IN DEPTH: Persistent Steve Pinizzotto
A blue collar upbringing helped Steve Pinizzotto learn that he’d have to work hard to get to where he wanted to be
Sunday, 23.11.2014 / 10:00 AM / In Depth – Weekend Feature
“Nothing was ever given to me.”Steve Pinizzotto’s hard-working attitude and never-give-up mentality was instilled to him at a young age by his blue-collar family and humble beginnings. His path to the NHL has been a long journey, filled with adversity and tough times, but never any doubt or quit. It is through those tough times that Pinizzotto has grown stronger.
|EDMONTON, AB – APRIL 6: Steven Pinizzotto #13 of the Edmonton Oilers watches play from the bench prior to a game against the Anaheim Ducks on April 6, 2014 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)|
BLUE COLLAR UPBRINGING
Growing up in Mississauga, Ontario, just outside of Toronto, Pinizzotto learned at a young age that you have to work hard to make a living.
Pinizzotto’s father was your prototypical hard-working Italian family man. His mother, from Germany, is much the same.
“It’s kind of crazy, they’re heavy European,” Pinizzotto said. “My father came over as a young boy, he was 15-years-old. He turned into a sheet-metal worker when he was 18 and he still does that today. He’s been at it for quite some time now and he’s a hard worker for sure. My mom, she’s a real estate agent back home, getting into condos and stuff like that. She’s pretty good at her job too. She’s I think in the 1% of real-estate agents in the area so she’s doing well for herself too. They were never athletes themselves. My mom was kind of in school but never really professionally outside of that. My father, not at all actually.”
Seeing his father and mother go off to work every day to provide for his family inspired Pinizzotto. He eventually joined his father in the business, working with sheet metal during his summers.
“Being a young guy, I had no money and was going to school,” he said. “In the summers, I used to go and help him out. I’d wake up at some crazy hours, get home at some crazy hours. I got into the sheet metal business and got my hands on. I learned to be a little bit of a handy guy. I was more of a hands-on guy and did my own thing. I helped him out, just trying to get away from being lazy all summer.”
|EDMONTON, AB – APRIL 8: Steven Pinizzotto #13 of the Edmonton Oilers lines up for a face off in a game against the Colorado Avalanche on April 8, 2014 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)|
Pinizzotto had two older brothers as well, one who played in the OHL before going off to Germany to play professionally. His middle brother is a police officer in Toronto.
Pinizzotto loved his childhood, but he was not going to stay in Mississauga his whole life. He only dabbled in the sheet-metal business, he never had an eye for real estate and he wanted to play hockey.
“Obviously, Toronto is a mecca for hockey,” Pinizzotto said. “It’s every kid’s dream to play in the NHL Growing up and being a huge Leafs fan, they’d always be on TV and watching those guys, you wanted to be those guys. I used to watch guys like Wendel Clark, who’d just contribute everything to the game. He could skate, he could hit, he could shoot, he could fight. I wanted to implement that into my game.” His family understood and supported Pinizzotto’s decision to play hockey.
“Both my parents were there from day one,” he said. “Anywhere I had to go, they were always there helping me and getting me to where I had to be. Being a billet family and bringing guys in, they would always help other guys too. People would come from different areas and live with our family, which was always good because we’d have extra buddies in the house. We’d always go out in the road, put our nets up and play hockey. I would say I had a pretty fun childhood growing up in Toronto.” A fun childhood helped build the foundation of good work ethic and resiliency to achieve his goals.
“Nothing has ever been given to us,” Pinizzotto said. “We’ve worked for everything we have. I speak for myself — I’ve never been drafted, but I found a way to get through, get to junior and then get a scholarship to RIT.”
Pinizzotto grew tougher as a child thanks to being the youngest and smallest of three brothers.
“Growing up with two older brothers, being the youngest kid, you’re taking a fist to the face,” Pinizzotto said. “I got used to being beat up by these guys because I was the guy stirring it up, stirring the pot as the young guy. I was the one trying to cause all the attention. I think the aggression came from my brothers as well as my father being an Italian guy, that hard-working Italian guy. I definitely got some of his genes.”
Those genes transitioned onto the ice.
His small size made him overlooked in the major junior circles. Instead, he played for the second-tier Oakville Blades in the OPJHL between 2000 and 2005. He had to find a way to make an impact on the ice, despite being small in stature.
“I was like 5-foot-5 when I was 18 years old,” Pinizzotto said. “I was probably 130-140 pounds. I was just a little guy causing havoc out there.”
He explained, “You’ve got to find a way. When you’re just a little guy, I didn’t really have the skills of a high-end guy. I had to work on my skills, being a little guy. When I grew up a little bit, I started getting a little more aggression so that I kind of rounded out my game a little more. I think it all kind of worked like that for a reason so that I could learn different elements of the game just to get my game to be better. Being a small kid, even in junior, I was just a little guy. I can remember just getting picked on all of the time and having to defend myself. I think it’s funny how things work.”
Pinizzotto hit his stride with Oakville in the 2002-03 season. He played 44 games for the Blades, scoring 40 points (16-24-40) and racking up 152 penalty minutes. He played two more seasons after that, improving each year.
In 2004-05, his final season with the club, Pinizzotto was named captain and led the team in scoring with 95 points (33-62-95). Things were looking up. He was finally growing into his body and, soon enough, he’d make the jump to the college game.
He never lost sight of the endgame though, even through the success in junior. Making it to the NHL was still at the front of his mind, partially thanks to those around him who supported those aspirations.
“I was playing junior and my coach, Frank Carnevale, he always told me that I’ve got what it takes to play in the NHL,” Pinizzotto said.
He took those words of encouragement with him to Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, NY.
|Photo courtesy of RIT Sports Information|
Pinizzotto went off to RIT, probably not expecting to make such a quick transition to the new level of hockey. He helped lead the team to the 2007 AHA regular season championship. In 58 career games for RIT, from 2005-07, he recorded 22 goals and 40 assists for 62 points.
He led the team in scoring in the 2006-07 season, becoming a dangerous fixture on the power play. Although he only played two seasons at RIT, he made an impact.
However, it was the news he received following a particular game that was possibly the most memorable moment of his college career.
“We had actually just finished a game and my coach pulls me off to the side, Wayne Wilson,” Pinizzotto recalls. “He calls me to the office and he told me to call this guy. It ended up being Steve Richmond in Washington (Capitals). I called him and was actually in tears from him telling me that they were interested in me. Especially at RIT, nobody had heard about that before. It was almost an unknown.”
It was unknown. Pinizzotto became the first player out of RIT to sign an NHL contract. Quite the feat for an undersized, undrafted, blue-collar kid from Mississauga.
“It is a positive for the school because now kids go to that school and see there is a chance that if you do play well, you put up numbers and you do your schooling and stuff then there is an option to sign in the NHL,” Pinizzotto said with pride. “I’m the perfect example of that and (Vancouver’s) Chris Tanev as well, just after me there. I think it’s great for the program and I’m glad I was able to do that.”
A tearful, joyful Steve Pinizzotto signed with the Capitals in 2007. He’d begin his professional career that very year, but his first visit to the NHL would stay on hold for the time being.
The 2007-08 campaign was Pinizzotto’s first year in the professional ranks. He spent five games in the American Hockey League the year before, but 07-08 was his first venture into a full season in the pros.
He played 40 games in the ECHL that year, scoring 32 points and recording 58 penalty minutes. It took some time for Pinizzotto to earn the trust of the Capitals before he made the jump to full-time duty in the AHL. But once he did, Pinizzotto made enough of an impact to be noticed.
“It was huge, it was unbelievable,” Pinizzotto said of his time in the AHL. “I think, especially where I signed, it was the Hershey Bears and they weren’t really a development club. They signed their older guys. For me to get in the lineup there, it was next to impossible. It didn’t matter what I did. I had to wait it out and wait for my time. By the time I had finished there, my coach told me I was a guy he could never take out of the lineup. I found a way to get it done there and got them on my side. Again, I can’t say it enough — there is always a way if you can convince yourself to believe.”
Pinizzotto showed aggression, hard work and the right attitude can give you a regular role on a hockey team. In 2009-10, Pinizzotto played his first full season in the AHL, uninterrupted by stints in the ECHL. He followed up a 41-point season in 2009-10 with a 42-point year in 2010-11. He was now ready for the next step, and that was making his NHL debut. Unfortunately, circumstances would continue to push back that date.
However, the wait was not burdensome for Pinizzotto. The forward looks back on it and realizes the time it took to achieve his dream and the time he spent with the Hershey Bears was critical to making him the man and player he is today.
“I went to Hershey and we had two championship teams there,” Pinizzotto said. “I learned a lot from that and I think that’s stuff that you can’t teach. You’ve got to be a part of that to learn all about that. I’m thankful for that route. Everyone wants to play in the NHL when they’re 20-years-old but that was definitely not the option for me and I had to go a different route. I think it’s good for young kids to learn from what I’ve done and find that there’s always a way. Everybody wants stuff right now, but for some people there’s always a time and it wasn’t time for me. I had to make myself believe it was still available.”
|VANCOUVER, CANADA – MARCH 19: Cory Schneider #35 and Steven Pinizzotto #13 of the Vancouver Canucks celebrate an NHL win against the St. Louis Blues at Rogers Arena March 19, 2013 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)|
Pinizzotto may have thought he was destined to make his NHL debut right away, but he had to wait a little while longer. A free agent, the patient winger signed a deal with Vancouver in 2011. He expected to start the year in the NHL, having received offers from 10 different clubs. However, injuries derailed his journey.
“I ended up choosing them because I felt like they were pretty honest with me,” Pinizzotto said. “I ended up going there and blowing my shoulder for the whole season, missed the whole season there.They ended up resigning me the next year, which was the lockout year. Then I ended up getting injured going into that again.”
The patience paid off as Pinizzotto made his NHL debut for the Canucks on March 14, 2013 against Nashville.
“It was a longtime coming for sure because I had waited a year and a half basically to play when I knew I was going to play the first year,” he said. “It was a longtime coming.”
On his first shift, Pinizzotto sent Nashville’s Kevin Klein into the boards with a big hit. The two immediately dropped the gloves and went after it. The “rookie” wasted no time making an impact on the game.
“That was my first shift and it helped me get the jitters out,” Pinizzotto said. “I think that’s the way you’ve got to do it. It helps you settle down and get into the game. It was a whole lot of excitement with my family there to watch that. It was definitely a great experience.”
Pinizzotto played 12 games for the Canucks, recording 29 penalty minutes. That next summer, he signed with the Florida Panthers organization. His NHL career didn’t continue immediately. Pinizzotto went back to the AHL, playing 21 games for San Antonio. He scored 7 points (6-1-7) and racked up 67 penalty minutes.
It was a frustrating time for Pinizzotto, who felt like he belonged in the NHL.
“It’s something that made me who I am today,” he said. “Those are obstacles… you don’t teach that stuff. That’s stuff that you’ve got to be born through it. You’ve got to go through that to realize what it’s actually like.”
Thankfully, he got an opportunity that would land him in a new organization.
|Photo by Steven Christy | Oklahoma City Barons|
On January 17, 2014, Pinizzotto was traded from Florida with Jack Combs to Edmonton for Ryan Martindale and Derek Nesbitt. It seemed, at the time, to be a minor league deal. But the Oilers had bigger hopes for Pinizzotto, thinking he could be a full-time contributor up top.
When the Oilers acquired Pinizzotto, they told him to get to work and hopefully do enough to earn the call-up he desperately wanted.
“Just to go down there and play,” he said. “You never know what happens. In this sport, there are always injuries. I knew I wasn’t a guy at the front of their list but I knew if I could get some time and play then they could see what I actually bring to the table. I think I bring something that a lot people don’t do, and that’s bring all aspects of the game. I’m just trying to work better and I think at that time I wasn’t having the most fun in San Antonio there with Florida’s organization. (The trade) was basically a whole new light. It was a huge honour for them to make the trade for me and just give me another opportunity.”
The trade did give him an opportunity after all. He played six games at the end of the season with the Oilers and registered his first two NHL points (both assists). He recorded 15 penalty minutes.
The Oilers decided to bring Pinizzotto back and let him compete for a spot in training camp, heading into this season.
In training camp and pre-season, Pinizzotto had one thought on his mind — make this club. The 30-year-old threw everything he had into the camp competition for a fourth-line winger spot.
In four pre-season games, Pinizzotto scored two points and recorded 21 penalty minutes, finishing +2. He was among the Oilers last round of cuts, which was a major emotional blow. After a long career of being held back by adversity, Pinizzotto was very disappointed.
“It kind of relates to everything that’s happened to me growing up,” he said. “Nothing was ever given to me. I felt like I did everything I possibly could to stay in the lineup. I ended up getting a couple of points, a couple of fights and a few penalty minutes and was plus-something. Overall, I thought I had a great camp.”
Pinizzotto thought he had put everything on the table to make the team, but it wasn’t quite his time.
“I believe it there is a time for everything,” he admitted. “It probably wasn’t my time then. I was obviously disappointed because I knew I left everything on the line, not only for me but for the team too. They told me to go down, play hard and I went down, worked hard and ended up doing well down there.”
His career with the Oilers wasn’t over with an exit from camp. The club recalled Pinizzotto on November 17. He was inserted into the lineup two days later against his former team, Vancouver.
“Finally, they gave me another opportunity,” he said. “I appreciate that a lot an now I’m just here to make a statement.”
Pinizzotto made his 2014-15 season debut against Vancouver, the team that gave him his original NHL debut. He didn’t wait long to make an impact, much like it didn’t take long in his first NHL game a couple of years before.
Just 2:27 into the game, Pinizzotto dropped the gloves with Derek Dorsett. Less than five minutes into the second period, Pinizzotto scored his first NHL goal on a shot from the top of the circle.
That was a moment that he’d been waiting a long time for, but his night wasn’t over. Pinizzotto completed the rare Gordie Howe Hat Trick when he picked up an assist on Boyd Gordon’s goal later in the second period.
That kind of performance helps get you noticed; it’s how you take advantage of a call-up. Years of being told he had what it takes to play in the NHL helped push him along, but it’s always nice to see it with your own eyes.
“It’s like the endless hours in the gym in the summer,” Pinizzotto said. “I’ve pretty much had every coach in the past tell me that I can play in the NHL. When you have someone like that telling you that, it’s kind of that kick in the butt to give you that extra push. You kind of tell yourself but sometimes, at the end of the day, that’s not enough. Those extra little bumps from the coaches and stuff make you truly believe that. I think everything has kind of worked out now. I think I would be a good fit with this club here. I can bring some energy to these guys and this room and hopefully turn this ship around.”
It was the rough and tumble life as the younger brother, a blue-collar upbringing, an aggressive approach to the game and years of ups and downs that earned Pinizzotto this opportunity. He never gave up and he never will.
He believes himself to be a late bloomer with plenty of miles left on the tires.