With each disappointment comes an opportunity. No one knows this better than Alex Pietrangelo.
The fourth overall pick by the St. Louis Blues in last summer’s National Hockey League draft was understandably disappointed when he was sent down to the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara IceDogs three weeks ago.
As disappointing as it is for Pietrangelo not to continue playing in the NHL, the temporarily closed door opens the door to another childhood dream. Pietrangelo is one of 38 players invited to Hockey Canada’s selection camp next week to vie for a spot on the national junior team.
"I’ve always wanted to play for that team and it’s always been a dream of mine and hopefully it’s a reality," Pietrangelo said Thursday, adding that playing on the world junior team would become his proudest accomplishment.
Playing for the Canadian world junior team is an opportunity Pietrangelo might not have been privy to had he remained with the Blues. Of the top five picks in last summer’s draft, Pietrangelo is the only one who was sent back to junior.
Many of the high-profile players still eligible for the world juniors will remain in the NHL and while Pietrangelo would love to be there, he knows his NHL experience doesn’t give him a guaranteed spot on the world junior team.
"When it comes to our camp next week it will be determined whether he makes the team on how he performs at the camp, not (based on) what he did in the past in the National Hockey League," said Al Murray, head scout for Hockey Canada’s world junior team.
Although Pietrangelo wasn’t at the selection camp last year, he does have the benefit of teammates explaining the process. Last year, IceDog forward Stefan Legein was one of the more colourful players at the event. Legein offered Pietrangelo insight into the process once returning to the IceDogs after the tournament.
In addition, Oshawa’s John Tavares, whom Pietrangelo is close friends with, has passed along advice to the 18-year-old defenceman from King City, Ont.
"John knows how I play and what I do best and he basically just said ‘Do what you do’ and I got named to the camp for a reason," said Pietrangelo, who talks with Tavares on a weekly basis. "He said if I play the way I can, I’ll be on the team."
Murray was very candid in describing what Pietrangelo will need to do in order to represent his country when the tournament opens on Boxing Day in Ottawa, Ont.
"I think his defensive part of his game is still a work in progress," Murray said. "A lot of being able to make our team will see how he plays defensively because I know that’s a priority for head coach Pat Quinn to have players who are two-way players, not just one-way players."
Like most hockey players growing up in Canada, Pietrangelo has fond memories watching the tournament each year. Last year was the memory that sticks out most in his mind given that he knew a lot of the Canadian players personally.
Should Pietrangelo make the team, Murray doesn’t foresee the IceDogs defenceman taking on a leadership role. He does, however, think Pietrangelo will be the prototypical teammate and do whatever is asked of him.
His head coach in Niagara, Mario Cicchillo, can attest to that. Pietrangelo changed his flight to be back in time to meet his teammates three weeks ago. Pietrangelo waited for his teammates to arrive back in St. Catharines after their bus was delayed from a road game in Kitchener. He waited until the wee hours of the morning so that he could give Mark Visentin, the teammate he billets with, a ride back to the house.
"Mark phones him at 10 (p.m.) and says we won’t be there until later because our bus won’t start," Cicchillo said. "(Pietrangelo) says ‘Don’t worry about it, whatever time you get in, I’ll be here to pick you up at the rink.’
"That’s what kind of kid he is. I’ve said it all along. I told St. Louis, this kid will do what Tom Brady did for the New England Patriots (of the National Football League), this kid will do it for the St. Louis Blues."
One of the reasons Pietrangelo is one of the most popular players in Niagara is due to his community involvement. While meeting with Cicchillo the morning after coming back to the IceDogs, he was quick to offer an incentive for a Grade 7 class looking for inspiration.
Cicchillo received an email from a teacher in Buffalo, N.Y. asking for something to motivate his students. Without hesitation, Pietrangelo then grabbed one of his sticks and signed it for the class.
"You have to understand those are the people that come out and watch and you have to make sure you take care of them," Pietrangelo said. "It’s always nice to give back to the community and what not and they’re very important to us. I’m happy to be a role model for them and give back.
"I always wanted stuff from the NHL players and most kids do who grow up wanting to play in the NHL so I want to give them the same feeling."
Although he likely won’t be back in the NHL this season, Pietrangelo knows it’s not a race. But with that disappointment may come another chance of a lifetime to suit up for his country in one of the most prestigious tournaments.
"Hopefully I have what they’re looking for," he said.
Sometimes it’s more about the journey than the destination.