In October he rejoined the Knights and practiced with his leg so heavily taped it lost circulation. "I thought I could still score if I could skate at all," he says. "But I couldn't. I could barely stand up. I was a nobody. It was the beginning of Dino Who?"
Ciccarelli's lowest moment came in January of 1979. By then he was skating well enough to fill in at spot duty and felt ready to take his regular shift. Coach Bill Long thought otherwise. One night a bench-clearing brawl broke out. All but seven Knights were ejected from the game, and Ciccarelli figured, "I've got to play now." Long needed one of the seven players to serve a bench penalty; he sent Ciccarelli.
"He was crying as he skated toward the penalty box," says Roy Chaffey, in whose house Ciccarelli was a boarder. "The next morning we had a long talk. I told him to stop thinking he had a guaranteed spot on the team. I used to work as a security guard at the Montreal Forum and so I knew many of the Canadiens. Serge Savard had broken his leg twice, and twice had to fight to get back his job. I told Dino that if Savard had no guarantees, Ciccarelli didn't either."
"After that," Ciccarelli says, "I began extra work—riding the bicycle twice as long as I was supposed to, lifting extra weights until the pain made me scream." He returned to the Knights lineup, played in 30 games and scored eight goals. But word had spread among NHL scouts: The kid can't make it back.
When the NHL draft came that June, Dino sat by the phone. It didn't ring. "When the draft was over," Ciccarelli says, "I went upstairs, saw my dad and started to cry."
Meanwhile, Nanne was crying over his team's inability to score goals. He recalled how Ciccarelli had played before his injury. Nanne phoned Ciccarelli's doctors. In their opinion, the right leg was stronger than the left, and that once the rod was removed, Ciccarelli's mobility ought to return. That was enough for Nanne. He signed Ciccarelli to a three-year contract. "The best move I've ever made as a general manager," he says.
Up with the North Stars last February, Dino was an overnight sensation. On Feb. 15 he scored two goals against Vancouver, one while sliding across the crease on his belly. He also made his NHL boxing debut in a brawl that night, and the North Star fans began a new chant: "Dee-no! Dee-no! Dee-no!" Soon, the Met Center souvenir shops had Dino buttons and T shirts. They also had 400 toy balloon dinosaurs, which they touched up to read DINO THE DINOSAUR, and sold out at $8 a pop.
Indeed, Ciccarelli is a bit dinosaurian in the mental processes department. "It's a thinking game, and Dino doesn't always think," says Nanne. "He forgets to get position on defense and doesn't remember to stay active when the puck isn't in a goal-chance position. But he's only 22. The thinking will come."
Meanwhile, in payment for his enthusiasm, Ciccarelli probably gets knocked down more than any other big scorer. "He's one of those little guys who makes you mad," says Philadelphia Flyers Coach Pat Quinn. "Just looking at him, you want to grind him."
So far, though, grind jobs haven't had even a slight effect on the man who was a washed-up 18-year-old. "Nothing's scary like it is when you think all your dreams are over," Ciccarelli says. "The scouts used to ask me about my leg, and it was sickening the way they'd shake their heads. Now they shake their heads when they see the game summaries, but it's a different kind of shake."