In life, we are often nudged into trying new things. For many of us, we try something and move on. For others, we find that nudge sparking into so much more and for a select few, that spark ignites a dream. Ask almost every hockey player, and they will tell you that their end goal, dream or desire is to lace up the skates and step onto the ice in the big show, NHL, NWHL, CWHL, skating into the role of professional hockey player is one that begins young and never seems to fade. Boston Bruins center Zac Rinaldo has worked hard to achieve NHL success, once the game sparked, he never looked back.
“My dad played hockey, so he taught me how to skate,” said Rinaldo. “I started skating at four years old and really got into it and then more competitively at eight years old.”
For many young players the love of the game encompasses an entire family, grandparents, parents, and siblings. For Rinaldo, the game was something shared with his father.
“I’m the only one that plays hockey, my younger cousin plays, he just plays to play. No one in my family really played hockey — my dad and I were really the only ones.”
Of course for most players that ultimate goal is to make it to the professional level . However, the on ice memories harvested at the beginning of one’s career often hold the most important slots in the memory bank. Youth hockey is where friendships are made, skills are learned and dreams begin to take physical shape and Rinaldo fits that mold.
“Memory wise, when I was young, we won a championship, when I was eight years old. That always stuck with me, AAA Flames and Hamilton Reps. That was my first championship that I won growing up, so that has always been with me.”
Every hockey player has an idol, that one player that mystified them, that defied the laws of the ice and pushed them into the game just a little bit further. While today’s youth may pick Crosby, Toews, and Stamkos, many players of the current NHL class found themselves in bewilderment over Gretzky, Jagr, and for Rinaldo, Eric Lindros.
“Eric Lindros, he was my role model. I watched him religiously growing up, on the TV, his time with the Flyers, not so much with the Wings. I had posters all over my room and stuff like that. He was the only guy that I looked up to player wise.”
During a storied NHL career, Lindros dropped the gloves occasionally, but it is a game trait that Rinaldo has not shied away from during his professional career. Although often big skates to fill, the ability to step in to the enforcer role never deterred him.
“I’ve always been a tough, rowdy kid on the ice. Back then, we started hitting around eight years old; it’s just part of the game. The fun thing was you could fight and not get in trouble for it, it was part of the game and people saw that I was good at it; good at hitting and it stuck with me and I don’t mind doing it.”
In the ever evolving ice-scape of the current game, the time and place for just enforcers has been limited. While Rinaldo does not shy away from dropping the gloves and fulfilling the roles required of him, the reality is that Rinaldo continues to develop and enhance his game. Drawing penalties, absorbing opponents’ hits and taking the puck to the net — the game is changing as is the player.
The transition comes from a support system off the ice. For Rinaldo, a mentor from his youth, still remains his primary confidant now.
“My dad was and has always been there with advice and support. I would always call him after games to hear his take on how I played. He doesn’t really give me pointers anymore, because I’m past where he can really direct me anymore. But growing up, and my time in the OHL and AHL, he always gave me pointers. Now that I’m even more professional, my dad can’t really tell me much more. I still call him after every game though and get feedback.”
Perhaps the best fan, is the one found at home. The fan that will love you no matter what you did or did not bring to the ice, but most importantly the fan that will critique your play and be entirely honest about it.
“He will definitely let me know if I didn’t play up to his standards”, laughed Rinaldo. “There’s no beating around the bush with him. He’s always told me straight up if he thinks I can do better. But for the most part, he’s just there supporting me.”
Selected by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, 6th round, 178th overall, Rinaldo began his career where many NHL greats begin, honing skills, developing foresight, and toughness in the American Hockey League. The learning curve of the AHL iced the way for a memorable start to his current NHL success. On April 22, 2011, Rinaldo took the ice in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for his debut.
“It was a grind in the AHL; it’s a jungle down there. For me, with my style of play, I had to fight a lot and I ended up having 20-something fights. It made me a tougher player, it gave me a lot of experience, especially preparing me for fighting and giving me some comfort there. That’s just how it is [in the AHL], everyone is trying to make a name for themselves, everyone is young. It’s a lot of bus trips and a lot of travel, it definitely grew my experience in making travel easier now. It was a grind, but it really was a fun time.”
With a successful training camp under his belt, Rinaldo broke the NHL lineup in October 2011. For Rinaldo, his rookie season was one for the memory book.
“I met [Eric] Lindros at the Winter Classic my first year with the Philadelphia Flyers, that was a really cool experience. Playing with Jagr too was an experience, him being who he is. I watched him growing up, so playing with him was memorable. Being a part of the HBO Winter Classic thing my first year as an NHL player, also very cool. Those three things are some of my most memorable experiences, especially because they all happened in my first year.”
Following the 2014-15 NHL season, Rinaldo was dealt from the Philadelphia Flyers to the Boston Bruins for a 2017 third round draft pick, meaning that come January 1st, 2016, he will take the ice for the NHL Winter Classic once more, this time donning a Spoked B jersey. The Winter Classic will take place at the home of the New England Patriots in Foxboro, Massachusetts. No stranger to the Winter Classic, this season should add an extra thrill with the opponent being one of the largest rivalries in hockey. It will be an Original Six matchup pitting the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens.
“I’m really excited, especially since it’s at a football stadium, so there will be just so many people. Plus, the rivalry is like no other rivalry, so it’ll be a really fun time. I’m just really excited, hopefully it’s cold, but not too cold.”
With a month of the 2015-16 NHL season in the books, Rinaldo has made his presence known to fans and opponents alike. Meshing well with his teammates, Rinaldo joined the team during a new era of sorts. With Don Sweeney taking the reigns as GM and a roster almost unrecognizable, Rinaldo was welcomed to Boston.
“I didn’t reach out to anyone. [Don] Sweeney reached out to me, he talked to me for about 10 minutes, just telling me they were excited to have me on board, we talked hockey a bit and about their expectations for me,” said Rinaldo. “A few days later, Chara gave me a call to welcome me to the team, just to say hi and introduce himself.”
Hockey players have a history of giving back, many spend off-seasons training and supporting the communities that support them through a grueling NHL schedule. The concept of giving back was instilled early in life for Rinaldo.
“It’s always been a part of my family basically, my parents and myself have always given back to people who are in need, whether it be friends who needed clothes growing up, shoes, winter jackets, we always helped out in any way we could. It’s not just about playing hockey and what I do on the ice, it’s about what I do off of the ice as well. Giving back to my hometown, specifically my hometown is what I always wanted. I always told myself if I made the NHL, I would still need to give back in bigger ways — but I’ll always give back, no matter what I’m doing.”
One cause that has had a positive effect on his hometown community of Hamilton, Ontario and on Rinaldo himself, Zac Rinaldo’s Fight for a Cause.
“We do a ball hockey tournament, [Zac Rinaldo’s Fight for a Cause] there were about 350 kids that showed up this year, all the kids play for free. There are about 10-12 other NHL players that they get to be in contact with, they take pictures and play hockey, stuff like that. After that, we have a gala dinner to raise more money, then we have a big huge party to celebrate the whole day.”
A charitable cause that has become a yearly staple for the community and it’s youth.
“We’re in our third year now and every year we’ve raised over $20,000 dollars and it all goes to McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton. Every year it’s been getting bigger and bigger, last year we had about 170 kids. This year we had 350 and I’m not going to go over 350 kids, but I might switch it up and do something different next year, I’m still thinking about where we’re going to go with it. Whatever we do, the proceeds will always go back towards my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario.”
Of course the monies raised to date are impressive, but the passion that both Rinaldo and his parents share in developing, and maintaining the event itself should not be lost. There are no event planners running behind the scenes, both Rinaldo and his parents dedicate hours of time and energy towards a successful face-off.
“I’m in charge of everything, it’s myself and my parents who run the whole event. We don’t have someone behind the scenes who coordinates it or anything like that. We know everything that’s happening, when it’s happening, it’s very family oriented and hands on.”
Fans know what Rinaldo can be found doing during the off season, and with the month of October already over, they’ve gotten a taste of Rinaldo in season. With a long few months of hockey ahead, Boston Bruins fans can expect a forward who wants to contribute game in and game out.
“They can expect the same thing that I’ve been doing. I’m going to stay true to myself, I won’t go out of my comfort zone to please anyone else but myself. Other than that, they’ll be getting a lot of energy during the games, those bone-crushing hits, and things like that. I’ll probably add a little more hockey sense into my play every time I step out on the ice, it’s definitely a more offensive mindset that I have this year.”
An entire career spent with one organization can make a transition to a new team tough. However, in professional sports it is sadly, the nature of the beast.
“It’s just another step in my career, I don’t think anyone plans on being with the same team their whole career, so the feeling that another team wanted me is a really good feeling and gave me a lot more confidence. My dad was actually a huge Bruins fan growing up, he loved Bobby Orr. They were his team growing up, so, I want to please the city of Boston, the organization, the team that my dad loved growing up. I have nothing but good things to say about Boston so far.”
It sounds as though Rinaldo is exactly where he is supposed to be; donning a spoked “B” on the front and his favorite 3-6 on the back.