November 29, 2023

Massimo Rizzo
(Photo: Tyler Schank/Clarkson Creative via DU Athletics). 
I'm going out on a limb here. Denver Pioneers junior center Massimo Rizzo probably would be excited to finally be introduced to Joe Sakic.

They're both from Burnaby, British Columbia, just outside Vancouver.  

Sakic's nickname is universally recognized in hockey circles ... and beyond. Just mention "Burnaby Joe" and folks know you mean the Avalanche's long-time star, captain, Hall of Famer and front office executive. Now, it's not as if they are based or live far apart, but their paths haven't crossed. 
"I've never personally met him," Rizzo told me at Magness Arena this week. "They have a street named after him, like five minutes from my house. My dad will tell stories about him and Paul Kariya [briefly an Avalanche during his career], because he lived in that area, too. Watching highlights of them has been really cool to see." 

Rizzo, 22, is the Pioneers' leading scorer, with 6 goals and 19 assists for 25 points, heading into the much-anticipated two-game National Collegiate Hockey Conference series against bitter rival North Dakota at DU. North Dakota is ranked No. 2 and DU No. 3 nationally this week, behind No. 1 Boston College.
"Obviously, it's a really big weekend," Rizzo said. "You see the polls, where we are, but just for us, it's going to be a good measuring stick to see where we are this early in the season."
Rizzo centers the top line, between Jack Devine (a team-high 13 goals and 11 assists) and McKade Webster (6 goals, 9 assists), and it has been electric during the Pioneers' 10-3-1 start.   
"It's been awesome and a lot of fun," Rizzo said. "Both those guys have been playing really well. For us as a line, it's just continuing to grow and gain that chemistry for the end of the year."  
DU coach David Carle said Rizzo's line "started the year completely on fire. When we needed them to, we challenged them to do that. With the youth of our our goaltending and our D corps and some of our forwards, our top line was going to need to be excellent early. I thought they carried the mail very well early. I thought they had a little bit of a dip as our depth scoring started to get better. I thought they were excellent last weekend (in a two-game sweep of Yale)  and we'll need them to be great against North Dakota. I've been really happy with them."
This early-season weekend series has plenty of spice regardless, but you could also toss in that Rizzo originally announced during his stint in the British Columbia (Junior) Hockey League that he intended to play at North Dakota  after he eventually moved on to NCAA hockey.

He changed his mind and wound up at DU.
"He reopened his commitment later in his junior career," Carle said. "We were one of the finalists the first go-round and a couple of years had passed and we were able to talk through that and get him committed when he was playing in the BCHL."   
Rizzo was an important cog as a freshman for the Pioneers' NCAA champions in 2021-22, and after that season, he went to the Carolina Hurricanes in the seventh round of the NHL draft. As part of what usually is the draft-and-watch process, he attended the Hurricanes' development camps in 2022 and again last summer, after his sophomore season.

Then he got a phone call in August.

He was told the Hurricanes had traded his rights, plus a 2025 draft pick, to the Philadelphia Flyers for the rights to forward David Kase, who is playing in the Czech League. It was one of the early moves for the Flyers' new front office, headed by President Keith Jones and General Manager Daniel Briere, both of whom relatively briefly played for the Avalanche.   
"I think it's a good opportunity for me in Philly," Rizzo said. "They've got a good organization, a lot of good people there. They have such a good hockey culture and history of being a good team. That's exciting for me."
Carle was philosophical about the trade.
"You go from a team that saw value in trading you to a team that saw value in trading for you," Carle said. "I think it's a net positive for him. Their GM and management, that communication has been good. It's a good organization for him. If Carolina didn't want him, I'm happy they traded him. If Philly wanted him, I'm happy they traded for him." 
Rizzo had very brief surface discussions about possibly signing before this season, but he didn't come close to leaving DU. It's unlikely that he'll stay the full four seasons, in part thanks to the NHL's draft rights rules that encourage teams to sign draft choices at least by before their senior seasons. Yes, even with seventh-round picks if they are deemed to have remained or developed into prospects. But he's committed for his junior year at DU. 

"I had a pretty good year last year," Rizzo said. "But I wanted to come back and hopefully win another national championship here with this group...It's just kind of focus on the everyday kinds of things now, stay in the present and kind of worry about the other things later on."  
 Meanhile, Rizzo will continue to try to sharpen his game.
'"He was our first-line center as a sophomore," Carle said. "I think he learned and grew up quickly. He's been more comfortable in that role and skin this year  I like what he's doing. Winning 50-50 battles, making finishing plays...One of the areas he's working on is faceoffs. He's a possession player. If his line can start with the puck more, I think that would be a good thing for him. I think he's made a lot of improvements in his own end, in winning battles in that way. It's a mentality of wanting to be the best every shift, every period, every game. We're seeing that more this year than the last two years. There's a more responsible 200-foot game to him. He has more appreciation for both sides of the puck than maybe he did when he first got here. We've needed that out of him."
After the North Dakota series, Rizzo and the Pioneers are at Western Michigan on Dec. 8-9, and then they're off until a Dec. 30 exhibition game at home against Minot State. 

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