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North Star Shines Despite Ordeals : High-Scoring Dino Ciccarelli Has Come Back to Beat Injury, Adversity

February 28, 1987|JULIE CART | Times Staff Writer

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Look at it this way: After your leg bone has been bent back and snapped in half and you've skated for a year with a 16-inch metal rod in your leg, and after your infant daughter's upper torso has been blistered and scarred from burns that took two skin grafts to repair, how are a few years of bad talking going to hurt you?

Dino Ciccarelli has approached the ill fortune in his life the way he would attack a burglar. He has wrestled adversity to the ground, kneed it in the back and twisted its arm, hoping that would make it let him alone. Thing is, it seldom has.

"Story of my life," the high-scoring right wing of the Minnesota North Stars said the other day, recalling the misfortune that has dogged him.

That Ciccarelli even has a life in hockey--much less that he is the National Hockey League's second-most prolific goal scorer this season--is a statement about this feisty man's ability to fight back.

"It was the night before the seventh game. We were in the semifinals," Ciccarelli said, recalling days in junior hockey when he was leading both his London, Ontario, Knights and the Ontario Hockey League in goals. Among those trailing him was another promising player, Wayne Gretzky.

On that day, April 18, 1978, the team was on the ice for a light skate. "It was a drill, and I was trying to go back up ice," Ciccarelli said. "I caught my skate on part of a broken stick that was on the ice. I slid on it, then kind of did the splits. Then I went down to my knees and slid into the boards. My right leg hit the boards and broke in half."

As Ciccarelli lay on the ice with a broken thigh bone, his teammates thought he was joking. Some of them shot pucks at him. He was one of the toughest players on the team, and no one could imagine him being seriously injured.

Ciccarelli knew his leg was broken but, until doctors operated, he didn't realize how bad a break it was. They set the break, inserting a 16-inch steel rod, which stayed there for 25 months, and advised Ciccarelli to forget about big-time hockey.

"I asked the doctors, 'Am I going to be able to play hockey?' " he said. "They said, 'Yes, but to what extent? Maybe a pickup game, for fun.'

"I was what, 17-18 years old. At that point, I thought I was done. It took a lot of hard nights convincing myself. I've always wanted to play hockey, and I didn't want to throw it away. I didn't want someone else to make the decision for me."

So, Ciccarelli chose to fight the doctors' prognosis. After five months on crutches, he began two years of intensive physical therapy.

From shooting star, he had become a nobody with a game leg.

"Right before that, I was going to sign with a team in the World Hockey Assn.," Ciccarelli said. "Obviously, there was no phone call."

Even so, Ciccarelli refused to believe he couldn't play. He redoubled his efforts at rehabilitating his leg--riding an exercise bike, lifting weights.

Meanwhile, NHL scouts were spreading the word that he would not make it back.

There was no phone call that June on the day of the NHL draft, either. Ciccarelli went to his room in his parents' home in Sarnia, Ontario, and cried.

Slow starter. Garbage goals. Floater. Hothead. Can't score unless linemate Neal Broten passes the puck to him.

Those are among the things said frequently about Ciccarelli. Seldom in his career has he been given the benefit of the doubt. Even as North Star General Manager Lou Nanne took a chance and signed Ciccarelli as a free agent in 1979, others in the NHL clucked at Minnesota's folly.

"To me, it was a make-it-or-break-it situation," Ciccarelli said. "I feel like I owe (the North Stars) a lot."

His first year under contract was spent in the minors.

The next year, Ciccarelli was called up for the last one-third of the season. He scored 14 goals in the playoffs, and the North Stars made it to the Stanley Cup finals.

"Maybe I was getting repaid for what I had gone through with my leg," Ciccarelli said.

Let's see him do it again, his detractors said. The next season he scored 55 goals and totaled 106 points. "Some people said it was a fluke and wouldn't happen again," he said.

It didn't matter. By then, Ciccarelli had fans in the Met Center excited about the team and the prospect that he might score a goal each time the puck was near. Inflatable dinosaurs were clutched and waved by North Star fans who chanted, " Dee- no! Dee -no!"

So, it was with great anticipation that Ciccarelli went into last season, "to prove a lot of people wrong," he said of the detractors.

Minnesota was in Philadelphia for the fourth game of the season. Ciccarelli's wife, Linda, and their 9-month-old daughter, Jenna, were in Sarnia for a family wedding.

The baby was sitting in a wheeled walker and, unnoticed, rolled across her grandmother's kitchen and yanked the cord of an electric kettle. A torrent of boiling water poured over her arm, shoulder and chest.

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