At some point in every athlete’s life, they reach a ceiling — even NCAA scoring aces.
If you charted the sports career of Diego Cuglietta, he is currently sitting atop the bell curve. He was college hockey’s goal-scoring king with 25 snipes in 2018-19, a senior leader who helped resuscitate the once-proud Lakers from Sault Ste. Marie to a WCHA playoff team, and the driving force behind the Lakers’ inaugural Great Lakes title. The undersized centerman hoisted one of hockey’s classic trophies as Hockeytown’s MVP on New Year’s Eve.
“One of the highlights of my career,” Cuglietta said, with quite the understatement.
His four goals — including an overtime dagger that punctured Michigan State — powered a celebration of a lifetime.
A short summer passed and Cuglietta was back in northern Michigan at the Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament.
“I’d say this is my second home now,” said Cuglietta of the region.
He was now a professional, having enjoyed a three-game cup of coffee with the Dallas Stars AHL affiliate. He was now out to prove himself among 150 hungry young lions, and Diego appeared more prey than predator.
His bio lists him at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds; what would have been normal size for a forward a generation ago is now small in today’s pro hockey. His single-digit body fat percentage makes him look more like a track athlete than a hockey player. His summer workout regimen back in Edmonton is no different than when he was an amateur.
“I always tried to work hard in the offseason,” he said. “It seems to be doing well so far.”
Cuglietta’s words, spoken as a healthy scratch throughout the first two games of the tournament, seemed to echo in irony during his two games in uniform. Laker fans would recognize his style — low to the ice, dashing like water bug in pursuit of the puck — but not the results. Every time the NCAA goal king would penetrate the slot or crease in search of offense, he was repelled, often finding himself horizontal on the ice.
There was a telling moment in the Prospects Championship Game against the Red Wings when Cuglietta found himself forechecking his opposite number (67) who happened to be Michigan State product Taro Hirose. The Spartan calmly sidestepped his former college rival, leaving Cuglietta in the icy dust. It was a tiny moment filled with poetic truth: Hirose, the NCAA points leader in 2019, was captain of the Wings Prospects and will probably find a precious niche in The Show for Detroit. Cuglietta was a part-time fourth liner, desperate for scraps of ice time, a man who appeared to have reached his ceiling as a player.
After the Wings defeated Cuglietta’s Stars in a dramatic championship finale, Cuglietta marched off the Traverse ice for the last time. The only markings he left on the score sheet were minor penalties in each of his two games, offensive zone penalties for holding and tripping, reaching because his once-elite skating had failed him.
Diego bravely met the media as the first man out of the Stars dressing room. He ignored the implications that something must change if he were to impress in the official NHL camp only days away.
“I’m a strong foundational player,” said Cuglietta, revealing the necessary pride of every pro athlete. “I just got to continue working and playing good positional hockey and I’ll do just fine.”
And with that, Diego Cuglietta returned to the room to gather gear, “rest, hydrate, and get on a plane.”
He goes to the Dallas Stars camp with a signed AHL contract, one which will not preclude him from sinking to the East Coast League, or the Southern League, both more likely resting spots than the second-best hockey league in the world.
If Cuglietta had spent the summer maniacally building muscle mass, he might have made himself sturdier, tougher to play against. Instead, he leaves Traverse City days away from the reckoning that nearly every athlete must face, pressed against a ceiling that he cannot penetrate, unable to get into the rarified air of elite professional hockey.
More than 99 percent of all athletes must face this reality at some point, even the goal-scoring king of the NCAA.
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press). He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.