When the Capitals selected Thomas DiPauli with the 100th overall selection of the 2012 NHL draft, the speedy center greeted the Washington media in Pittsburgh with a million dollar smile.
Two years later, when DiPauli met with reporters at Kettler Capitals Iceplex during the club’s development camp, that smile was a mangled mess of missing teeth.
“I have fake teeth,” DiPauli said, “but I don’t wear them much. I guess this is my new look. It’s a great conversation starter.”
One of many.
DiPauli is on a mission to become just the fourth Italian-born player to play in the NHL, following in the footsteps of left wing Nelson Debenedet, who played parts of two seasons for the Red Wings and Penguins from 1973-75; left wing Victor Posa, who played two games for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1985-86, and defenseman Luca Sbisa, who has played 266 games for the Philadelphia Flyers and Anaheim Ducks the past six seasons.
Born and raised in the small town of Caldaro in northern Italy, DiPauli and his mother, Christina, moved to Illinois along with his brother, Theo, when Thomas was 12 and Theo was 13. The two brothers played in the Chicago Mission Midget Program and both parlayed their passion for hockey into college educations, with Thomas getting accepted into Notre Dame and Theo into UnionCollege.
While Theo played in just seven games for Union’s NCAA national champions, Thomas DiPauli followed a strong freshman season with an injury-plagued sophomore year in which he managed just three goals and two assists in 26 games.
“It was a very good choice,” DiPauli said of his decision to attend Notre Dame after two seasons with the U.S. National Development program in Ann Arbor, Mich. “I love it there.
“For me, school’s obviously very important. Being in a place like Notre Dame, the education is second to none, really.”
DiPauli said his second season with the Irish was “a little rough.” He battled a pair of shoulder injuries and was one day away from representing the U.S. in the World Junior Championships in Sweden when he took a stick to the mouth and required overnight root canal.
DiPauli said pain medication allowed him to sleep through most of his team’s flight to Sweden, but the pain was unbearable when the plane landed. It didn’t stop him from playing in five games and picking up three assists on a team that included Capitals prospects Connor Carrick and Riley Barber.
“It started to mold in my mouth,” DiPauli said with a laugh. “But the hockey was phenomenal. The group of guys I was with was great. It didn’t end how we wanted [a quarterfinal loss to bronze medalist Russia] but it was a great experience.”
Known for his speed and feistiness as a relentless forechecker, DiPauli said his experience on the international stage was a good barometer for how he needs to play to get into the NHL.
“You’re playing with the best players and there are guys you watch play and it’s like, ‘Wow,’” he said. “But then you can see what makes them successful and you can use it to improve your game. It definitely boosts your confidence knowing you’re with that group of elite players.”
Enrolled in the College of Business, DiPauli, 20, says he plans on finishing his junior and senior years at Notre Dame before he hopes to turn pro.
DiPauli missed last summer’s Caps development camp to take summer courses in South Bend. He said last week’s scrimmages gave him a good indication of how well he has recovered from his shoulder injuries.
“Even going into the corners against all those big guys I feel 100 percent,” he said. “I know my shoulder’s going to hold up. I did a lot of work over the summer to get it strengthened. No issues now, I feel great.”
When he returns to Notre Dame, DiPauli, who is listed at 5-foot-10, 183 pounds, said he plans on working on improving his skating, which he considers his greatest asset, and his ability to score “dirty” goals around the net.
“You watch an NHL game and all those guys, especially the smaller guys, all can skate and are sturdy on their feet,” he said. “I need to keep improving on that so I can maybe be playing in the NHL some day.”
Just like the three Italians before him.