We The Italians | The Italian American stars in US sports: Hockey

The Italian American stars in US sports: Hockey

The Italian American stars in US sports: Hockey

  • WTI Magazine #97 Nov 18, 2017
  • 2056

After the establishment in 1892 of the first important hockey trophy, the Stanley Cup, in the early years of the new century hockey had already gained popularity not only in Canada but also in the United States where, between 1901 and 1904, the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League and the International Pro Hockey League were founded, the first two entirely professional leagues. 

In 1916 and 1917 two important events occurred: the Montreal Canadiens won the first Stanley Cup of their history, while twelve months later the Seattle Metropolitans were the first team to bring the prestigious trophy outside Canada's borders. In 1917, the conflicts within the National Hockey Association (NHA) led to the founding of the NHL-National Hockey League, which from 1924 also expanded in the United States. On 30 June 1947, NHL assumed full control and responsibility over the Stanley Cup: no other league could have claimed any rights to the trophy.

From the Thirties to the Sixties

Peter A."Pete" Bessone (1913, New Bedford, MA) played in France from 1931 to 1934 with the Rapides de Paris and then led (by making 2 goals out of 3) the US team to the victory of the silver medal at the 1934 World Championships in Milan. Once back in the States, he played professionally for a Detroit Red Wings farm team, with which he later played 6 games in the NHL before being sold to the Pittsburgh Hornets (AHL) where he remained 9 years, also taking part in the 1942 All-Stars Game. He will then also play in Cleveland winning the 1944-45 championship and then in Providence (both AHL teams). From the 1947-48 season began his career as a coach. In 1978 Bessone was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.

John Mariucci (1916, Eleveth, MN) 1940 All-America with the team of the Minnesota University, after military service in time of war (1942-1945) John played with the Chicago Black Hawks (team captain) until 1948 and was later sold to to the St. Louis Flyers in the AHL and then to Minneapolis in the USHL. He retired in 1952 to begin his career as head coach, starting from Alma Mater in Minnesota: he led the Golden Gophers from 1959 to 1966. Mariucci's palmares will be enriched by 2 NCAA finals and a silver medal led by the US Olympic team. Elected in the US Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973, the year of the inauguration of the structure.

Amos "Betts" "Amo" Bessone (1916, Sagamore, MA) was 1942-43 team captain at the University of Illinois, before embarking on a short pro career in Providence (AHL), interrupted by World War II. In 1948 he started as head coach, first at Michigan Tech and then, from 1951, at Michigan State; with the Spartans he lost the 1959 NCAA national championship in the overtime against Dakota and then in 1966 won the national title and that of Coach of the Year. In 1992, Bessone was inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame.

Samuel Leo LoPresti (1917, Elcor, MN), goaltender, also raised in Eleveth, the enclave of paisà high level hockey players! (see Mariucci, Palazzari and the Gambucci) Professional from 1937 to 1951, he played 2 seasons in the NHL with Chicago arriving at the playoffs, before joining the Navy and becoming a war hero (he helped his comrades who survived, feeding them for more than 40 days after they were sunk). He was also elected to the Hall of Fame.

Aldo Palazzari (1918, Eveleth, MN), a right wing, was the first Italian American to play with a certain continuity in the NHL (44 games with the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins in 1943-44); later he will move to the EHL, a minor league, with the Boston Olympics.

Gino Rozzini (1918, Quebec/Canada from Italian parents), center, after two years in the Canadian League in 1944 moved to the USA to play with the Boston Bruins in the NHL. Later he will continue to play in the minor leagues (EHL, AHL, USHL, WIHL) around the States until the mid-1950s.

Charles H. "Chuck" Scherza (1923, Brandon, Manitoba, Canada) professional center from 1943 to 1959; he debuted in NHL in the 1943-1944 season playing 10 games with the Boston Bruins and 24 with the New York Rangers. In the following season he played 22 more games with the Rangers before moving to the AHL (American Hockey League) in the Providence team. He stayed with the Reds from 1945 to 1955, winning a title (the Calder Cup) in 1949 and playing an average of 65 games per season. He then signed with the North Bay Trappers where he stayed until ' 59.

Sergio "Serge" Gambucci (1923, Eleveth, MN) impressed the audience with the high school hockey team before leaving for military service during World War II. On his return he attended the St. Cloud Teachers College (now St. Cloud State University), leading the hockey team and establishing himself as a top scorer for two years. After college Gambucci continued to play at an amateur level and, in 1951, leading the Crookston Pirates he became amateur national champion. Serge later devoted himself to teaching and coaching at high school level: with the Grand Fork High School, North Dakota, Gambucci won 10 state championships between 1961 and 1970. He was then induced into the US Hockey Hall of Fame.

Andre P. "Andy" "Tiger" Gambucci (1928, Eleveth, MN) won the 1952 Winter Olympics silver medal with the US team in Oslo (Norway). During his university years at Colorado College he was a star of football and hockey. He will also be the first American to come to Italy, in Cortina D'Ampezzo from 1953 to 1955, to train and play in ice hockey, refusing (which he will then regret!) two proposals of engagement by the Boston Bruins (NHL) and the Chicago Bears (NFL). Inducted in the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.

Don E. Rigazio (1936, Massachussets), goaltender, won the silver medal at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina D'Ampezzo, Italy with the National Team USA. Then he will pass professional with the Indianapolis Chiefs and the Louisville Rebels (IHL) winning the trophy as best goaltender of the 1958-59 regular season. Rigazio will end his career as a pro in AHL with the Cleveland Barons in '60. Inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.

Paul Coppo (1936, Hancock, MI) center/wing, gained success at Michigan Technical University in 1956-60, achieving a total of 134 points on 59 goals and 75 assists, with the title of First Team All-America. During his university career, Coppo was given only 6 penalties in 85 games and, in 1985, he was induced into the Michigan Tech Sports Hall of Fame as one of the most correct players and in the top 20 all-time scorers in university history. In 1962, together with the US Team, he won the bronze medal at Colorado Springs, and he was the best scorer at the 1964 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. He also took part in the 1965, 1966 and 1969 World Championships. He then played for 15 years with the Green Bay Bobcats in the United States Hockey League, scoring 559 points.

From the Seventies to the Eighties

Gary A. "Gubbio" Gambucci (1946, Hibbing, MN), nephew of Serge and Andre Gambucci (see above) after playing for 3 seasons with the Minnesota University (1965-1968) and being appointed All-America, was selected for the US Team who participated in the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble (France). Later Gambucci signed for the Montreal Canadiens (NHL), then moved on to the Minnesota North Stars (NHL) by playing 9 games in the 1971-1972 season and 42 in the 1973-1974 season, before playing for another 5 years in the World Hockey Association (WHA) minor league. Finally he was inducted in the US Hockey Hall of Fame.

Douglas J. "Doug" Palazzari (1952, Eveleth, MN, son of Aldo) 1972 and 1974 NCAA All-American at Colorado College, Doug participated with the US Team in the World Championships of 1973 and 1974. In the 1974-75 season he signed as free agent for St. Louis Blues (73 games, 31 points) because he was considered a small size for NHL. In the 1975-76 season he played with the Providence Reds (AHL), in 1976-77 with the Kansas City Blues (CHL-Central Hockey League), in 1977-78 with the Salt Lake Golden Eagles (CHL) leading the team and the league in goals (45) assists (56) and points (101), while capturing CHL First Team All-Star honors and the Tommy Ivan Trophy as the league's MVP. In the 1979-80 season, after a complicated year (only 20 games), for the second time Palazzari led both his team and league in goals (48) assists (61) and points (109) again winning CHL First Team All-Star honors and the league's Most Valuable Player, leading the Eagles to the 1980 CHL Championship. He retired in the 1981-83 season after winning another CHL Championship with the Golden Eagles. He then was inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame.

Michael "Ritz" "Mike" Eruzione (1954, Winthrop, MA) grew up in a family of Italian origin (the father managed a bar) and was highlighted as a hockey player during the years of high school. Later, at Boston University (1973-1977), he will score at least 20 goals per season for 4 years in a row and coach Jack Parker will call him the "Pete Rose on skates". He moved on to the IHL, he played with the Toledo Goaldiggers (1977-1979), first winning the 1978 Rookie of the Years title and then a Turner Cup, before winning the national attention as captain of the US Team that will win the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. In the semi-final against the USSR Eruzione scored the decisive goal: he and his team will be celebrated in the TV movie "Miracle on Ice" (1981) and then in Disney's movie "Miracle" (2004). After the Olympics, he will decline the offer of the New York Rangers (NHL) and retire from the competitions. Later, among other things, he became a TV commentator for ABC and CBS and also the last torchbearer at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Mark E. Fusco (1961, Burlington, MA), defenseman with 2 seasons and 80 NHL matches with the Harford Whalers (1983-1985). Before that he was a star of the Harvard University team (3 All-America seasons and winner of the Hobey Baker Award) and a US team member at the 1984 Winter Olympics, and then inducted in the US Hall of Fame. His younger brother Scott M. Fusco (1963, Burlington, MA), a center, was also a protagonist of the US national team at the 1982 World Cup and at the 1984 and 1988 Winter Olympics; during his years at Harvard University he won a Baker Award (1986). Also for him, a place of honor in the US Hockey Hall of Fame.

Jim Pavese (1962, New York), defenseman, played as a professional in 5 different leagues from 1978 to 1991. In the NHL (drafted by the St. Louis Blues - round 3 #54 overall 1980 NHL Entry Draft) he played 7 seasons with the St. Louis Blues, 1 with the New York Rangers, 2 with the Detroit Red Wings and 1 with the Harford Whalers, playing 328 games.

From the Nineties to the new millennium

Anthony L. "Tony" Amonte (1970, Hingham, MA), left wing, drafted 68th overall in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Rangers, played in the NHL with the Rangers (1990-1993), the Chicago Blackhawls (1993-2002), the Phoenix Coyotes (2002-2003), the Philadelphia Flyers (2003-2004) and the Calgary Flames (2005-2007). In 1996, together with the US team, he won the gold medal at the World Cup, scoring the goal of victory in the final against Canada; in 2002 he also won a silver medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics Salt Lake City. On December 10, 2005 he will score his goal no. 400 in the NHL. He will retire in 2007, at eleventh all-time place among the best scorer player born in the United States, and after being placed in the NHL All Star in the years 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001. A curiosity: in the 1994-1995 season, Tony also played 14 games in the Serie A Italian league with the Fassa HC team from Alba di Canazei (TN). He too was inducted in the US Hockey Hall of Fame.

Michael T. Modano Jr. (1970, Livonia, MI) center, first overall choice of the Minnesota North Stars in the 1988 draft, with which he played from 1988 to 1993. He later moved to the Dallas Stars (1992-2010) with whom he won a Stanley Cup, and then to the Detroit Red Wings (2010-2011). Together with Team USA he won a silver medal at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Inducted in the US Hockey Hall of Fame.

Joseph E. "Joe" Corvo (1977, Illinois), defenseman, former professional who since 1998 has played 11 seasons in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings, the Ottawa Senators, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins.

Richard W. "Ricky" DiPietro (1981, Winthrop, MA), goaltender, 1st overall 2000 NHL Draft by the New York Islanders, with which he played only 20 games before being sent to play in the smaller leagues. In 2006 he took part in the Turin Winter Olympics with Team USA and then signed a new and important contract with the Islanders. In New York, from 2007 to 2011, he will suffer a long series of injuries - including two concussions - that will permanently endanger his career.

In closing we also want to remember Mike Peluso (left wing, in the NHL from 1990 to 1998 with 5 different teams); Ted Donato (left wing, in the NHL from 1991 to 2004 with 8 different teams and then head coach at Harvard University); Peter and Chris Ferraro (two twin brothers who started together in the NHL in the 1995-1996 season with New York Rangers, the first to play 92 games and the second 74); Bates Battaglia (left wing, 580 matches in the NHL from 1997 to 2012 with 4 different teams). 

We also like to mention some former players who have had successful careers as head coaches: Lou Vairo, Lou Lamoriello, John Tortorella and Tony Granato.