"Ricky's going to need two seats on that plane: one in coach for his body and one in first class for his ego."
—CHICAGO WOLVES GOALIE WENDELL YOUNG
referring to then teammate Rick DiPietro
Rick DiPietro settled into seat 6F on US Airways flight 1689 out of Kansas City, Mo., bound for the Big Time. His suitcase was in the overhead rack. His healthy sense of entitlement was stowed in the upright and locked position for takeoff. For a goaltender whose career seems destined to take flight—New York Islanders general manager Mike Milbury has staked his career on it—the whole day had been a trip.
It started at about 10 a.m. on Jan. 26 when DiPietro opened his Chicago Wolves hockey bag at the Kansas City Blades' rink and saw that an equipment manager in Chicago had mistakenly packed mismatched goalie pads, a discovery that started DiPietro chirping. DiPietro needs far less than the annoyance of having one Itech pad and one Vaughn pad to chirp. As it is with birds, sunrise is enough. Occasionally he doesn't even wait that long. "He was talking in his sleep last night," said Kevin Dahl, a Chicago defenseman who roomed with DiPietro on the road. "He never shuts up."
The cacophony grew as more Wolves drifted in for the morning skate. Their chatter was wry and ribald, the spartan visitors' dressing room filling with happy and profane noise. The insults, suspended for a half-hour skate, were resuming when general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff burst into the locker room at 11:30 to say that the Islanders had called up DiPietro, the first goalie selected No. 1 in the NHL draft. New York's starting netminder, John Vanbiesbrouck, was having back spasms, and a teammate had stepped on goalie Stephen Valiquette's bare left foot with a skate that morning as Valiquette, a 23-year-old Islanders prospect with the Springfield Falcons in the American Hockey League, had emerged from the shower. While Valiquette, the Islanders' original choice to be recalled and play backup against the New York Rangers that night, was preparing for surgery, DiPietro was riding up a hotel elevator en route to his room to pack.
"Buffalo tomorrow," said DiPietro, who had been recalled twice earlier this season—for a total of two games—but hadn't played. "Hey, imagine beating Dominik Hasek in my first game. The Islanders would have to keep me then."
He hustled to the airport, boarded a 1:55 p.m. Midwest Express flight to New York and figured that if everything went right, he could make it to Madison Square Garden before the national anthem that night. Of course not everything did. After 30 minutes the passengers were herded off the plane because of a problem with the DC-9's tail. "Man, I'm missing Fleury, Messier, Richter," DiPietro moaned.
DiPietro is 19. He hasn't lived long enough to recognize that a maintenance worker examining an airplane is a terrific thing, that the headlines he's aiming for should be only in the sports section. The Midwest Express flight was canceled. He was rebooked on the US Airways flight to Philadelphia and didn't arrive in New York until 11:30 p.m., in a limo, after the Islanders had beaten the Rangers. DiPietro didn't know he would start the next night against the Sabres until the limo driver said he'd heard something about it on the radio. "Every time I go up," DiPietro says, "all the advice I get [from Wolves teammates] is, Keep your mouth shut. Do what they say. Listen to everybody. Respect everybody. Know your role."
This is the generation gap. The Wolves are an Antiques Roadshow of mostly thirty-something men—four Stanley Cup rings and 4,149 NHL regular-season games among them—who think DiPietro's role should be to take a lot of their shots and to stay after practice for extra work. DiPietro is a teenager who until two weeks ago had not one minute of NHL experience, and he thinks his role is to become an NHL All-Star, be the most valuable player on the Islanders, win championships, be one of the best goalies ever and be someone whom everyone—not only he-talks about "I always kid Rick that I tell people he believes there are two great goal-tenders in the world," Jack Parker, his coach at Boston University, said before the 2000 NHL draft, "and he's both."
DiPietro thinks big and dreams even bigger. Ultimately, he might not be the best goal-tender of his generation, but that won't stop him from being one of the best things to happen to the NHL in years. In a game constipated by exaggerated humility, anesthetizing between-period TV interviews and an off-ice stupor that belies hockey's inherent thrill, DiPietro can inject a Brett Hull-like dose of frankness and fun. He can be the a la mode on the daily servings of NHL humble pie. "He has a profound belief in himself," says DiPietro's father, also named Rick. "He always could judge his ability and weigh it against a competitor's and then make an assessment. He's never been wrong."
Playing for an organization desperate for change, the brash DiPietro represents changes in attitudes and platitudes. The once model franchise, which has missed the playoffs for six seasons running, has been shrouded in a comic-strip cloud that only a goalie with killer looks, a quick glove and a sharp tongue might dissipate. Milbury saw the possibilities before the draft, and maybe he saw a bit of himself in DiPietro.