- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The bizarre once again followed Rick DiPietro like a storm cloud Monday in his first home start for the New York Islanders since -- this is not a misprint – November 2011. Then the catcalls and insults rained down even louder they did when he was merely introduced to the Nassau Coliseum crowd on opening night but didn't play. When told, only half-kiddingly, that at this point it appears he needs an exorcism, DiPietro paused as he was taking off his goaltender's equipment after Tuesday's practice, then mustered a good-natured smirk and said, "Who, me? I don't think I'm going to be sacrificing any live chickens."
Some baseball players burn their gloves to bust out of slumps, he is told.
"They do?" DiPietro said, his eyebrows shooting up. "Maybe I ought to try that."
"If I could just get over this surgery addiction I have," he added. Then he kept peeling off his sweat-soaked equipment.
He had just made the same crack about himself that everyone else makes to his face, and behind his back.
After all that's happened in his NHL career, DiPietro will never be a player who gets a bobblehead day. He is a different, darker kind of creature: a Long-Term Contract Voodoo Doll.
Back in 2006, DiPietro signed a 15-year, $67.5 million contract the Islanders offered him. Then everything went terribly wrong. Surgeries. A concussion. Groin injuries that lingered. Knee and hip problems that came and went and flared up again. The list strains belief. In the 2010-11 season, he'd already been out with injuries twice before he got into a clench with Pittsburgh counterpart Brent Johnson as their teams brawled around them with just seconds left in the game -- and then took a one-punch shot from Johnson that broke his jaw.
So why doesn't the star-crossed DiPietro just go home already now that he's 31 and stuck in a backup role even when he's not the fans' whipping boy?
Why absorb the continuous humiliation of making most top-10 lists of the worst sports contracts of all time, or having his name revived as a cautionary tale about such long-term commitments every time a team like the Seattle Mariners is deciding what to do about a star like Felix Hernandez, or the Yankees begin deliberating what to offer free-agent-to-be Robinson Cano on the heels of Alex Rodriguez's latest scandal?
DiPietro is a proud man, and he was even a bit of a hotshot showman when he first arrived. But now? Why plug along 13 years after he was drafted, for an Islanders franchise that just reminded everyone why it perennially remains one of the bleakest teams in sports? The team's encouraging 4-2-1 start was already dissolving into the current five-game losing streak it'll take into Thursday's game against the Rangers when Isles general manager Garth Snow made a trade for a ghost rather than roster help -- ex-Bruin Tim Thomas, who has no intention of reporting. Why? Because the Islanders don't pay Thomas a penny if he stays away. But his phantom salary does count on the Islanders' books, ensuring that their payroll stays above the NHL's salary-cap minimum of $44 million.
At least A-Rod had huge success and behaved badly before all the rancor kicked up around him. DiPietro? Not so much. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2000 NHL draft and starting goaltender for the 2006 U.S. Olympic team in Torino, Italy. He led the Islanders to their most recent playoff appearance in 2006-07, the same season he got his lifetime deal. At the time, Islanders owner Charles Wang was accurately pilloried for the folly of such a commitment -- not DiPietro. What player wouldn't take a deal like that, right? But now the locus of anger has shifted.
DiPietro has played only 49 games in the past five seasons due to injuries and being benched. A lot of players have come and gone or tried to refuse to report at all, turned off by the Islanders' reputation for haplessness. DiPietro has stayed.
"I thought it would be a good thing," he says of his signing the deal. "I was coming off an All-Star-type season and playing well then, and I looked at it like making a long-term commitment to Long Island, to being a member of the New York Islanders. I just love it here, I love the organization, I love the owner, and I wanted to say here, even knowing it's going to come with its ups and downs. One of the first things I did was buy a house and move here full-time. I think I'm still the only year-round full-timer now, so "
So he gets paid well. An average of $4.5 million through the 2020-21 season.
But what makes it worth it? How does he cope? His contract versus performance now makes him untradeable. But at least give him this: He has never looked for an out.
DiPietro seems as unforgiving of himself as does anyone who boos him. His start Monday against the Carolina Hurricanes was only his second in this lockout-accelerated season, and although it began well, it ended very badly. The Islanders blew a 3-2 lead and DiPietro allowed five goals -- three of them in the third period. As usual for him, there was something paranormal about how it all happened.
Two deflected in off Carolina players' skates. Another shot by Carolina went off the back of the Isles' Travis Hamonic, off the crossbar and into the net behind DiPietro. The Hurricanes' tying goal came just 30 seconds into the final period after DiPietro left his crease and turned over the puck.
With the collapse now looking close to complete (which it was) and the Islanders looking at extending their losing streak (which is exactly what happened), booming chants of "DiPietro sucks!" broke out.
"I have no comment on the goaltending," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. By morning, he was only a bit more expansive, saying no, he had no thoughts of starting DiPietro only on the road to avoid the toxicity.
And DiPietro? The morning after, he looked a reporter in the eye and rejected the man's question about whether "situations where you're trying as hard as you can" but "things don't work out as well as you'd like" ever make his harsh treatment by the home fans feel gratuitous?
"It's no 'situation' -- it's professional sports, man. That's how it is," DiPietro firmly shot back. "You've got to be ready. That's my job. To be ready whenever I get a chance and stay sharp. Nothing in this business or life is a given. You earn everything you get.
"That's how I approach it."
It was the sort of case-closed quote that a lot of players use to abruptly end an interview.
But DiPietro went on answering questions for a good 10 minutes after that, and it was only by coincidence, only while talking about how the entire team might break out of its losing streak, that personal details about himself began to leak into his remarks.
He got a little philosophical about how professional athletes endure a "roller-coaster of emotions" and "that's why, I think, so many of us end up being such creatures of habit." All of sudden he wasn't a jaded vet who's taken a ton of dings anymore; he sounded younger as he flashed back to ethics his dad taught him and a lesson he learned at Boston University 13 years ago: "I always look back to my college coach, Jack Parker. He used to always say nobody else controls your work ethic, and when things aren't going well, you always have that to fall back on: How hard do you work?"
Right. But it still requires that DiPietro put up a good front too, especially on days like this, when he finds himself right back at it Tuesday for an 11:30 a.m. practice after Monday's nightmare, and the Coliseum, a desolate old barn of an arena, is empty. The only sounds are a couple of cleaning men mopping last night's spilled beer out of the aisles and Capuano's whistle, the sharp clatter of players' sticks and the "scratch-scratch-scratch" of their skates echoing off the walls. And DiPietro is busting his guts as if he's playing in a game rather than just practice, as if the losing streak and egg he just laid weren't weighing him down, as if he slept like a baby.
And it is not the truth.
DiPietro was up till 3 or 4 a.m. after Monday's game ("Who knows?" he guesses, when asked), watching game video back and forth, back and forth. He's lucky if he plays every two weeks or so now. And every start is more magnified than ever. "It's like pinch-hitting," he allows.
"My wife looked over at me and she's like, 'What are you doing?' and I said, 'Just going over the goals in my mind again.' You've just got to turn it off at some point. But it's tough. We're in a business that wants results. We identify ourselves and who we are as people by [the results] we get on the ice. And you know, people get to see you two or three hours on the ice, playing a game. But this is also a profession. I think if you ask any athlete, it consumes your life."
DiPietro is not trolling for sympathy. Again he says: "But that's how it works."
Now starting goalie Evgeni Nabokov, one of those players who didn't initially want to report to the Isles, is favored by the crowd more than DiPietro, the guy who never wanted to be anywhere else. It's all about results, results, results.
But rather than buckling when the results don't come, DiPietro seems to absorb the disappointments and kick the can down the road -- moving the judgment day on his career to someplace indeterminate, rejecting what all the rancor and mocking means. Others say his career has been a bust. Well, define "bust." He has the medical charts of an infantryman. Is that his fault? Parker, his college coach, said in a phone interview Tuesday, "He's a heck of a player and heck of a kid and a heck of a teammate and worker. He doesn't get enough credit for how he doesn't feel sorry for himself, how he just keeps coming back and coming back."
If you ask around now, no one close to the Islanders accuses DiPietro of malingering or not working hard, either. Being made of glass? Maybe. Being cocky when he first arrived? Definitely. But not so much anymore.
DiPietro has never committed a crime or caught a DUI, thrown teammates or his oft-lampooned organization under the bus, or been accused of dogging it. All he did was take a contract based on an overenthusiastic projection of his ability, and then get hurt like a lot of athletes before and after him. Albeit more than nearly all of them.
"I do all the strengthening and stretching they tell me to do. It just hasn't worked," DiPietro admits. "If anything it's taught me every day that I wake up in the morning and get an opportunity to play this great game is a great day. I don't take anything for granted. I mean, I just realize now that there's things that can't be fixed."
So he works more. And waits. The hotshot is gone. The Islanders could use a new amnesty provision to buy DiPietro out after this season. And he comes across now as a pragmatic man fighting to keep perspective and clinging to the hokiest thing there is in an unforgiving business like sports: dreams that better days are ahead.
That is his "situation."
"I mean, I've seen Derek Jeter get booed by New York fans after five championships -- and if Deter Jeter can get booed, anybody can be booed -- that's what I tell myself," DiPietro says. "I haven't been healthy. But I'm trying It is what it is. It will all change with winning and playing well. And when we hoist the Stanley Cup."
The Cup? Wait. Who mentioned anything about a Stanley Cup for the Islanders?
But Jeter's name is coming up again now -- this time in a discussion of how Jeter deals with booing versus A-Rod. And DiPietro says that Rodriguez has "rabbit ears," all right.
Then it seems DiPietro isn't just talking about A-Rod -- but how much his own career denouement hurts, too -- when he quickly adds, "But aw, hey -- nobody likes to be hated."
For once there's no more talk of the unsparing bargain and public-square spankings that big-time athletes accept.
DiPietro just says, "Everybody wants to be loved. Right?"
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