By Ryan S. Clark
CORAL SPRINGS -- Just as a loose puck made its way to Vincent Trocheck, so did Rocco Grimaldi.
Trocheck, with a three-second opening, tried freeing himself and the puck.
He didn't succeed, with Grimaldi winning the latest mini-battle in an intrapersonal escapade that's nearly a decade old. One-upping the other has always been the goal with Trocheck and Grimaldi. Now, the stakes are higher, since both are fighting for a spot with the Panthers heading into next season.
"Me and Rocco have known each other for a long time," Trocheck said. "We're good friends, and we're close going back to when we played with Little Caesars."
American hockey, regardless of age, is always looking for the next big thing. That's the kind of talk that surrounded both Grimaldi and Trocheck when they played pee wee hockey together. Grimaldi, a California native, and Trocheck, a Pittsburgh native, moved to Detroit to play for the famed Little Caesars amateur hockey program.
Bill Ciraulo, director of amateur hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and head coach of the Little Caesars' U-18 midget team, said the Rocco versus Vincent talk started "three or four years" before he had them in the 2008-09 season.
Each year it was something different. One year, Grimaldi was the better player. The next year, it was Trocheck.
"They were two of the most high strung kids at that age, they were above their time," Ciraulo said of the duo, who are each now 21. "When I put them on the same team, people thought I was crazy. Both were outstanding players battling at practice for who'd score the most goals at practice and during the game."
When Grimaldi and Trocheck left Little Caesars, they went different routes.
Grimaldi played for the USA Hockey's National Team Development Program and later the University of North Dakota. Trocheck opted to play for the Saginaw Spirit in the Ontario Hockey League.
Ciraulo said that deep down, Grimaldi and Trocheck are best friends, but there was still a competition to be the best.
"Trocheck was noted one year as saying that he'd make the NHL before Rocco," Ciraulo said. "I knew they'd both get [to the NHL], it was just a matter of when."
The prediction came true when Trocheck made his NHL debut in the 2013-14 season, playing in 20 games with the Panthers, scoring five goals and three assists.
Grimaldi signed with the Panthers in May, forgoing his final two years of eligibility at North Dakota.
What the Panthers have in both remains to be seen. Trocheck showed he could play a two-way style getting time on the penalty kill while logging nearly 19 minutes per game. He also had 42 points in 55 games with the San Antonio Rampage, the Panthers' AHL affiliate.
How Grimaldi's game will translate to either the AHL or NHL is the great unknown.
"Developmentally, I thought I was a lot better in the defensive zone this year and more of a complete player," Grimaldi said of his final season at UND. "In the pro game, it's not just about scoring goals all the time. You gotta be reliable at both ends of the ice."
Grimaldi's progress showed. He had the most blocked shots (19) of any forward on his team. He was second on the team in total faceoffs and faceoffs won, another example of how he can be used to win draws on both ends.
He also led North Dakota, which lost in the national semifinals to Minnesota, with three short-handed goals. In fact, he was the only UND player to score when the team was a man down.
UND coach Dave Hakstol said there was a "maturity" in Grimaldi's game compared to previous seasons.
"You have to mature in a lot of areas of your game," Hakstol said. "As he's worked his way into becoming a pro, that was one area, he felt and we felt, he needed to work on and improve."
Working to get better is a nonstop obsession for Grimaldi.
The Panthers dressing room was nearly empty after practice when Grimaldi, still in some of his gear, used a foam roller to loosen his muscles.
Ciraulo said Grimaldi would train seven days a week and would always train an additional two hours before practice started.
Putting in the hard work has never been a question for Grimaldi. Whereas Trocheck, on the other hand, will do almost anything to get to where he needs to be.
"You're right on the money there," Ciraulo said. "Rocco trained as an amateur like most pros train. Trocheck competed like most pros did. Trocheck did not have the work ethic like Rocco, but he had the competitive edge to kill someone."
Trocheck certainly has one edge over Grimaldi: height. At 5-foot-6, Grimaldi is fighting the odds of sticking in the NHL. Trocheck stands 5-10.
However, together they led Little Caesars to a national championship. They both helped the United States to the gold medal at the 2013 World Junior Championships. Grimaldi scored two goals while Trocheck had a goal and an assist in the gold-medal game.
Who knows? Maybe the Panthers are the next to benefit from the partnership/rivalry.
"Those two kids will compete so hard, it will bring up the rest of the team," Ciraulo said. "They don't know what they have with Rocco and Trocheck."
Sports | July 17, 2014 | Page 6C
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