DALLAS - Zac Dalpe writes one word in marker on the end of his hockey sticks.
“So I can see it when I’m on the bench,” he says.
He looks at that word often during games, thinks of his mom constantly, knowing she would be proud of where he sat Thursday night.
“I like to think that she helped me get [to] Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs,” he says.
Dalpe’s presence in Game 1 of the Wild-Dallas Stars series here at America Airlines Center concluded an eight-month journey of personal and professional hardship that made his NHL playoff debut all the more memorable.
Signed by the Wild last July to a one-year contract, Dalpe lost his mother, Lisa, to kidney cancer the day before training camp. He suffered a torn labrum in his left hip in the first game of the season with the Wild’s minor league affiliate in Iowa.
He had surgery and returned three months later, only to suffer a knee injury in his fourth game back.
He returned from that injury and received a surprise call by the Wild to join the team for Game 81.
He played 10 games total this season, two in the NHL, yet there he was centering the Wild’s third line in his playoff debut.
“I like to think I worked hard in my rehab to get to kind of a reward like this,” he said.
He deserved this reward after enduring a season that tested his resolve.
He missed the first three days of training camp to attend his mother’s funeral in his hometown of Paris, Ontario. He returned to Minnesota the same day he buried his mom.
Devastated emotionally, he poured himself into making the Wild’s roster and had a strong camp. He faced an uphill climb, though, and started the season in the minors.
Then he injured his hip. The original timeline called for four-to-six months of recovery. Dalpe used his time away from hockey to grieve the loss of his mom.
“When I got injured I felt like I needed a break,” he said. “I hope nobody was offended by that. It’s just … it’s my mom.”
Dalpe was amazed by the support he received from the organization, especially since he was still so new to the team.
“They understood completely what needed to go on and how much space I needed,” he said. “Even just the gesture of sending flowers. When people are at a funeral or a visitation in a small town and they see Minnesota Wild on the flowers, to a small town that goes a long way.”
Dalpe poured himself into his rehabilitation, returning ahead of schedule. But then came a knee injury in February, sidelining him another month.
“That was probably worse than the first injury mentally,” he said. “It was like, ‘Here we go again.’ I had never been hurt much in my career and then it all came at once.”
Two injuries, only eight games played, that’s a strange set of circumstances for one to receive a promotion. Teams fighting for a playoff spot don’t typically shuffle their lineup and promote minor leaguers in Game 81.
“People might have thought that I was a rookie, but I have six years of NHL experience,” Dalpe said. “I’m not saying I came and thought anything was easy. But my mind-set is that I prepare to play well.”
Even so, he didn’t pack many clothes because he didn’t know if his call-up would last longer than one game. Bouncing between the minors and NHL in other organizations has taught him to assume nothing.
“My NHL career literally has been one day at a time,” he said. “Even when I played 55 games in Vancouver that season (2013-14), any given day I thought I was going down. That’s just how I treated it. You work for your days, as my dad says.”
Wild interim coach John Torchetti pulled Dalpe aside for a conversation Wednesday. Nothing serious. Just to reminisce about the path he traveled to reach this moment.
Dalpe told himself to keep things simple in his playoff debut and “stay in your own head space.” In other words, don’t get rattled by pressure.
“I know a lot of people are counting me out to play that position,” he said. “I need to prove a lot of people wrong.”