“You just learn to appreciate the game and what life has to offer.”

I spoke with Marc Del Gaizo to talk about injuries, the National Championship, college hockey and much more.

It was the summer of 2016 and UMass Minutemen head coach Greg Carvel was just a few months into his tenure on campus in Amherst, Massachusetts.

After seven seasons as an assistant in the NHL, Carvel returned to his alma mater, St. Lawrence University, to lead their hockey program for one season as an assistant and four as head coach.

But in March of 2016, Carvel and assistant Jared DeMichiel made the switch to UMass and made it their intent to bring along one of Carvel’s prized recruits.

“They made the transition over to UMass and right away, they called me and said, “Hey, you know, we want you to come, too,” said Nashville prospect Marc Del Gaizo.

“...you know a lot of people knew he was highly gifted offensively, but didn’t know if he’d be able to defend at our level of play.”

The New Jersey native was heading into his first full season in the USHL and had committed to St. Lawrence that January, but after a phone call from Carvel and a campus visit that summer, Del Gaizo switched his commitment. Del Gaizo had good reason to follow Carvel, too: “I was still an undersized defenseman, and when I went up for my visit, the first thing he said was that he loves undersized offensive defensemen and that he runs his team through his D-corps, so that was amazing.”

Del Gaizo was naturally drawn to Carvel’s ability to work with offensively-minded blueliners like Erik Karlsson in Ottawa or Mario Ferraro at UMass. But after following Carvel to UMass, it would be two seasons before Del Gaizo landed on campus. From 2016 to 2018, he played in 117 games for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL scoring 23 points in his first year and 38 in year two. It was there, in the 2017-18 season when Del Gaizo led all USHL defenders in goals (12), that any concern his size would limit play at the next level was put to rest.

“A lot of people questioned whether he, at his size and stature...you know a lot of people knew he was highly gifted offensively, but [they] didn’t know if he’d be able to defend at our level of play,” said Ben Barr, the Associate Head Coach for the UMass Minutemen.

Traditionalists have never been kind to shorter players like the 5’9” Del Gaizo and things come with added pressure when you’re an undersized blueliner who loves pushing the puck up ice himself.

But Barr says that never gave the coaching staff cause for concern: “From day one last year, that has never been an issue for him. He’s very responsible defensively; we can put him out there against anyone on the opposing team. He’s a very serious competitor. I think a lot of people see the offensive flash and that kind of stuff—some of the goals he’s scored over the years. Everyone knows he can do that, but defensively, he’s as good as any defender we have on our team and I don’t think he gets credit for that sometimes.”

These details to prospects’ games can be lost to off-campus observers, but Del Gaizo’s freshman season was accompanied by a frenzy of national attention.

“We definitely fed off each other. Both of us are really offensive and both of us love getting up in the play, so it was really easy to work with Cale offensively,” said Del Gaizo about his first-year partner, Cale Makar.

The Avalanche phenom and 2017 first-round pick was a constant focus of the spotlight in 2018-19 as he captained the Minutemen to their best season as a Division I program, scoring 49 points in 41 games before ultimately falling in the National Championship game. Del Gaizo made this most of his opportunity, scoring 29 points in 41 games alongside Makar—including the season’s biggest goal, an overtime winner against Denver to send UMass to the National Championship game.

Del Gaizo’s heroics were muted when the Minutemen were shutout by Minnesota-Duluth for the NCAA title, but that goal is an excellent example of how involved he likes to be in attacking the net. At times, it’s rarer to see Del Gaizo above the face-off circles in the offensive zone than down low deep in a cycle. UMass was a much different team this season; they lost Makar to the NHL and began the year without Del Gaizo, too. But their run to the country’s biggest stage hasn’t been forgotten.

“We always talk about how we were as a team last year and what what we can emulate ourselves from last year,” said Del Gaizo. “But, you know, this is [now was] a new year, a new team, new faces, a whole different style of play. We’re not complacent about that.”

Before Del Gaizo’s sophomore year, the Nashville Predators made him their fourth-round selection at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft as he was preparing to help take the reins of the program from Makar. But due to a surgery scheduled shortly after the draft, Del Gaizo knew he would be out of the lineup to start the season. After missing a handful of games out of the gate, no one anticipated what would come when he returned to the ice and the frustration that came with it.

“My first game back, my first shift, I get a high ankle sprain and then I’m out for another three weeks. And then my first shift back from that injury...my other ankle gets a high ankle sprain so [that was] about another two or three weeks.”

The frustration was palpable—and understandably so—for Del Gaizo, who didn’t return to the lineup on a full-time basis until after Christmas. But he took his time away from the rink as an opportunity. Rare is ample free time for student athletes, but Del Gaizo estimates he made the most it.

“It was definitely challenging, but I feel like I definitely grew as a person,” said the defender. “The summer and this fall...you learn to appreciate all the little things. You know, when times are tough, it could always be much harder like I learned. You just..you learn to appreciate the game and you appreciate was life has to offer.”

When Del Gaizo regained his health and his ice time—in a season Barr described as, “just one of those years that’s been a battle for him just to feel good”—it was alongside a new defense partner: freshman Matt Kessel.

It’s likely natural intuition for some to have wondered last summer how much Del Gaizo would succeed without Makar. Going from the top prospect outside the NHL to an NCAA newcomer is quite the adjustment even before you factor in Del Gaizo’s lengthy recovery. But both the team and the player came away pleased with how the duo have held up.

“Kess has been great this year,” said Del Gaizo. “He’s a little bit more of a stay-at-home guy. Not as much offensive and skating ability, obviously, as Makar, but he’s still awesome to play with and we get along really well.”

“Matt Kessel was one of those players that we had to rely on a little more than we thought when Marc was out of the lineup,” said Barr. “Marc approached us at the beginning of the year saying, ‘that’s a very steady player that I think could be a good fit to play with me,’ and we agreed with it. I think they’ve worked off each other well. Kess is a really reliable, good defender; [he] does everything very steady. And Marc has helped him with the finer parts of the game.”

“He’s a bigger dude. He takes care of me on the ice,” added Del Gaizo.

Barr spoke to what’s next for Del Gaizo since Cale Makar left the program, noting that it’s his turn to be the guy Makar was for him in 2018-19. Whether it’s helping players like Kessel make on-ice adjustments or being the type of leader Makar or Ferraro were, the challenge can be tough in a season so hampered by injuries. Overall, though, the coaching staff is pleased with the dynamic the two have created. “Marc might be the guy rushing the puck up the ice a little more than Kess, which really probably helps [Marc] out playing with a guy like that.”

If you watched just one UMass hockey game, you would instantly consider that assessment an understatement. In fact, even referring to Del Gaizo as a fourth forward could be an understatement some nights. He’s aggressive in his own end, challenging every puck battle, and, in many circumstances, he’s one of the first up the ice on a breakout—with or without the puck—and has a talent for directing an offensive cycle from the corner or the hash marks instead of remaining stagnant at the blue line.

“I love jumping up in the play; I love being the quarterback on the power play,” said Del Gaizo. “Jumping up as much as I can is something that has always been natural to me and that’s the fun part of playing hockey.”

The Minutemen were one of the best team’s in the nation in terms of shot-attempt differential this season, registering 62.2 shot attempts for per 60 minutes and just 43.02 attempts against.

Del Gaizo played a major role in that: through ten games I tracked, he recorded a 55.39% Corsi and limited opponents to just 39.65 attempts against per 60 minutes and only 3.63 high-danger attempts per 60 minutes.

But Barr says there’s more to this impressive defensive structure and transition game than just on-ice strategy.

“I think it’s a credit to our players, you know, they really take pride in both sides of the puck and we hold them accountable in every aspect of the game,” said Barr.

He sees the program Carvel resurrected and the depth it has produced as something that complements high-end talent like Del Gaizo and Rangers prospect Zac Jones. “Zac and Marc are two of the top offensive defensemen in college hockey. But, right now, all of our defensemen are fully capable of playing in any situation. We probably don’t have the most NHL prospects in college hockey, but I think we have have as much depth as anybody, and I think that really helps the guys push each other. The know if they’re not holding up their end of the bargain, there’s someone behind them that’s waiting to get the opportunity.”

“I want to really double down this summer and take my game to the next level.”

With the NCAA season cancelled and hockey as a whole paused, what comes next for Del Gaizo has suddenly become more relevant. Since the NHL Entry Draft last summer, he’s had a good relationship with the organization with a hands-on approach from team staff.

“They’ve been in contact a ton, so it’s really helpful for me,” said Del Gaizo. “I’ve been working all year with Rob Scuderi actually. He came to a few of our games and has given me good feedback about stuff he wants me to work on and stuff he likes.”

Del Gaizo was straightforward and confident about what he needs to focus on:

“Obviously I want to have a huge summer, because I was out all last summer. I’m a smaller guy so I can always get stronger and always work on my skating, work on all areas of my game and my skill development, too. I want to really double down this summer and take my game to the next level.”

Del Gaizo’s dedication doesn’t go unnoticed, too.

“He’s a student of the game,” said Barr. “He’s always watching his stuff, watching with the coaches and he’s watching by himself.”

It helps to have defenders like that in the system Carvel has built. Barr prides the program on not putting many reins on their blueliners. His philosophy is simple: as long as you’re not sacrificing defense or giving up odd-man rushes, do what you need to up the ice. “We don’t have to say a lot to him,” he summarized. “We know he has the ability to go make a highlight reel end-to-end rush and when he sees the opportunity to do that, great. There’s never been a time where we thought Marc was playing on the edge or out of control.”

That level of accountability is what attracts NHL teams and is what can be critical to stepping into the AHL or NHL in the future. Barr thinks Del Gaizo’s self-sufficiency is what unlocks his effectiveness at both ends of the ice without muting any offensive talent.

“He wants to be the best player he can be. When he makes a mistake, he knows.”