By Mario Russo
With Christmas in his rearview mirror, Rams men’s hockey defenceman Gregory DiTomaso spent his holiday away from the rink at Sherway Gardens, eating lunch with friends and, unknowingly, on the cusp of fulfilling his childhood dreams with one simple phone call.
The fourth-year defender has logged 68 points through 89 career Ontario University Athletics (OUA) contests. His success on the offensive side of the puck has earned numerous OUA accolades; including an appearance on the conference’s All-Rookie team in the 2017-18 season and an All-Star appearance for the OUA West First-Team in 2020.
“I thought [Rams men’s hockey team head coach Johnny Duco] was calling to tell me the season was cancelled, but it couldn’t have been more of the opposite.”
That brief exchange between himself and Duco would be one that DiTomaso will never forget. After countless hours of hard work and determination, the Rams defender finally became a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Injuries and COVID-19 paved the road for DiTomaso’s one-day stint with the National Hockey League club, as a heavily depleted blue and white roster required a certain amount of players in order to hold a practice.
Playing through a pandemic has been easier said than done for the National Hockey League this season, with COVID-19 cases reaching new heights as the season moves forward.
“Getting the call from the Toronto Maple Leafs is something special that I will forever remember”
As more and more players became affected over the holidays, NHL clubs were forced to call up individuals to step up both within and on the outskirts of their organization.
According to DiTomaso, the Leafs followed him for quite some time and viewed their COVID-19 situation as a good opportunity for him to showcase his skills.
The next morning, the veteran blueliner made his way to the Leafs training facility and began submerging himself into the day-to-day festivities of a professional hockey player.
After touring the rink, DiTomaso quickly swapped out his blue and gold threads for the hometown blue and white and picked out some new gear in the process. With his signature number 20 taken by Leafs forward Nick Ritchie, DiTomaso settled for number 55.
If the opportunity ever presented itself, DiTomaso is a firm believer that he could edge out Ritchie in a footrace to earn his number 20 on the team.
Ritchie and DiTomaso aren’t unfamiliar with each other’s skillset as the two trained together frequently this past summer, shaping a friendly rivalry for the ages.
Suited up and ready to hit the ice with the pros, the newest addition of the Maple Leafs began catching up with some familiar faces in Toronto, talking with Mitch Marner, Travis Dermott and Michael Bunting, who is a friend of DiTomaso’s Rams teammate David Miller.
As he looked around the dressing room, DiTomaso couldn’t help but notice the lineup board for the team’s morning skate. Scribbled in black marker was his last name written on the same list as the likes of NHL superstars Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly.
“Really cool to see my name up there with Auston Matthews and those kinds of guys. Definitely something I’ll never forget.”
Once the 25-year-old wrapped his head around the players he was about to skate with, he hit the ice and participated in his first-ever NHL practice.
The way the practice was run wasn’t foreign to the longtime Ram, with drills consisting of movements he’s done in the past. Adjusting his game to both the pace and skill set of the Leafs players made for a fun and challenging experience for DiTomaso.
Another major difference the Rams defender pointed out was the determination and confidence glowing from the players, a group that DiTomaso described to be: “constantly looking to score goals and set an example out there as to why they’re the best players in the world.”
DiTomaso said “it was more than just going out there for a skate,” describing it as a dream come true and a valuable experience that he learned a lot from.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the future of this OUA season, the blueliner hopes to get back on the ice with his Ryerson teammates and share the experience with them. Among all his takeaways from a busy day at the rink, DiTomaso learned “not to take one shift off or one drill off” and wants to bring the same mentality back home to the Rams.
Although it was and may likely stay as a one-off experience for DiTomaso, the defender said he has now planted himself on the Leafs’ callback list for the foreseeable future.
Many dream of skating with the Maple Leafs for just a second, while others dream of meeting some of the star players the organization has to offer. For Gregory DiTomaso however, he accomplished both in what may be an experience that tops the rest of the accolades in his hockey career.
“Getting the call from the Toronto Maple Leafs is something special that I will forever remember.”