With an unrelenting work ethic and a positive attitude that never falters, the Florida Panthers’ smallest prospect, Rocco Grimaldi, is already well on his way to building a big future in the NHL. Standing at just 5’6, Grimaldi will look to travel down a road paved by players like Marcel Dionne (5’8), Martin St. Louis (5’8), Theo Fleury (5’6), and more recently, Cory Conacher (5’8) to name a few. Skaters that had to not only overcome their opponents on the ice, but the limitations of their stature as well. However, just like John Locke from ABC’s Lost, don’t tell Rocco what he can’t do.
Selected in the 2nd round (33rd overall) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Grimaldi has quickly begun to turn heads around the NHL through his stellar offensive play and blazing end-to-end speed while playing for the University of North Dakota. In his freshman season at UND, Grimaldi finished 3rd in team scoring with an impressive 36 points (13G-23A-36P) while quickly becoming one of the team’s most dangerous offensive weapons. In the end, Grimaldi’s collegiate season ended when UND’s Frozen Four bid was cut short by an upset at the hands of Yale University. However, with increased minutes and a chip on his shoulder, Grimaldi will enter the 2013-2014 season determined to bring an NCAA Championship to North Dakota.
In the midst of his 2012-2013 season at North Dakota, Grimaldi and fellow Panther prospect Vincent Trocheck were selected to represent the United States at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia. Although Grimaldi started off the tournament shaky and never even saw the ice during USA’s game vs. Slovakia, he was able to progress and get better every game as the tournament went on. Grimaldi’s speed was on full display in the later rounds of the tournament as he was able to break into the offensive zone with powerful bursts. Throughout the tournament Grimaldi totaled 4 points (2G-2A-4P) and had key assist on Jake McCabe’s game winning goal over Canada. Grimaldi’s shining moment came in the gold medal game when he took home MVP honors after scoring two goals in USA’s 3-1 win over Sweden.
“It was an up and down tournament for myself. It really was a test of my character and who I am as a person,” Grimaldi said of his World Junior Championship experience. “It was good for us (Trocheck and I) to battle through adversity and pull through when our team needed us and win the gold. It was a special moment for both of us”
After a successful freshman season at North Dakota and a WJC gold medal around his neck, Grimaldi entered the Panthers’ 2013 development camp as one of the most prominent skaters on the roster yet to make their NHL debut. In a prospect pool that consists of talented young skaters like Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden, and Vincent Trocheck, Grimaldi was able to stand out as one of the most impressive skaters at this year’s camp. Even with his small frame, Grimaldi was able to consistently bounce back from checks and even scored a break-away goal during the inter-squad scrimmage on the final day of camp.
“Just being more confident is the biggest thing for myself,” Grimaldi said when asked how he felt at the completion development camp. “I’ve been working on little things that I saw in the scrimmage there. I am a lot more confident and feeling good about myself. I am excited to get back to school, back to my teammates and looking forward to a good year.”
With development camp over and a solid 2012-2013 season in the books, Grimaldi is now only left with one opponent this offseason – his critics. Even as Grimaldi continues to flourish on the ice, the questions about his size will remain as the elephant in the room until he is finally able to prove himself on the grand stage of the NHL. While his small stature may be viewed as a negative in the eyes of scouts, Grimaldi prefers to use it as a motivational tool not only in his own journey, but also as a way to help inspire others.
Beginning to embrace the fame that comes with being a professional hockey player, Grimaldi’s story and attitude have already made him a favorite in the eyes of Panthers’ fans. At the completion of every development camp practice, Grimaldi was greeted by groups of fans asking for pictures and autographs. From what I could see, every fan was greeted with a smile and all requests were obliged.
“It’s really special for me because it’s mostly kids,” said Grimaldi of his already blossoming fan base in South Florida. I know they look up to me especially because I am small. That’s a huge thing for me that I love using to help encourage little kids. Even when people say this and that about you, it doesn’t matter, you can do anything you can set your mind to.”
With his NHL dreams now closer than ever, Grimaldi’s infectious cheer and positive outlook should prove to be welcomed assets to the Florida Panthers’ organization for years to come.
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