VOTED the Superleague, Writers and Supporters player-of-the-year, in addition to the players’ player as well as being selected for the Superleague’s All Star team and having the best save percentage in the top flight, Frankie Pietrangelo was truly a champion last season. But things change. This time around Storm have seen their crown slip and after overcoming a broken rib and a groin injury Frankie now finds himself at the end of the regular season trying to get over knee surgery in order to be fit for the play-offs.
“It’s getting better slowly but surely, it’s only been a couple of weeks since the operation and I’m surprised how well it’s gone,” he said: “although I’m still a little ways away from playing. I feel I can do more than what they’re letting me do but I don’t want to be foolish, if I’m back for the play-offs great, if not I’ll prepare for next season.” In fact last season – his first in British ice hockey – was so good he signed up for another two part way through the title winning campaign.
Although he’s found out it’s not been all smooth running he’s already had one major success, the B&H Cup in which he played a major part, claiming back-to-back shutouts in the semis over tonight’s opponents the Cardiff Devils (4-0 and 0-0) before saving all five penalty shots in the shoot-out with London after the Knights had snatched a late equaliser to tie the final 4-4, which even overtime couldn’t alter. “Kurt told us how important the B&H would be because you get to carry it all season with you as it’s the first championship to be decided. I thought we should have won it last year, I mean we only lost one game (to Nottingham). Then when we beat Cardiff this year in the first leg I knew there was no way we’d not get to the final, and as I like our team in one-off games I’d already planned the party at my house. Penalties aren’t a fair way to decide a game but someone’s got to lose – we’d lost some heartbreakers in the EHL that way, so there you go.” But then winning has been a way of life for the 36-year-old native of Niagara Falls.
After starting out playing minor and Junior B in his home town he spent two seasons with Brampton before going to the University of Minnesota. “I was offered scholarships at 23 of the 30 colleges available and I chose Minnesota for a couple of reasons. My main goal was to play hockey, education came second. I wanted to get my education don’t get me wrong, but I wanted to get to the NHL and at the time Minnesota was producing NHL players. Plus I would have been the first Canadian to have gone their since 1964 since they tended to take just kids from within the state, so it would have been a big thing and I would get a lot of attention and it worked, I was drafted at the end of my first year by Pittsburg (4th round, 63rd overall 1983) although I stayed on to complete my degree majoring in business. “After college I spent my first year as a pro with the Muskegon Lumberjacks in the IHL, as the Penguins didn’t want to sign me at the time. Rick Lee was coaching Muskegon and he gave me what turned out to be the biggest break of my career and at the end of that season I was signed by Pittsburg. “The Penguins had a new coach in Bob Johnson at the start of the 1990-91 season and although I was back-up to Tom Barrossa he played me in the game that clinched the divisional championship and then the last regular game of the season in New York, to stay sharp in case they needed me in the play-offs. Barrossa got injured and he brought me in and I played my part in lifting the Stanley Cup. Everyone had written us off and when I was brought in I just felt I had nothing to lose, if we won I was a hero if we lost no one would blame me.”
But along with the ups come the downs. “The following season Bob Johnson died of a brain tumour and Scotty Bowman came in. We didn’t see eye to eye about a number of things, I wasn’t playing much and I was getting frustrated. I’d been with the club six and a half years by this time (1992) and had developed a good relationship with the general manager Craig Patrick. So I asked to be traded. He said he’d find me a place I could be the number one goalie and that’s what he did, that’s how I ended up at Hartford. The team wasn’t very good but I got to play a lot, although it was difficult going from the top to the very bottom and given the choice again I probably wouldn’t have done it. ”
After a couple of seasons with the Whalers I went to the Islanders, but it was the season of the players strike so the owners locked us out and sent me down to the Minnesota Moose, where I played alongside Kris Miller, but I broke my finger and then had double knee surgery and ended up retiring. But for the strike and the injuries I’d probably have played a few more seasons in the NHL. “It wasn’t the end of the world, I was only 30-years old, and I was ready to move on I guess, but a friend of mine, Bob Manno, phoned me up and asked me to join him in Bolzano, Italy, which was like a new start or me. My parents come from Italy and I’d got my passport in 1988, because I thought if I don’t make it in the NHL maybe I could go play in Europe, in fact it was always my intention to pay in Europe at some stage. Bolzano flew my wife Kim and me out to have a look around and we immediately fell in love with the place, I was also given a clean bill of health and we made the move. My goal changed, it was no longer to make it back to the NHL but to enjoy life hockey and my family and I went out there intending to give it a year and see where it took me. ‘We won the Italian championship and so the following year I figured that if I was going to stay in Europe I wanted to play at the highest level, which is the DEL and I moved to Kaufbeurer – for less money. I figured if I bit the bullet for a year the opportunities would arise, but the team went bust after three months and I went back to Italy and joined Asiago.
“To be honest I didn’t enjoy the hockey in Germany. There were long bus rides and two-day practices, it was too much like back home in the minors and I wasn’t getting the time with my family that I wanted. Also the kids – Paige, Jessica and Dylan – were getting a little confused going from an Italian school to a German school and back again and we decided we had to think more about their education and I contacted my agent Gary Seigo about a move to Britain. I spoke to guys I knew who were already playing here and and I’d watched the hockey on satellite TV. So I thought if I got fixed up in an English speaking environment my kids would benefit and I could play a few more years. I had offers from other British clubs but Manchester was the only place to go to. It’s central, the arena spoke for itself and it’s a big city with lots to see and do. I came here expecting to win and to make a contribution and I’ve achieved that so far.”
But this time out injuries have stalked the club, especially the defensive unit “Last season we stayed healthy right up until the play-offs. This year we started without Dave Morrison and Ruby, then we lost our best defenceman in Neumeier and we’ve been dropping like flies at the back ever since, including myself”. Along with a less than successful showing in the league came the criticism, something Frank is not afraid of addressing. “There’s not a lot you can you do about it Sometimes it stings you, sometimes you laugh it off, sometime it gets to you. I try not to let it affect me because people are going to try and say things about you – good and bad – no matter what. When you’re up they want to bring you down, that’s just the nature of the business. People don’t always know what’s really going on behind the scenes, they don’t care, they come to the game to see you play well and I suppose they have a right to that because we’re professional athletes and we’re supposed to perform to the best of our ability every night. But everyone has bad days the problem is when we have bad days everybody’s pointing the finger, although they tend to forget what you’ve achieved up till that point. I’m happy with myself and I try not to bring it home with me, you forgive you just never forget I guess.
“I’ve not had the season I had last year but who on the team has? Last year is not this year. Last year we were we were outstanding defensively, this year we’re not but it’s not fair to compare oranges and apples. Last year was a career year for me, that’s how much it meant to me personally and I don’t ever see me duplicating those numbers again, that’s life. But when I come back next year I’ll still be expecting to win another championship. It’s going to be different, it will probably be my last year as a player so I’m not going to put any extra pressure on myself. I always go into games expecting to win and I always go into a season expecting to win a championship.
We’ll probably have quite a few changes but hopefully we’ll get in some good characters. Dave Morrison and Ruby were huge losses this year. Dave is one of the best leaders I have ever played for. He’d do things that would hurt him personally, which is a true test of a leader. Ruby was a real character, he came to play every night and he’s one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met. On top of losing them we’ve also lost the likes of Rick and Darren and plenty of others, the turnover’s been tremendous, whereas Bracknell have been like we were last year – stable.
Despite an indifferent season by his own high standards Frank still sees himself as a major part of the Storm set-up, someone others look up to. “I can see the way the players react around me when I play and I try to be as positive a role model as I can. I’d like to think they take notice of my work ethic, this is my 14th year as a pro and you have to work at it. I physically and mentally prepare myself to play every night and I like to think I do the best I can every night. I think the guys feel comfortable around me, not just on the ice, the friendships you get from the game are just as important as winning trophies or the numbers you put up. “Now we’ve got to focus on the play-offs, we are more than capable of winning them but in this league anybody can beat anybody so who knows who will make the final four, after that it’s a one-off and I don’t think there are any favourites.”
Interview buy Peter Collins March 2000