Marco Rossi wanted to play in the NHL because of how he got to hockey practice.
Rossi’s dad, Michael, shuttled his son from his native Austria to Zurich, Switzerland, for sessions, a three-hour round trip that would begin after school and bring a young Rossi back home at midnight. The two made this trek every day for four years. Rossi would rise at 6 in the morning for school, and his dad stirred even earlier, at 5 a.m.
These drives took a toll on Michael Rossi, a former pro player in Austria for 20 seasons. He lost two jobs, and it strained him mentally, even leading to him missing an exit 40 minutes after they passed it. Rossi worried they’d get in a car accident and prayed the whole ride.
But the two were always back on the road, and when Rossi recognized that commitment from his dad, he was determined not to let it go to waste.
“I really took it serious and said, ‘If I do that, I want to be a hockey player one day in the best league in the world,’ ” Rossi said. “Since then, it’s my big goal, and I worked for that every day really hard.”
Rossi is now one step closer to making that motivation a reality after the Wild drafted the center ninth overall Tuesday in the first round of the NHL’s virtual draft, a moment Rossi shared with his family and friends just after 2 a.m. Wednesday in Austria.
“The word thank you is not enough to thank them what they all did for me,” Rossi said afterward on a video call. “Without them, I wouldn’t be here now where I am.”
Rossi’s dream come true is just as much a boon for the Wild, which entered the day without a No. 1 center on its roster or even in its pipeline. The team’s draft resumes Wednesday with Rounds 2-7 and five more picks, one in each round except the third.
“He was the guy that we had been targeting all along,” said General Manager Bill Guerin, who was nervous Rossi might get scooped up with one of the two picks ahead of the Wild’s.
Team brass feels Rossi has the tools to become a No. 1 center, and adding him accomplished the organization’s mission: to acquire the best player available at a position of need — what director of amateur scouting Judd Brackett called a “perfect harmony” for the Wild.
“He’s a determined and dogged worker,” Brackett said. “I think he’ll do everything he has to do to be the best that he can be.”
While the 19-year-old feels “ready 100 percent” to step into the NHL, the Wild is taking a wait-and-see approach. Guerin wants to find out if Rossi has the drive and competitiveness to handle a bigger, faster, stronger game, but he likes Rossi’s attitude.
“He’s got a swagger to him,” said Guerin, who mentioned there was trade chatter among GMs but nothing that gained traction. “He believes in himself. He’s gonna bet on himself. If he can come in and play well enough, he can make the team. If not, we’ll figure out what’s best for him.”
Still, Rossi’s mind-set isn’t a reach considering his credentials.
Touted as a smart, playmaking center with 200-foot awareness and a competitive edge, Rossi was ranked the sixth-best prospect by NHL Central Scouting among North American skaters.
Last season, he led the Ontario Hockey League in assists (81) and points (120) and became the first European to capture the OHL scoring title. His 39 goals in 56 games ranked second on his Ottawa club, and he was crowned the OHL’s most outstanding player — becoming just the second European import to collect the award. Rossi also picked up first-team all-star honors.
“It’s a perfect fit,” Rossi said of getting selected by the Wild, which he called a huge honor. “They need a center. I’m a center. I’m 100 percent ready. My impact is going to be my whole game.”
Rossi interviewed three or four times with the Wild, talks he described as positive, and when the team was on the clock, he had a feeling his name would be called.
“It was a perfect fit,” Rossi said. “I’m so happy.”
The fifth Austrian-born player drafted in the first round, Rossi was also encouraged by another Austrian player familiar to Minnesota — former Wild forward and Gophers standout Thomas Vanek.
“I could see him as an Austrian player playing in the NHL, in the best league in the world,” Rossi said. “It was another motivation to see, ‘OK, I want to be a hockey player and I want to play in the NHL.’ It doesn’t matter where you’re from. You can make it. He was really a big inspiration for that. And getting drafted by Minnesota and he’s living in Minnesota, it couldn’t be better.”
Although he lacks size, listed as 5-9 and 183 pounds, the Wild isn’t discouraged. He used the extra long offseason caused by the coronavirus pandemic to work on his speed and to gain explosiveness in his stride, training twice a day every day for seven months. And he has already noticed the dividends of that regimen.
“Now, when I go on the ice, you see two different persons right now,” said Rossi, a left shot. “If you compare me in March or even the season before to now, there is two worlds between me because I improved so much.”
With a work ethic like that to go along with his puck skills, it’s no surprise Rossi turned into a bona fide NHL prospect.
But if his dad hadn’t taken him to the rink for practice, he might never have discovered this knack.
“There’s no words to thank them what they did for me,” Rossi said. “I’m so thankful for having them.”