For Canadians in particular, the World Junior Championship has been a family affair for decades now. Because the tournament begins on Boxing Day, it’s common for everyone to gather around and watch the country’s top teens compete on the international stage together. Michael DiPietro was no different. “The world junior tournament was a staple at Christmas for my family and I,” he said. “Jordan Eberle’s goal (in 2009) is one that sticks out for me.”
But DiPietro’s family has also changed over the years.
His biological mother, Rebecca, died of cancer when he was just five. That left his father Vic to deal with heartache and the responsibilities of raising a young son by himself. “I can only imagine what a daunting and scary task it was, putting up with me and wearing so many hats,” DiPietro said. “We have a really special bond, no doubt about it.”
A few years later, DiPietro developed a couple more important bonds when Vic married Assunta Fenty. She was also a widower with one son – Mark, who is six years older than Michael. The affection DiPietro has for both of them is obvious. “I’m skinny because of her,” he said. “I was a chubby kid, and she introduced me to salad. And Mark is the reason I’m a goaltender.”
Mark tended net for several years and played Div. III college hockey before settling in as an architectural engineer who now lives in Kansas City. For DiPietro, goaltending looks to be his present and future job.
Warren Rychel has known DiPietro since the youngster was a 10-year-old suiting up for the Sun County Panthers, based near Windsor, Ont. Rychel’s son Maddox was on those Sun County squads, as was Boston Bruins prospect Jack Studnicka. And the former NHLer liked to test the young netminder. “I was blasting away as hard as I could on him since he was a peewee,” Rychel said.
Rychel is also the longtime GM of the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, so when he had a chance to draft DiPietro in 2015, he snapped up the opportunity with the 23rd overall pick. DiPietro played well as an OHL rookie in 2015-16, appearing in 29 games on a squad that used four netminders.
But it was as a sophomore in 2016-17 when he really took off. It was his NHL draft year, and DiPietro seized the crease in Windsor, playing in 51 games for the Memorial Cup hosts – who were loaded with talents such as Mikhail Sergachev, Logan Brown and Gabe Vilardi.
The Spits lost in the first round of the OHL playoffs, taking the wrong end of a seven-game burner against the defending champion London Knights. But the team rebounded from a long layoff to win the 2017 Memorial Cup on home ice, defeating an Erie Otters squad led by Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat.
DiPietro was sensational in the final, battling through traffic and making crucial highlight-reel saves against the potent Otters. At six-foot, DiPietro doesn’t have the ideal size for a typical NHL goalie but, with his talent, he may be one of those rare birds like Jonathan Quick or Juuse Saros for whom it doesn’t matter. The Vancouver Canucks weren’t too concerned, as they drafted DiPietro 64th overall in 2017.
With the Spitfires rebuilding the past two seasons, DiPietro has been a wall and now holds the franchise record for career wins at 83 and counting. “He’s been consistent, and he’s seen it all,” Rychel said. “Up or down, 60 days off before the Memorial Cup, losing top players over the summer, playing in front of a lesser team, he’s always been consistent with his work ethic and his attitude.
“I’ve only seen him stumble once, this year when he came back from NHL training camp in Vancouver. For the first couple of weeks his body was here, but his brain was in Vancouver. I call it ‘NHL brain.’ But we corrected it.”
Before DiPietro even got to Vancouver’s training camp, he was on a rollercoaster when he got a unique opportunity with Team Canada in the spring of 2018. Traditionally, Canada has only taken two netminders to the World Championship and since the NHL playoffs are on at the same time, it’s hard enough to find top-end stoppers. But this time, the team brain trust decided to bring a third goalie along, and DiPietro was their choice, having already played at a high level for the national team at the World Under-17 Challenge and the under-18 Ivan Hlinka tournament. “Michael has had a great track record with our program, and he was one of our final cuts for the world junior team last year,” said Shawn Bullock, Hockey Canada’s director of national teams. “We saw an opportunity for him to grow and be around some incredible influences, (not just) Connor McDavid, Ryan O’Reilly and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, but also (staff members) Sean Burke and Martin Brodeur.”
Convincing DiPietro of the offer took some effort. His season with Windsor had ended, and a minor knee injury had been hampering him when he got a call out of the blue from Rychel. “Warren called and asked if I was 100 percent,” DiPietro said. “I said, ‘Yes,’ and he hung up the phone. A few days later he called again and asked if I wanted to go to the worlds. I said ‘Warren, I’m too old for the under-18s,’ and he said ‘No, you idiot, the men’s championship.’ After the fourth time he said it, I finally believed him.”
Rychel still chuckles about how serious DiPietro was in his preparation for the trip: the youngster showed up at the airport in a full suit, only to find McDavid at the boarding gate in sweatpants. But DiPietro was on a mission, even though he knew he wasn’t going to play in any games at the tourney in Denmark. “I knew heading in that I wanted to learn a lot about the preparation, the strategies that made for success,” DiPietro said. “I roomed with Curtis McElhinney, and he had been thrown into some tough situations in Toronto.”
DiPietro sees Vancouver as a similar high-pressure market, and his experience at camp with the Canucks has him excited for the future. “You get a small taste of how great and passionate the fans are,” he said. “It’s a lot bigger than Windsor, but hockey for me is life, and those fans share that feeling.”
And those fans will get a long look at DiPietro at the world juniors this year – assuming he’s the starter, as projected – since Canada will play its games in the same building the Canucks call home. His big-game experience with Windsor means that no stage is too intimidating for him, while the time in Denmark gave him insight into what the pros do to stay on top. Plus, he’s got his own innate skill set. “Michael is an incredible competitor,” Bullock said. “Think of the Memorial Cup performances he had in his own building. His athleticism and preparation make Michael successful, and he continues to soak up information.”
Rychel sees DiPietro as a leader in the crease and compared him to former Spitfires captain Mickey Renaud, A calgary Flames draft pick who passed away at 19 in 2008 due to a rare heart disorder and now has an OHL award for leadership named after him.
Will DiPietro end his junior career as a lifelong Spitfire? That’s another storyline to keep an eye on. Windsor is in a rebuilding mode and isn’t considered a contender this year. Teams were trying to pry him away from the Spitfires last season – the Barrie Colts were reportedly very serious – but neither Rychel nor DiPietro were inclined to move on at the time. This year, it’s only fair to accept that Rychel will do his job as GM, even if it means trading a player with whom he has had a long and meaningful bond. DiPietro says he’ll always be a Spitfire at heart, no matter what happens in the future.
In the short term, putting DiPietro in net gives Team Canada the best chance of winning at the 2019 WJC. And for Canucks fans who will surely be flocking to games at the world juniors, they might see a key part of their NHL team’s future, too.
This story appears in the January 28, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.