Milbury is a bold, Rotisserie-style general manager who makes deals like a talk-show caller, and DiPietro is a 50,000-watt personality who's trying to win a Stanley Cup in the next 17 minutes. In the history of the draft, no goalie, indisputably the most important position on the ice, had been selected higher than Roberto Luongo, whom Mil-bury took fourth in 1997 Then Milbury outdid himself. On draft day last June he traded Luongo to the Florida Panthers for a pair of young forwards to upgrade the Islanders' offense and then grabbed DiPietro with the top pick, which New York already owned.
The draft is a festival of bowing and scraping by teenagers in expensive suits who "Mister" and "Sir" everyone to death, but DiPietro, a native of suburban Boston who was leaving BU after his freshman year, dropped the honorifics. In his post-draft interviews he went on about "Mike" or "Milbury," which was, in equal parts, shocking and refreshing.
Milbury cultivated the impression DiPietro was ticketed for the NHL immediately, an idea that was sidetracked in training camp after DiPietro pulled his groin. On Sept. 27 Milbury summoned DiPietro to his office to tell him he was being demoted. DiPietro wept. "He told me, 'But Mike, we haven't won a game yet,' " Milbury says. "I told him it isn't about him. It's about the situation."
DiPietro needed additional schooling in handling the puck, in using his stick in the crease, in being a pro. "The game can humble people," Milbury says. "Maybe Rick needed to take a little bit of the edge off."
Playing with the Wolves seemed an ideal lesson in humility. They were the defending International Hockey League champions, a motley collection of veterans that included Jurassic goalie Wendell Young, 37, NHL warhorse Brian Noonan, 35, and former 49-goal scorer Rob Brown, 32; they constituted Beau Geste's Fort Zinderneuf with colder weather. There was inherent danger in a rookie with an NHL salary of $1,075 million frolicking among men who will never see anything close to seven figures, but somehow all the pieces fell into place. DiPietro gave the vets energy. They gave him a peek at pro life, minus the charter flights. "I have three kids," says Dan Plante, a 29-year-old right wing who played 159 NHL games over parts of four seasons. "A four-year-old boy, a five-month-old girl and Ricky."
DiPietro, the favorite son, was in the middle of everything from the start. In his first exhibition game he engaged the Manitoba Moose goaltender during a brawl. When the Wolves were slumping early in the season, he had his hair done in cornrows to give everyone a laugh. The next day, with the cornrows out and his hair frizzed like Ogie Oglethorpe's in Slap Shot, he played superbly against the Cleveland Lumberjacks.
The problem was, there were too few of those games. DiPietro, with a worrisome .880 save percentage, was giving up soft goals, many the result of his puckhandling errors. While he handles the puck adroitly, DiPietro, like a six-year-old with a loose tooth, simply can't leave it alone. "In college everyone interpreted me handling the puck so much as me trying to show off, to be the star," DiPietro says, "but really I'm only focused on winning."
Some of the other Wolves, who were last in their division when DiPietro was most recently called up, weren't. DiPietro became exasperated. He developed what Milbury calls "a case of the blues," a lethargy that lifted only after he joined players his age on the U.S. team at the world junior championships in Moscow over Christmas. Milbury told DiPietro not to worry about the NHL but to concentrate on getting Chicago into the playoffs. All that changed on Jan. 26.
The next night against Buffalo—with Martin Biron, not Hasek, in goal for the Sabres—DiPietro made 29 saves. He flashed a splendid glove to stop Curtis Brown from 20 feet and moved laterally to foil a Doug Gilmour deflection. He also whipped a pass off the glass to give the Islanders a three-on-two break, on which they scored and he earned an assist, becoming the seventh goalie to get a point in his first NHL game. Buffalo's goals in its 2-1 victory, however, were on the soft side. DiPietro also left some messy rebounds in the third period, but Islanders goalies coach Mike Palmateer was pleased. Like DiPietro, 25 years ago Palmateer was a left-handed, puckhandling netminder with not an ounce of self-doubt.
As a result of his debut performance Milbury announced that DiPietro wasn't going back to Chicago, an expression of faith in a goalie too confident to be buried in this landfill of a franchise. He hasn't won in four starts through Sunday. He has allowed a few whoppers among the 10 shots that have eluded him, but his aura is undiminished. Watch out, world! The Ego has landed!