When you ask General Manager Lou Nanne to nail down exactly what Right Wing Dino Ciccarelli means to the Minnesota North Stars, he doesn't say "plenty of goals," because that's obvious. Nor does he say "putting life into the team," because once you've watched Ciccarelli (pronounced Siss-a-RELL-i) crash into a net or celebrate a routine goal as if he'd just clinched the Stanley Cup, that's pretty obvious, too. Nor does Nanne mention that Dino's his No. 1 gate attraction, although Minnesota so far is drawing nearly 1,000 more spectators a game this season than last and the biggest new addition to the North Stars is Dino. What Nanne says is, " Ciccarelli gives us an identity."
Yes, he does. Minnesota is no longer the No Stars. "Dino came along at a time when fans were getting tired of athletes who act like the world owes them a living, guys who act like their sport is drudgery," says North Star Coach Glen Sonmor. "The sheer love of what he's doing shows all over him. And it's terribly infectious."
Dancing, waving his stick, trying to draw a penalty by crashing to the ice as if shot dead, Ciccarelli is not only the National Hockey League's most exuberant player, but at 22 one of its offensive stars as well. He was called up to Minnesota two-thirds of the way through last season, and by the playoffs he was rolling; he set an NHL rookie record for playoff goals, with 14 in 19 games. At week's end, after 57 games, he had 44 goals for 1981-82, just four shy of the club record and was third behind Wayne Gretzky and Dennis Maruk of Washington in the NHL goal-scoring race.
"Like all big goal scorers, Dino gets himself a lot of shots, puts most of them on the net and has a radar for rebounds," Nanne says. "He holds his space, works himself open and has that classic ability to pop up like a Jack-in-the-box at just the right moment. He's what we always needed—a sniper."
Ciccarelli snipes when it counts. The first goal of a game is considered a biggie, and Ciccarelli has scored 11 of them, more than anyone else in the league. What else does he mean to the North Stars? Well, he's scored or assisted on nearly one-third of their 242 goals. Given the Dino dimension from the beginning of the season, Minnesota has its fewest losses ever (18) this deep into the schedule. Moreover, the North Stars have been at the top of the Norris Division since the first week of the season.
At 5'10", 180 pounds, Ciccarelli looks chunky out on the ice, an image enhanced by his hopping, staccato stride. He says that end-to-end he's among the slowest skaters on the team. "But put a loose puck in front of the net," he adds, "and my money's on me." He cannot explain his goal-scoring talent but gives two clues, one of which is his stick. While the blade of a normal NHL stick has a slight loft, Ciccarelli's looks like a nine-iron. This gives his shots exaggerated lift, which helps him hit high corners even from in close. Second, between shifts he seldom follows the play. He keeps his eyes locked on the goalie. "A lot of the time I'll be in sort of a daze, watching him, thinking how he bothers me so much," he says. "I can't stand missing a scoring chance. It haunts me and makes me stare even harder at the goalie."
Such intensity made Ciccarelli's name long before he arrived in Minnesota. At London in the Ontario Hockey League for juniors, his enemies were legion. One was Jeff Brubaker, a beefy forward now in the Canadiens' organization. As a junior at Peterborough, Brubaker was usually assigned to muscle up Ciccarelli. Once Ciccarelli scored a game-winning goal while Brubaker lay sprawled at his feet. A picture of the scene appeared the next morning in the London Free Press. Ciccarelli went to the newspaper, got a glossy print of the photo and mailed it to Brubaker with the inscription: "Cement-head, isn't this your check?" Another time Ciccarelli was in the midst of a shoving match at the blue line with Mark Hunter, then playing for Brantford, now a Canadien. As the scuffle began, the Brantford mascot, Alex the Gator, rushed down to the boards and grabbed at Ciccarelli. Dino hoisted his stick and whacked Alex in the snoot.
His toughest battles have been with Al Secord, formerly a junior at Hamilton, now a Chicago Black Hawk. They've been archrivals since 1976. Ciccarelli says Secord has challenged him five different times and beat him up every one of them. "I hate him," Ciccarelli says, "but whenever he calls again, I'll answer." Last week Secord and Ciccarelli found themselves on the same bus headed for Washington's Capital Centre, teammates for the All-Star Game. When Ciccarelli boarded, Secord asked him how he was feeling. "Bleep you," Ciccarelli replied. "You don't care."
Perhaps what is most unusual about Ciccarelli is that he's playing hockey at all. On April 18, 1978, Ciccarelli led the OHL in goals, edging out another budding sensation named Wayne Gretzky. Thanks mainly to Ciccarelli, the London Knights were in the playoff semifinals. Ciccarelli was 18 and—like Gretzky—on the verge of signing a big-money pro contract, Dino with the Birmingham Bulls of the World Hockey Association. It didn't happen. At practice that morning, going full tilt in a two-man passing drill, Ciccarelli tripped over a piece of a splintered hockey stick and slammed into the end boards. At first, his teammates howled with laughter as he lay on the ice; a few of them playfully shot pucks at him. Suddenly they realized that Ciccarelli couldn't get up. He had snapped the femur—the heavy thighbone—in his right leg. "I still remember those pucks whizzing toward me," he said last week. "That and me thinking, 'God, no! I'm through as a hockey player.' "
To repair the break, doctors cut into Ciccarelli's leg, set the bone and inserted a steel rod 16 inches long. The rod stayed in place for 25 months. But by September Ciccarelli was off crutches and undergoing therapy to regain movement in the leg. "The pain was unbearable but not seeing any progress was worse," he says. Doctors measured improvement by each new quarter-inch of flex in the knee.