By Nathan Fournier
HAWTHORNE, N.Y. – Rocco Grimaldi, despite his 5-foot-6 stature, was one of the last cuts for the 2011 world junior team as a 17-year-old.
Despite the cut, it was certain he would be one of the key players for the 2012 World Junior Championship team.
“That first year left a bad taste in mouth,” Grimaldi said about missing the 2011 tournament. “I wanted to make that team, but I didn’t. It was a learning experience for me and I got a taste of it.”
Grimaldi was supposed to get more experience under his belt with North Dakota after being cut from last year’s WJC team, but a season-ending knee injury in January derailed those expectations. Being forced to miss a good portion of last season, Grimaldi said it was the toughest year of his life. To pass the time of not being on the ice, he did what any other male college student would do: play video games.
But with the injury well behind him, he’s glad to be back in a routine.
“It was definitely a process, it was tough on me this summer not being able to get into a strict workout routine,” Grimaldi said. “I am back now and it feels good to help the team.”
USA GM Jim Johannson is confident with Grimaldi playing on the big stage as he has a proven track record at international events. Grimaldi was on Team USA’s under-18 team that won gold at the IIHF World Under-18 Championships in 2010 and 2011.
Head coach Phil Housley likes Grimaldi’s compete level.
“I love his energy,” Housley stated. “That line of J.T. Miller and John Gaudreau, they have formed a little bit of chemistry. In the small games (in practice) they are looking for each other. J.T. provides strength down the middle. I love their enthusiasm and they are trying to get better every day. That’s what we want.”
With Cole Bardreau, Vince Trocheck, John Gaudreau and Matt Grzelcyk all under 5-foot-10, Grimaldi takes pride in being the smallest player on the roster and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
He also likes that there are smaller players who are getting their shot in college and professional hockey.
Notes: The battle on the blueline is going to be interesting as the camp moves to Helsinski, Finland for the two exhibition matchups against Sweden (Dec. 20) and Finland (Dec. 22). You can pencil in Jacob Trouba since he’s a returnee and Seth Jones who made the team last year before getting injured in the exhibition game. Brady Skjei and Connor Murphy, being first round picks by the New York Rangers and Phoenix Coyotes, should have an inside track to make the team. Mike Reilly, who is putting up stellar numbers at the University of Minnesota, is also solidifying his spot on the team.
It will come down to the last three spots. Does USA Hockey take Shayne Gostisbehere and Jake McCabe, both in their final year of eligibility? Or do they take two ‘94s to get experience for next year’s tournament in Matt Grzelcyk and Pat Sieloff? It’s quite possible Jones will be in the NHL next year and, depending on how Winnipeg feels about Trouba’s development, they could make a push to sign him over the summer. If that happens, Jones and Trouba would both be question marks for next year.
“It’s going to be a hard decision on defense,” Johansson said. “Hopefully the games over in Helsinki will sort that all out for the coaches and the players. You want all the players to play well and continue to make it a hard decision on the coaches.”