When the final seconds ticked away from game five of the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals, Joe DiPenta had achieved what most hockey players have only fantasized about in winning the ultimate prize with the Anaheim Ducks. The 31-year-old was an integral part of the blue line that conceded more than three goals in just three matches during the postseason.
DiPenta represented Frolunda HC of the Swedish League last year and signed a one-year contract with the Buffalo Sabres in the off-season. He's currently playing with the AHL's Portland Pirates and also has his own blog on The Hockey News website which is unique because it offers the perspective of someone who has not only played hockey for a living, but continues to do so.
The AHL playoffs are quickly approaching and Joe was kind enough to lend me some of his time to speak about his time spent in Sweden, the Pirates organization and of course, the Stanley Cup he earned three years ago.
1) The first thing I wanted to talk about is your blog. Where did the idea originate for this and how did you get started?
I was approached by The Hockey News and I said I'd be willing to do it. They contacted me at the end of the year and I started writing.
2) As a defenseman who plays a physical brand of hockey, I was curious how you feel about the NHL's current state when it comes to things like head shots, hits from behind and fighting?
I think the head shots seem to have definitely been a lot more prevalent in the last five years or so. I don't know what that's attributed to but they need to stop. The whole theory of the instigator rule leads to these types of hits. It's hard to say, I know the NHL's not going to take that away because it'll increase the amount of fighting. With the speed of the game, I think the type of enforcer you'd have on your team nowadays would probably be someone who could play on the third or fourth line as a checking forward who can fight too; not necessarily someone whose only job is to fight. I don't think we'll ever see the NHL getting rid of the instigator rule but I believe that would alleviate some of the problems they're having with guys getting hurt and players would be a lot more accountable for their actions if they had to fight. They might try making the suspensions harsher but I'm not sure where they are going to go with it. It should be interesting to see if it works.
3) You've moved around quite a bit throughout your career joining a number of different teams. Does this have any effects on you having to often learn new systems?
I think it helps that I've experienced different types of systems with the teams I've played on and the different philosophies they have. It adds to my overall understanding of what it takes to win. I've experienced a lot with each team and it's going to be forced year after year. There's not a whole lot of surprises with most of the teams but they want to see different things as far as the systems go. It's pretty much just executing it, which is most important.
4) Last year, you played in Sweden and I was wondering how you came about making that decision?
At the end of that year, my agent was approached by the General Manager of a Swedish team, Frolunda, and was wondering if I'd be interested in going to Sweden for a season. Initially, I wasn't sure how interested I was; I thought about it and did my own research. I discovered it'd be something I was open to and they made an offer which I accepted after two days. The coach of my team there was was a former Dallas Stars assistant coach for a couple of years and he had seen me play for the Anaheim Ducks. That's how it all started as he inquired about bringing me there and the team's GM gave my agent a call.
5) What were the most difficult aspects of the transition to playing in Sweden?
I didn't find it that much different. I think the biggest thing was the style, there's no fighting or a lot of rough stuff so you can get a penalty pretty easily if you push a guy or you're a little too physical. They're more likely to call something like that even if it's not necessarily a penalty that would be called in North America. There's a bit of a learning curve where you have to make sure you're not overly physical so you're not vulnerable to a penalty. Other than that, the style of play was similar to North America; it's defensive and there wasn't a huge adjustment for me. The ice surface wasn't too problematic either. The biggest adjustment was how many penalties they call as opposed to here.
6) What would you say are the major differences between the Swedish League and the NHL?
Skill-wise, I'd say the players are just as talented as the NHL's. But the players aren't as strong or as fast and the game isn't as quick as it is in the NHL. The Swedish players are skilled, they know how to handle the puck and protect it. Their puck skills are on par with most of the guys in the NHL. The main difference would have to be the strength and size.
7) Because of your NHL experience and the fact that you've won a Stanley Cup, did your teammates in Frolunda look up to you and try to learn from your play?
I think anytime an NHL player goes to the Swedish League and has the experience, I think they look up to you automatically because their goal is to make it into the league. You've been there and that's where they want to go so I think I did experience that as they asked me questions about it. They want to know what it's like in the NHL and the American Hockey League too. Because I was fortunate to have the experience, they knew that about me when I arrived so there was definitely some players who were curious about it. I tried to share as much as I could and give them advice when they needed it.
8) After a few years of NHL duty, do you find it discouraging at all returning to the AHL?
Yes, I think everyone in the American League wants to be in the NHL; it's not a secret. Everyone's trying to get to that next level including the trainers and coaches, that's just the reality of it. I'm no different but I think at this point, in my tenth year of playing professional hockey, I'm not overly discouraged at all. The type of contract I signed was a two-way deal so I knew there was a possibility of playing in the AHL. I'm excited about playing hockey here in Portland and I enjoy my coaches and teammates. It provides a different type of opportunity perhaps to show some young guys the ropes and help them where ever I can. There's a lot to enjoy here, and as far as the love of the game, it's certain aspects of playing in the AHL that are great and differ from what you experience in the NHL. It's a different venture and it's a lot of fun too.
9) Looking back at Anaheim's 2007 Stanley Cup run, was there a particular moment or game when you first thought to yourself, "we can go all the way"?
At the start of the season, we set an NHL record for most consecutive games (16) with at least a point earned. Buffalo set the record for most wins in a row and we had the point streak. At that point, I think we believed and we were also picked by The Hockey News to win the Stanley Cup at the start of the year. We'd gotten to the semi-finals the year before and Chris Pronger was a big reason why we didn't get any further as he was playing for Edmonton. We knew he was going to be a big addition for us and felt that it would put us over the top before the season began. Going on that streak to start the year, things were blowing along pretty easily. We had the feeling that we could definitely beat anybody and thought, "why couldn't we go all the way?", for the entire season. Of course, once you get to the finals I think that's when you start to say, "we have to be more routine and we're going to win". I don't think there's a point where you think it's in the bag or it's yours, we didn't say that at any point. It was the goal from the beginning of the season right on through the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup and we all believed that we could do it. Until that last second went on the clock, we didn't stop and we kept going in order to attain that goal. Even when we were winning 6-2 in the final game with a few minutes to go, there was no let up. We weren't sitting around hoping that the game would be over. You don't want to let it sink in until that final buzzard sounds. Right from the start of the season, we felt we had a chance to win the Cup.
10) A few Sabres defenseman will be seeing playoff action for the first time in their careers soon. With your postseason experience, what advice would you give to these players?
I don't know if there's really anything you can say to them that will help. They have to learn things on their own. You don't want to prepare for it any differently than you would for a regular season game. You don't want to be more tense, you just play like you did all year. When it comes down to it, it's just another hockey game. There's obviously more on the line but that's what makes it more enjoyable to play. You should just tell the guys to be themselves, treat it like another game and have fun with it.
11) A lot of players go their whole lives without getting a legitimate chance at earning a Stanley Cup, but you accomplished it rather early after you entered the NHL. With that out of the way, what other goals might you like to accomplish during your career?
I don't know what more I could ask for than winning the Stanley Cup. I'm not going to win the Norris Trophy anytime soon or go to the Olympics (laughs). I was able to win a Calder Cup in my second professional year with Chicago which was also a big moment for me. I'd love to win another one or another championship where ever that might be. If I get into coaching one day, I'd love to win a championship in that position too. There's always something you can look for and for me, I've learned the most rewarding experience is winning a championship with your team. Those are the goals that are the most fun to shoot for. Whatever league I'm in or where ever I play, getting that next one is always my goal.
12) From your current group of teammates, who do you see making a jump into the NHL in the near future?
I think we have a few guys who have a legitimate shot at playing in the NHL next year. Tyler Ennis has been our top forward throughout the season and he's been incredible for us. He's an amazingly talented player who seems to be a magician when he has the puck; it's hard to get it from him. He seems to make so much room for himself out there and it's exciting to watch. We'll be seeing him in the NHL in the next couple of years and I think he could even be playing there right now. Some other guys have what it takes to be there now too like Mark Mancari and Nathan Gerbe. Then, we've got young players who are developing and could become solid NHL players at some point. There's a lot of good talent here and the Buffalo farm system has done a good job in drafting them year after year before bringing them up into the organization. The Sabres have many draft picks and players who spent time in the AHL at the start of their careers. In the next three of four years, you'll probably see a number of the guys playing for Buffalo as there's great young talent here.
13) Last question, is there a particular opponent you hope to meet in the first round of the playoffs that you feel would be a great match-up for Portland?
There's nobody that you really hope to play, there's no easy team in our league. Whoever we have to play, it's going to be a tough series and any team can beat their opponent on any given night. Our division has some good teams so it's going to be a tough journey for sure. We'll have to play well and beat some good teams to get far. You don't really want to pick anybody.
I want to thank Joe very much for taking the time to speak with me and wish him the best of luck in Portland's remainder of the season and the upcoming playoffs.