BACK TO THE FUTURE – CATCHING UP WITH MICHAEL DEL ZOTTO

BY: Mitch Beck with Adam Gavriel

DelZotto_M_0526_action2For athletes looking to develop a professional career, the path to achieving it, in many ways, resembles the four-year high school matriculation process.

As a rookie, a player enters their freshman year; the new kid on the block. Expectations are high, but there are a lot of unknowns.

By an athlete’s second season, the awkward first year mistakes should be minimalized and the expectations elevate.

The third year is the critical test. In high school, adjustments have been and the child that showed up for freshman year is expected to be gone. The adjustments that have been learned from the second year are now fully implemented. There’s more responsibility. More pressure to be, pardon the cliché, all that you can be are clearly beginning to emerge.

In the fourth year, seniors are now the veterans of the school as well as in the locker room. Both athletes and seniors have well-established who they are, what kind of talents they have and the work habits that will determine their future are fully on display.

For New York Rangers’ defenseman Michael Del Zotto, his upcoming third season as a pro is a pivotal one for the 21-year old from Stouffville, Ontario.

Growing up a giant Bobby Orr fan and wearing number four in tribute to his childhood hero, Del Zotto was selected 20th overall in the first round of the 2008 draft by the Rangers. Expectations were incredibly high for the highly touted d-man and Del Zotto’s career on Broadway career got off to a spectacular start.

At age 19, he became the youngest defenseman in Blueshirt history to be on the ice on opening night. His rookie campaign dazzled as Del Zotto get named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for October 2009 after registering 12 points in his first 14 games. Seeing a young man play with that level of composure and talent inspired the hearts and minds of the Garden faithful. Fans felt that the Rangers had in their midst the best power-play quarterback on the roster since Brian Leetch. DZ, as his friends call him, exceeded all expectations playing in all 80 games and contributing 37 points (9g, 28a). After a breakthrough season, Del Zotto was named to the 2010 NHL All-Rookie Team.

But soon the dream came back a bit to reality.

Del Zotto began his second campaign in the red, white and blue and something just wasn’t the same. Teams adjusted to Del Zotto’s game and the young defenseman wasn’t able to make the necessary counters to his game, so he floundered and struggled. In high school vernacular, those struggles are known as “The Sophomore Slump” and they hit the 6’1” 195 pounder pretty hard. He lost confidence and just could not get his game back on track. The things that had made him so successful in his rookie campaign were not working and he struggled to find the magic again. His play deteriorated leading to the point where it was determined that in order to get Del Zotto right, he needed to spend some time in the American League with the Ranger’s top farm club, the Connecticut Whale. On January 3rd of 2011, Del Zotto arrived in Hartford.

To complicate matters, the injury bug bit Del Zotto pretty hard limiting the defenseman to just eleven games. The worst of those injuries, the one that essentially ended his season, came on March 3rd at the XL Center when a shot from the right side hit him in the hand and badly broke a bone that eventually required surgery to repair. His season was over.

Injuries are just another setback and stepping stone to a long career for me.” The amicable young man said with that big smile of his. “It was a learning experience. Hockey is a tough game, injuries are going to happen. How you bounce back from them though really shows what kind of character you have.

But despite the injuries and the less than stellar play, Del Zotto remains honest and objective about his 2010-2011 season, “The coaching staff and management felt the same way as I did with my season. We were both disappointed, but we both expect big things next season.”

Del Zotto is focused on getting himself back to where he knows he belongs, playing before 18,200 screaming fans at, “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”

“I need to get back to my game and having fun. I play my best hockey when I play with confidence and I’m enjoying the game. I’m going to have to take control of the power play and bring offense in all situations of the game.”

The question is though, how does a now 21-year old get it back?

“All I can is do is control how hard I work. Everything else is out of my control. I can’t let that effect who I am as a player on the ice or the person I am off of it,” He said. “Last year was certainly a tough year for me and I felt I got away from being who I was. I can’t let that happen again.

“The biggest thing for me this summer is to forget about last season. No one is perfect, it was unfortunate with how things went, but that is the beauty of the game; anything can happen. I’m just trying to get myself in the best shape possible and be mentally prepared. Confidence is the biggest thing for me, I know I belong in the NHL and know what I can do when I play my game. When I get the opportunity to play my game I’m going to excel.”

One of the keys to Del Zotto’s success in the past and a key in his getting it back has been the tutelage of veteran defenseman, Wade Redden. The one time NHL All-Star was a gigantic help to all of the young defenseman on the Whale roster but none more so than Del Zotto. As a rookie defenseman they played together in New York and Redden been a huge influence in a multitude of ways in Hartford.

“Obviously Wade has been around and seen so much in the game,” Del Zotto said. “Having a player with his experience around really helps as far as teaching and learning how to be a pro.”

In terms of what happens on the ice, the offensive oriented d-man points out that, “Everything is just that much faster in the NHL. There is no time to think, everything is done on reaction.” But as most athletes are though, despite being in the American League, Del Zotto is still a creature of habit. “I usually take the pre-game skate, enjoy a nice big meal and have a scoop of ice cream before I take a nap. I always get to the rink two-and-a-half to three hours before each game. Of course my routine had to change slightly with the Whale because of the different travel, but I like to keep things in a regular routine.”

Del Zotto is one of the more personable members in the Whale locker room and certainly one of the most fan-friendly. That also extends to his personal life where he has taken on the social media world with a well-read Twitter account that currently has some 17,883 followers.

“It was something the marketing department with the Rangers and I had spoken about. Fans were asking me all the time to join Twitter. I was never that keen on it, but eventually I warmed up to it and have found it to be a great way to connect with the fans.”

If Del Zotto isn’t communicating with one of his 17,883 followers, and he needs support from a close friend, he will reach out from time-to-time for some advice from Tampa Bay sensation, Steven Stamkos, “We still speak often,” Del Zotto said. “But it’s tough just because of both our busy schedules.”

Del Zotto, like the highly intelligent and gifted player that he is, puts it all in proper perspective

“Look, every day I get to do what I love…there aren’t too many people out there who get to live their childhood dream, and I’ve been fortunate enough to get to. Every day I know just how fortunate I am and I’m very thankful for that!”

Sounds like the sophomore blues might be over and that Del Zotto is ready to graduate back to the NHL where the only “blues” he’ll have will be on the jersey he wears with such pride.

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