North Dakota’s Grimaldi part of growing Cali contingent playing NCAA hockey

By DJ Powers

Rocco Grimaldi - University of North Dakota

Photo: University of North Dakota forward and Florida Panthers prospect Rocco Grimaldi was third in scoring on the ND roster in 2012-13 but is leading the offense this season with 39 points in 41 games (courtesy of Tim G. Zechar/Icon SMI)

At 5’6” and 172 pounds, Rocco Grimaldi is one of the smallest players in all of college hockey, but he is also one of the most dynamic. The Rossmoor, CA native’s developmental progress has allowed him to reach new heights and become more of a rounded player. Grimaldi currently leads the University of North Dakota with 39 points (17 goals, 22 assists) in 41 games to date.

Hockey’s Future caught up with Grimaldi after practice on Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA to discuss a variety of topics, including his California roots.

Q: North Dakota is here in the Frozen Four after nearly missing getting in the NCAA Tournament this year, so tell me about that.

RG: Well, we watched Yale do it last year. So we felt that all we had to do was get into the tournament because once you’re in the tournament, anything can happen. Anyone can beat anyone and obviously every team is a good team. We knew that once we could get in the tournament we could do some damage, so here we are.

Q: You guys next face Minnesota and of course there’s that long rivalry that ended this season when both teams moved to new conferences. How do you feel about facing the Gophers?

RG: I think it’s exciting, but I think we’re trying to focus on it being just another game because we have to win it if we want to win the national championship. I don’t think we can look at it too much as a renewed rivalry. We’re not here to do the rivalry thing, we’re here to win a national championship and hope our fans will enjoy themselves.

Q: In watching you guys this season, the scoring has been more by committee rather than by having that one or two “superstar” types like in past seasons. How has that fit in with your style of play?

RG: I think it’s fit in really well and it’s been great. For a team to be successful, I think you have to have every guy being able to chip in at any point every night. What’s been great about this year is that we’ve had different guys step up every night. So that’s great to see. We’ve also had our defense chipping in (offensively) and Zane (Gothberg) has been unbelievable all year for us. If you want to go deep in the playoffs, you have to have four good lines that can play in all situations.

Q: One of the things that I’ve noticed in watching you this season is that you’ve been more focused on the defensive side, whether it’s been in killing penalties, blocking shots, etc. Is that an area where you feel you have made some of the biggest strides in your development?

RG: Oh absolutely. I think I’ve definitely become a more complete player, especially this past year. I’ve moved back to center, which was where I played all my career before coming to North Dakota. So that’s been pretty exciting. I feel like I’m better on face-offs and my defensive awareness has gotten better, as well. I think those are keys to getting to the next level. I feel like I’ve got more balance to my game too. I think that’s what (NHL) teams look for and I take pride in playing both sides of the puck.

Q: I know that you’re a prospect of the Florida Panthers. Did you attend their prospect camp last summer?

RG: Yes

Q: What were some of the things that you learned from the camp that you’ve been able to bring back to North Dakota with you that has allowed you to become a better player?

RG: I really gained a lot of confidence from it, especially just seeing and being around the other prospects. When I came off of that injury from my original freshman year, I didn’t have much confidence and I had trouble getting back into things. But I saw how things progressed for me at the camp and learning about new things like nutrition, as well as seeing what it takes to be able to play in the NHL I think all helped me regain my confidence again. I felt that I deserved to be there, I was there and now I’m doing whatever it takes to be here again (as one of their pro players) one day. That’s a future goal of mine and I’m really excited about it.

Q: Have you had any contact with the Panthers this season?

RG: I’ve talked to them a couple of times just to kind of catch up on things. They ask me how things are going, just the typical stuff. I got a text message from them a couple of weeks ago just wishing me luck and to have fun. That’s pretty much about it.

Q: It sounds like the Panthers are keeping close tabs on you but at the same time they’re not getting in the way of you trying to help North Dakota win a national championship either.

RG: Exactly. And for me that’s the best thing. You don’t want to have all those types of distractions at this time of the year. So I really respect that about them. And they’re also respecting what I’m doing right now too, so that’s been really good.

Q: For the all folks back in your home state of California, anything you want to pass along?

RG: I hope that I can win a national championship and make them proud.

Q: You are one of three California-born players in the Frozen Four this year. In your personal opinion, what does that say about how much hockey has grown in California?

RG: I think it’s grown by leaps and bounds in about the last 10 years. To be honest, I think California has the best development in terms of coaches probably in the world, and certainly within the U.S. for sure. We have the likes of Larry Barron and the Turcottes that have done a great job with many players in California. They’ve been amazing and have certainly helped me in my skating, stickhandling and shooting. Lessons were always available to me if I needed them. The coaches all love the game and they’re really unbelievable. They all want to help the kids succeed and continue to grow the game. We’ve had many Canadian coaches that have relocated to California, so we get the best of both worlds. (Laughs)

Q: You played for Mike Lewis while you were with the California Wave and later with Jack Bowkus with the Junior Kings. Now of course you play for Dave Hakstol at North Dakota. Obviously all of those coaches have had a tradition of successful teams and being able to move many players, including you, to the next level. What are some of the other attributes that these coaches share that have helped you to become the player that you are today?

RG: I think they all have a serious side. When they’re all at the rink, they are all business and very professional. Obviously, they all have a lighter side too that they all may not show as much. They can all be fun and will smile too. I think the biggest thing is that they’re all definitely teachers of the game. They all really care about every guy on their team, not only as individuals but as members of their teams, as well. They all want to see all of their players do well both on and off the ice. All three of them, as well as the other coaches I’ve had over the years, have done a great job of developing me and on and off the ice. I just want to say thanks to all of them for making me the guy and the player that I am today.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF