Let me introduce you to forward Rocco Grimaldi, not just the hockey player, but the man beyond the skates. Grimaldi, a 5’6”, 24 year-old California bundle of energy who played for the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage most of last year, has bounced between appearances with the Colorado Avalanche and San Antonio Rampage this season.
But Grimaldi, the person, is more than just a hockey player. He not only plays the sport as a forward, he lives his life in the forward position. Rocco believes he entered this season more prepared than ever before to take his game to the next level. But there is more to this hungry hockey player than just his relentless desire to succeed. A generous man, Grimaldi took the time to sit and share some of his story with me. Hopefully, in getting to know Rocco beyond the skates, you will discover the passion that drives the man.
Born to two California police officers, Rocco learned to overcome adversity at a young age. He recounted how, when he was only a year old, he and his mother survived a horrific car crash. On a quick trip to the grocery store along the busy California 405 freeway, Rocco’s mom realized she had fastened him into his car seat, she hadn’t strapped the one year old’s car seat into the car. Not finding a reasonable way to pull over in the heavy traffic, she figured they would be okay as they didn’t have far to travel. Unfortunately, their car ended up in a collision which sent them flying backwards across five lanes of traffic before flipping end over end multiple times. Rocco’s dad, on duty at the time, received a phone call telling him his family had been in an accident that closed down the freeway. Both baby and mom managed to escape unharmed. His family gives credit to one thing – God. Perhaps this was the moment where his Christian faith became the bedrock propelling Rocco forward.
You can’t talk with Rocco Grimaldi without recognizing his faith is central to his personality. He is a passionate man and shares openly about his passions – for God, for hockey, for his marriage and for his friends.
Other players may be taller than the 5’6” Rocco, but few can compare with his work ethic. When asked about the source of his drive, the diminutive athlete can’t recall ever living without it. Watching him, it’s no surprise. He seems to always be moving. Even while sitting, he can’t help but fidget with something, or bounce his legs or move his feet. One has compassion for his oft-mentioned wife, Abby, a high energy person in her own right.
“I like to surround myself with positive people,” he states. He thrives on the energy from other upbeat and energetic people. He admits he’s not always outgoing with strangers but he can be quite talkative around his friends. Grimaldi also acknowledges being an emotional person but says sometimes people misunderstand what he is emotional about. But he often focuses his passions on his work and his friends and family.
One of his current passions concerns playing hockey for his friend and the best man at his wedding, Garrett Gamez. Gamez, a Providence College forward, collapsed during the first period of their quarterfinal match against Notre Dame on March 11, 2017. Gamez was rushed to the hospital where they discovered he had a heart defect. He spent most of the summer waiting for test results to see if he could resume his hockey career.
“He (Gamez) called on Face Time and I could just tell by his face,” Rocco recalls, as he starts tearing up. Gamez’s hockey career ended due to previously unknown heart issues. Grimaldi sports a black rubber band around his right wrist to support his friend and add fuel to his own personal fire.
“I got this made to remind me I am playing for his dream too.” White letters with ‘Garrett Gamez #13 Carrying the Dream’ sprawl across the band. When Grimaldi spoke with Gamez prior to the start of this year’s training camp, Rocco shared with him some of his nervousness about the season and making the Avalanche, Gamez told Rocco he would do great and reminded him that he was carrying Gamez on his back through every drill. “I am carrying the dream for us both,” Rocco states.
Passion seems to be the hallmark of this young man looking to make his mark. There is no doubt he is passionate about hockey. He remembers countless hours roller blading and shooting pucks into his neighbor’s yard (unintentionally). This year, he started skating in May to prepare for the upcoming season. Rather than complaining about the grind of preparation, he relishes the work. Grimaldi openly shares about how he guards himself to take care of his mind and body as well as his daily routine. He even jokes about how his wife Abby had to adapt to his habits and how he’s learning learn to compromise. The couple recently celebrated their one-year anniversary.
But not everything comes easy to this pair. Abby, Rocco’s wife, is and aspiring country music singer and just released a Christmas EP. Rocco was concerned about leaving Abby’s electronic keyboard behind for their month long trip to Denver for the Avalanche’s training camp because they couldn’t fit it in their car. He expressed his relief and his gratefulness when a friend in Denver offered Abby a keyboard to play while she was here. The uncertainty about where they will be from one month to the next has proven challenging, yet is part of the road many young players jockeying for the NHL lineup face.
Rocco has excelled in San Antonio this year, notching a team leading 10 goals while earning 16 total points and a +5 in his 20 appearances. All while bouncing up to the Colorado Avalanche twice, where he’s tallied a goal and two assists for three points in his six appearances playing wing. He still hopes to go full time in the NHL but recognizes he doesn’t get to determine how his hockey career will evolve beyond his work ethic.
Once again, Rocco returns to his faith to sustain him through the ups and downs of his life and career. He admits he wrestled with his desire to be an NHL starter despite his diminutive stature but has finally reached a place where he believes wherever he is, God has him there for a reason, and that brings peace.
Grimaldi tells the story of a particularly difficult time from last season with the San Antonio Rampage when they were in the middle of a losing streak and he was reading a devotional about enthuisiasm. Rocco believes that God has everything working for the best for him, yet he is also a fierce competitor and hates losing. He grappled with coming into a struggling locker room as his normal upbeat self and his demeanor showed it. So the coach, Eric Vielleux, approached him and asked what’s wrong. Rocco responded with how it seemed inappropriate for him to be bouncing around the locker room when they were losing. He didn’t want to come across like he didn’t care. The coach imparted an important life lesson.
It didn’t matter how many games they were losing, he said, Rocco needed to be Rocco. The coach elaborated by saying Grimaldi’s attitude dictated the mood of the entire team. The coach and the team were counting on him. A profound moment for a young man who constantly heard he was too small to play professional hockey.
Since the age of five, he’s been told he is too small to play the sport he loves. While those words may have hurt a few years ago, now Rocco shrugs them off. Pushing for a roster spot on an NHL club, for respect in the AHL, and to overcome the perceptions of his size, he has learned to let go of other’s opinions.
His faith is the engine that propels him relentlessly forward. In his YouTube video, he offers insight to his approach in life.
“Are you a thermostat or a thermometer?” he challenges. Grimaldi goes on to explain his point. A thermostat blends into the surrounding atmosphere, reflecting the attitude in the room. A thermometer walks in and sets a tone, regardless of the situation.
“I am going to bring life to any situation!” Rocco declares. He elaborates by saying he believes he is called to stir others to action. In an Avalanche organization that appeared to lack resiliency last year, his attitude appears to be a good fit for the new direction. For now, he’s helping to shift the atmosphere in San Antonio, which also had a dismal season last year.
Grimaldi has a lot to play for this year. At the age of 24, he has skated for two NHL teams, three AHL teams and lived in four states over the past three years. But overcoming comes naturally to him. Gesturing to a gold chain and shield around his neck, he recounts how this was his father’s, and his mom gave it to him when Rocco was battling stomach issues as a youth. The shield contains the scripture “No weapon formed against me shall prosper” – a fitting motto for his resilient nature.
When asked how his faith is perceived by his teammates, he smiles. He recalls how Duncan Siemens told him some of the players instructed Siemens to stop chirping Grimaldi about his faith on the ice. Rocco dismisses the concern while being appreciative of his team mates attempt to show respect. He has no issues with the chirping nor with Siemens, who he speaks about positively. The players are respectful and Grimaldi admits he has matured to the point where he’s somewhat embarrassed by some over zealous comments he made a few years ago.
In fact, Rocco considers being part of a team his favorite aspect of playing hockey. He likes the camaraderie and working together towards a common goal. When asked about playing Coach Bednar’s systems, he shrugs. Most players have played a variety of systems by the time they reach the professional leagues, he explains. The biggest challenge for him is shifting what his role is in the system as positions change and as organizations change. While the systems may be familiar, the roles differ.
Grimaldi mentions how Avalanche Captain Gabriel Landeskog was one of the few people he knew was captain material upon first meeting him. And he credits Landeskog with doing a great job as captain last season. Rocco, however, did show irritation that Landeskog beat him by one hundredth of a second on one of the speed drills during training camp. Rocco is competitive to his core.
Rocco hates losing – at anything. He admits his competitiveness drives him and recounts a story of playing a friendly game of ping pong he ‘had’ to finish, even though it got dark, and recounts how he dives to return a volley even in casual circumstances. He doesn’t seem to have an “off” button.
Rocco’s goal for now – to trust the work he has put in.
“I’ve never been stronger than now- physically and mentally.”
Grimaldi lives life moving forward – in his hockey, his marriage, his faith and for others. Stirring others to action seems to inspire him to work harder. Only time will tell if Rocco Grimaldi’s work ethic and tenacious drive will be enough to make the Colorado Avalanche starting lineup full time. But a glimpse of him beyond the skates reveals the fire that feeds the engine.