Pro hockey players often have rinks or tournaments at their hometown named in their honor.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins forward Thomas Di Pauli has a rule.
While growing up in the small town of Caldaro in northern Italy, Di Pauli made a name for himself at the local ice rink. He dominated the competition and had a penchant for skating end-to-end to score goals.
Just for kicks, Di Pauli would often play defense just so he could start out deeper in his own end before racing up the ice. Di Pauli became so efficient at skating the puck from deep in his zone and finishing with a goal that it was becoming unfair.
It got to the point where the rink implemented a rule requiring teams to make at least two passes in the neutral zone as they skated up ice.
While the rule impeded Di Pauli’s wheels, it also made him realize maybe he had a future in hockey.
Aside from his success in Caldaro, it was Di Pauli’s older brother, Theo, who was noticed first. In 2007, Theo was invited to play for a Finnish team at a tournament in Germany. They faced a team from Chicago and scouts noticed Theo on the ice. He was invited to Chicago to tryout for a junior team, and Di Pauli, who was 12, tagged along to tryout for the bantam minor team.
“I had no idea if I was going to make it. My brother was much better and he secured a spot on the older team,” Di Pauli said. “But my family wasn’t going to move over from Italy if both of us didn’t make the teams.”
Di Pauli and his brother flew over from Italy and landed in Chicago at 7 p.m. - or what was 4 a.m. back home.
Despite the drastic time change and lack of sleep, as soon as Di Pauli exited the plane he headed to the rink for his tryout. To make matters worse, his sticks didn’t arrive and he had to borrow one from the coach.
Needless to say, the tryout didn’t go well.
“I was exhausted. I was the worst player on the ice,” Di Pauli said. “I was so worried about not falling on the ice because I was so tired.”
Fatigue aside and to Di Pauli’s surprise, he made the team and with both brothers earning a spot on their respective squads, the family made the move from Italy to Illinois.
And while Di Pauli thought trying out for a team while battling jet lag was difficult, he was in a new challenge in trying to acclimate to a new life in the United States.
Di Pauli knew very little English, just a few words, and he had to adapt to a new school and culture. It was a lot for a 12-year-old to take on all at once.
“Hockey was the least of my worries,” Di Pauli said. “I was trying to fit in, make some friends and see what this was all about.”
While Di Pauli adjusted to a new life in a new country, there were some things working in his favor. His grandparents lived just over an hour away from where the family settled down, and Di Pauli’s school was small and it helped him to integrate into the American culture.
But perhaps more important, Di Pauli had a safety net.
The nearest rink was only a few minutes from Di Pauli’s house. Aside from going to school, all of his time was spent at the rink. He’d be there on weekends and immediately after school, staying every night until 10 p.m. when it was time to go home and get to bed.
Di Pauli’s drive was not only fueled by his love of the game, but also by a sense of duty.
“My family made the sacrifice to move from Italy to here, so I wanted to be at the rink as much as possible,” he said. “I needed to work hard at hockey because of the sacrifices my family made.”
Immediately after the move, Di Pauli’s hockey intentions became very serious. He had a plan mapped out: Play hockey at the collegiate level eventually and then move on to the professional ranks. Two years, after he arrived in the U.S., things started to fall into place.
At age 14, scouts from colleges started to notice Di Pauli and several of his teammates, including Ryan Hartman of the Chicago Blackhawks and Vincent Hinostroza, who currently plays for Rockford.
After spending his teenage years playing for the Chicago Mission AAA Youth Hockey Club, Di Pauli moved on to play for the U.S. National Team Development Program.
And in 2012, things really began to build for Di Pauli when he began his college career at Notre Dame and was also drafted in the fourth round by the Washington Capitals.
Di Pauli opted to finish his four years at with the Fighting Irish rather than sign with the Washington organization.
“Since I went through those four years I decided to wait an extra month, finish school and then see what my options were,” he said.
The best option, Di Pauli determined, was to sign an entry-level contract with Pittsburgh in the summer of 2016. And while his first season as a pro has been derailed by injuries, Di Pauli is now healthy and looking forward to making an impact down the stretch and into the playoffs.
Though two injuries have limited him to 10 games heading into this weekend, Di Pauli said conquering obstacles such as injuries will make him a better person and player.
Now, Di Pauli said, he’s ready to step up and work on the next part of his career plan: reach the NHL.
“When I finally signed my first pro contract, that is what I’ve dreamed about,” Di Pauli said. “And I have to thank the coach that accepted me on his team after that awful, terrible tryout when I was a kid.”
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky