire nation.”
How big? It was the first time in 86 years of Olympic hockey that Switzerland defeated Canada.
Although he scored both goals, DiPietro is quick to recognize goaltender Martin Gerber: “We would never have won this game without him. Gerber was amazing.”
DiPietro played for Switzerland for six seasons, and another highlight was the 2008 World Championships where DiPietro, as an assistant captain, represented his new country in Quebec City, Canada, “only” some 800 kilometres from his home town of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
“When I got out of junior hockey in 1990, I just wanted to take the next step. Of course, I never could have imagined that my career would bring me all this and take me to all these places.”
So now Paul DiPietro continues his career in Sierre in beautiful southern Switzerland, with a contract that will expire when he is 43. But one shouldn’t bet against him playing beyond that.