Here’s a feature I wrote for the Wolf Pack website on Connecticut-born Pack defenseman Michael Paliotta.
For Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Mike Paliotta, a native of Westport, CT, signing this summer with the New York Rangers, the team he rooted for as a kid, was pretty exciting, and it came right on the heels of another huge thrill.
Paliotta’s signing, on the first day of NHL free agency, July 1, came less than three weeks after his last year’s team, the Lake Erie Monsters, defeated the Hershey Bears in Game Four of the Calder Cup Finals, completing a sweep of the Bears and locking up the AHL championship. Plus, while celebrating their own title, Paliotta and his Monsters teammates got to watch their fellow Quicken Loans Arena occupants, the Cleveland Cavaliers, capture the NBA championship.
Even for a guy like Paliotta, who had no previous connection to the city of Cleveland, that was something pretty electrifying to be a part of.
“It was awesome to see a city that’s struggled sports-wise for a while to all come together, and see the support,” the Wolf Pack blueliner said recently. “It really is a sports city, any time fans can get behind a team they do, and the teams obviously appreciate it. The way they support the Cavs, and then the Indians in the World Series this year…cool to watch, and they did the same with us.”
One Ohio native who was front-and-center as a fan at the Indians’ World Series games was Cavs superstar LeBron James, so one wonders, even though he was a little busy with his own job during the Calder Cup playoffs, was he also all over the Monsters’ games?
“I’m not sure,” was Paliotta’s chuckling response to that. “I think he’s been to one or two, that’s what I’ve heard. We had a couple of cool guest appearances, 50 Cent dropped the puck at one of our games, but it was cool to be in the same city, same arena as those guys, obviously unbelievable athletes. Just a year that I’ll never forget, for sure.
“Just like any team, we had our ups and downs throughout the regular season, but we came together at the right time in the playoffs and we really hit our stride. We ended up going 15-2 in the playoffs, which is pretty special. We had a really good group of guys, a good mix of young and veteran players, and we just jelled at the right time and were able to win a lot of close games. It was really cool to be a part of, something I’ll always cherish.”
The Monsters swept three of their four playoff series’ last spring, and never were even tied in a single series after its start, which is a level of playoff dominance rarely seen in pro sports nowadays.
“Now that we look back on it, it’s pretty crazy,” Paliotta said of Lake Erie’s run to the Cup. “Any time you’re watching playoffs, it’s usually Game Six, Game Seven to close out series’. But we had a ton of chemistry, guys were playing with a ton of confidence and it really showed. Those tight games early on in the series’ we were able to win, and I think that’s what made our team so special, we were a really resilient group. It was a really special team to be a part of.”
After that triumph it had to have been somewhat difficult for Paliotta to leave the Columbus organization, having just been acquired by the Blue Jackets the previous June, but the opportunity with the Rangers was a dream come true.
“I was thrilled,” said Paliotta of being inked to a Ranger contract. “It’s the team I’ve followed my entire life, being from Connecticut, and I’ve really enjoyed the transition so far. I think we have a really good team here, we’ve got a lot of young guys and some really good quality veteran leadership as well. So I’ve been really excited about it, I’m just hoping that we can continue to find our stride and our game and continue to develop as a really solid team.”
In addition to rooting for the Rangers as a youngster, Paliotta was also keenly aware of the fortunes of his home state’s two AHL entries, the Wolf Pack and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
“Honestly I’m closer to Bridgeport, I’m only about five or ten minutes away from Webster Bank Arena,” he said. “So as a kid we would watch those games. And then, being a Rangers fan, I would always keep close tabs on the Wolf Pack as well. So now to see it come full circle is pretty cool, and have the opportunity to play for the Wolf Pack and be a part of the Ranger organization is really special to me.”
Although Paliotta is only 23, and last season was officially his rookie year as a pro, the Rangers are already the third NHL organization to hold his rights. He was originally drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks, and played one NHL game with Chicago in April of 2015, following his Senior season at the University of Vermont, and then was traded to Columbus in the Draft-Day deal that saw Brandon Saad go from the Blackhawks to Columbus in 2015.
“It’s crazy that I’ve now been through all that, it’s only really my second full year pro,” Paliotta mused. “But I’ve obviously taken a little bit from every place I’ve been, and hopefully I can continue to grow as a player and as a person. I’ve learned a lot everywhere I’ve been, now I’m just focused on being with the Rangers and helping this team win, and helping the organization.”
Paliotta had been away from Connecticut since 2009, when he left home to play two seasons with the U.S. National Development Team in Ann Arbor, MI. Prior to that, he went to Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, CT, and played two years in that school’s fine hockey program. On behalf of chilled-to-the-bone youth hockey parents, Paliotta was asked if he agreed that Choate’s campus rink is truly the coldest in hockey.
“Yeah, hands down,” he laughed in response. “It’s definitely the coldest, I think my parents would attest to that as well. They’ve seen a lot of games there during my high school years. Any time anyone asks where I went to high school and I say Choate, they always say, ‘OK, that’s the coldest rink out there.’ So that’s definitely what it’s known for, but I really enjoyed my time there as well.”
Now, after seven years hanging his skates in different locales from Michigan, to Burlington, VT, to Chicago, to Columbus and Cleveland, Paliotta is finding life to be distinctly pleasant back in his old stomping grounds.
“Yeah, it’s cool,” he said. “It’s my first experience playing back on the East Coast. I’ve had a lot of fun with it, it’s been nice to have family and friends able to come to games and support me. All in all, it’s been a good experience so far.”