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The Long, Winding Road from Northeast Ohio to Western Michigan

By Scott Harrington, 11/15/17, 2:15PM EST


Trades, kidney stones and skates to the neck can’t slow down Medina’s DiPietro

It’s Friday, November 3rd and, in the cozy confines of Kalamazoo’s Lawson Ice Arena (capacity 3,667), the Western Michigan Broncos are hosting the defending national champion University of Denver Pioneers.  It will be a huge test for the Broncos but, at the same time, just another weekend in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference – a competitive eight-team circuit that includes, among other top programs, the current #1 team in the nation St. Cloud State, perennial national power North Dakota, Enrico Blasi’s Miami RedHawks and Minnesota-Duluth; the team Denver defeated in last year’s national championship game.

This is the first league game of the season for the Broncos after a 3-3-1 non-conference slate meant to tune up for the demanding NCHC schedule.

In the lineup for WMU is Dawson DiPietro and, despite entering the season with just one collegiate game under his belt, he is not just in the lineup.  He is skating on the top line.

And he’s contributing.

In the first period, with the Denver ahead 1-0, a stretch pass goes from deep in the WMU zone all the way to DiPietro at the offensive blueline.  It creates a two-on-one with DiPietro and line mate Wade Allison.

DiPietro puts on a burst of speed to get a step on the defender, and slides a pass to an open Allison who puts the Broncos on the board. 

Allison, a sophomore and Philadelphia Flyers draft pick, and junior Colt Conrad, are DiPietro’s regular line mates.  They are also the top three scorers on the team through the first nine games of the season, along with another sophomore, Hugh McGing.

Western Michigan is young, with only one senior forward and two under-classmen in goal, and they are up against a very talented and experienced Denver team with five NHL draft picks on the roster.

Henrik Borgstrom scores the first three Pioneer goals.  Borgstrom is a 2016 first-round pick of the Florida Panthers.  Anaheim Ducks prospect Troy Terry, shootout hero of the 2017 World Junior Championship for Team USA, sets up two of Borgstrom’s tallies and scores his own later.  Containing them, and the rest of the Pioneers, will be a challenge all weekend.

Going up against competition like this is a long way from Ohio high school hockey, but that's exactly where DiPietro was playing just three years before his arrival on the Western Michigan campus.

“The game is fast paced and skilled,” DiPietro said when asked about his early impressions of Division I college hockey.  “You must to be on your best every game or else the competition will make you pay.”

With the Broncos down 4-2 late in the second period, there is a delayed penalty coming up against UD and Western Michigan hustles an extra attacker onto the ice.  The puck is thrown to the front of the net where the 5’11”, 175-pound DiPietro finds it in the scrum and bangs it home.

The deficit is cut in half, giving Western Michigan some jump and allowing them to collect themselves in the second intermission.

In the locker room, they will receive instruction from Andy Murray, a veteran of 740 games as a National Hockey League head coach with the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues and many more as an NHL assistant.

Murray’s words of wisdom have the desired effect.

A McGing power play goal ties the game early in the third period and the two teams go back and forth for a while, looking for a chance to score what could be the winning goal.

A stretch of four-on-four play creates some open ice and Terry cashes in with 4:30 left on the clock – a crushing blow to a Western Michigan team that had worked so hard just to stay in the game with the champs.

But, with the deck stacked against them, the Broncos respond.

Maybe Murray had the right words for the occasion, or maybe the young Broncos just don’t know enough to be intimidated. Freshman netminder Austin Cain is pulled and Conrad scores an extra-attacker goal to tie it with 1:12 left.

The Broncos fans are jubilant, and most teams might just be happy to get the game to OT in that situation, but you never know with college hockey.

With the crowd still in a frenzy, DiPietro finds himself out there for the faceoff.  A veteran NHL coach wants him out there on the ice in the final minute of a tie game against the NCAA champions.  That, in itself, is pretty damn impressive.

Moments later, a Denver clearing attempt fails and senior defenseman Neil Goff manages to keep the puck in the zone, throwing it into the slot where, with some help from Allison, DiPietro is able to corral the puck, maneuver himself into a good shooting position, and get a shot off from between the circles.

The puck goes in and the pandemonium inside Lawson reaches another level.  The Broncos win, 6-5.

It was DiPietro’s fifth goal of the season, gives him 11 points overall (5-6-11), and is the latest highlight of his young college hockey career.  No rookie in the entire NCAA has produced more points. (DiPietro is technically a sophomore, but is eligible to be re-classified as a redshirt freshman.  The paperwork has not been completed as of this writing).

That game-winning goal probably looked familiar to somebody who saw him score his share around the rinks of Northeast Ohio not that long ago, DiPietro’s high school coach Pat McKendry of Walsh Jesuit.

“His knack for always being around the puck and the ability to put it in the net made him standout at a very young age," McKendry said.  “I could tell from Day One that Dawson had the ability to be a Division I player.  He has a unique ability to find ways to score and every coach loves that about him."


There is no shortage of theatrics in the rematch the next night.  With Borgstrom and Terry leading the way, the Pioneers go out to an early lead.  They score a back-breaker with just :07 left in the first period, then add to their lead early in the second, making it 3-0.

Allison scores a pair of goals late in the period separated by just 1:13 with DiPietro picking up a helper on the second tally that gets the Broncos within a goal.

Denver scores again 7:48 into the third period to give themselves a 4-2 lead, but WMU responds with five straight goals.

With the Broncos down by two, and needing to generate some offense, DiPietro goes right down the center of the ice and attacks a group of three defenders just inside the UD blueline.  He uses his speed to back them off and then, as they converge, slides the puck over to Conrad who buries it.

That goal sparked a binge of three goals in 43 seconds and led to a 7-4 WMU win.

All in all, it was a huge weekend not only for DiPietro (2-3-5 in 2 GP), but for Western Michigan.  They passed a significant early-season test with flying colors, emerging with a 2-0-0 start in league play and a #8 ranking nationally in the PairWise, but the grueling season is just getting started.

Nothing a little glue stick can't fix...


Western Michigan did not play the previous weekend, but DiPietro did not get much rest.  He came down with a kidney stone Friday night.

Dawson’s parents, David and Tonya DiPietro, have been to every Broncos game so far this season – including road trips to Ferris State and Michigan State.  They may not get to every one, but they are already planning some bigger trips for later in the season – including to Ralph Englestad Arena at the University of North Dakota.

But the Broncos had the last weekend in October off, so the DiPietros were home in Ohio.

“You get a call at 1:30 in the morning and you expect something bad,” David said.  “He was doubled over in pain and they had to do a lot of tests before they figured out what it was.”

Dawson wouldn’t pass the stone until Tuesday.  In the meantime, he wasn’t eating or drinking much, and was taking an IV to stay hydrated.  He was back on the ice for practice on Wednesday and played against Denver Friday.

David was not surprised to see Dawson get back on the ice so quickly.

“He’s a focused kid,” he said.  “He knows what he wants.”

With about five minutes left in Saturday’s game, DiPietro was using his speed again, getting hooked down on a breakaway and drawing a penalty.  Unfortunately, he, the defenseman and the goalie all went sliding into the net together.  The defenseman’s skate cut his neck.

The cut looked pretty bad, but it could have been worse.  The WMU training staff actually glued the cut back together instead of using stitches, and Dawson will be back on the ice when the Broncos return to action this weekend.

Kidney stones and skates to the neck aside, David and Tonya don’t worry too much about their son going out of state and playing for a high-profile team on a college campus.  The potential for distractions is significant, but the DiPietros worry less about Dawson than they do about their daughter Dylana, now a freshman at Ohio University.

“He has the structure and resources available to him as a Division I athlete,” David said.  “They organize everything and he has no free time on his hands.”

They also feel he is in pretty good hands with Coach Murray.  Murray took over the reins in Kalamazoo in 2011 and the Broncos immediately benefitted from his years of coaching experience accumulated in Europe, the NHL and with the Canadian National Team.  In his first year, they qualified for the NCAA tournament for just the second time in 16 years.

The WMU coaching staff also includes Dave Shyiak, a former Toronto Maple Leafs scout with eight years of head coaching experience in the NCAA, and Todd Krygier, who played 543 games in the NHL.

The Broncos went from 8-25-3 in 2015-16 to 22-13-5 last season, winning more games than they had in 20 years and again qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.


DiPietro played a single game last year – his collegiate debut on October 14 against Bowling Green in the second week of the season.  He picked up his first point that night, an assist, in a 4-4 tie.

But the Broncos were an older team.  They were ranked in the Top 10 nationally and had aspirations of making a run in the NCAA tournament.  Ice time was going to be sparse for a freshman like Dawson.

Murray made the decision to have DiPietro sit out the season, save a year of eligibility, and enter the lineup when there was more ice time available.

“He thought he had earned more ice time with the way he played that first game and the way things were going in practice,” said David.  “He was disappointed.”   

Getting a taste of the college game, picking up a point, then being told he was going to sit out the season, was tough.

“My redshirt year was difficult for me,” Dawson said.  “Especially when I saw other players on opposing teams that I had previously played with having success.”

But the extra time – in practice, in the weight room, and in the classroom – has paid off.

"We had other players playing ahead of him last year,” Murray said.  “We thought it could be a year where he could focus on our game and getting physically stronger, and that's what he did."

Western Michigan saw things they liked when they scouted DiPietro playing junior hockey with the Janesville Jets – one of four teams he would play for in his two-year junior hockey journey – but also knew he needed some extra development time to become the best player he could be.

"When we say Dawson play with Janesville, we liked his work ethic, his puck pursuit and his speed,” said Murray.  “He played with a lot of energy but we knew he needed to get physically stronger and that's what his freshman year was all about."

“There is no doubt that I am a different player mentally and physically than I was last year,” Dawson said.  “I used my redshirt year to my advantage and worked hard every day in practice against the players that made up a top-5 team in the country. I gained 15 pounds in the offseason and in doing so I have given myself the opportunity to have success in the NCHC, the toughest league in college hockey.”

DiPietro started the 2017-18 season in the lineup but this time, he stayed in.  He has kept up the production as well, collecting a pair of assists in the season opener, a 6-1 win over Ferris State, then really breaking out in a two-game series against Clarkson October 13-14, firing 15 shots on goal and scoring three times.  He scored both Broncos goals in a 2-2 tie in the first game. 

He keeps the puck from his first NCAA goal in his stall for good luck.


Western Michigan is just the latest step up the hockey ladder for DiPietro as he applies the skills he developed in Northeast Ohio with various youth hockey programs, three seasons of high school hockey, and with Team Ohio.

Dawson’s path to an NCAA scholarship did not start in junior hockey, or even with a AAA program, it started back at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, where he played three seasons for head coach Pat McKendry.

“When I made the decision to attend Walsh, Coach McKendry was one of the largest reasons,” DiPietro said. “He recognized my talent and offensive creativity, yet knew he has some work to do in other areas of my game.”

DiPietro played three seasons of OHSAA hockey, making the varsity as a freshman and quickly becoming a go-to option for McKendry.

"Dawson is naturally gifted like most great athletes,” said McKendry.  “He has speed, high-level skill, and a great awareness of the game that was evident from the first time I saw him play.”

In just three seasons at Walsh he became the Warriors’ all-time leader in goals (80) and points (168).  Those marks still stand (and the next seven players on the list behind him played all four years).  He also boasted a career plus/minus of +62.

But it was not just his natural skill with the puck that propelled him to success on the ice.

“The key word is ability,” McKendry said.  “You have to have the ability on the ice, but as we all know, and Dawson will tell you for a fact, it takes a whole lot more than just ability.  Not many are as naturally gifted as Dawson, but he had to learn through the years on how to become a complete person and athlete to be as elite as he is today."

In addition to playing for the Warriors during the high school season, DiPietro put up staggering numbers as a 17-year-old with the Team Ohio AA split-season program, scoring 66 goals and adding 67 assists for 133 points in just 47 games for head coach Patrick Metzger.

Dawson says he began to hit his stride with Team Ohio, growing into his body and putting on some weight. 

“His biggest improvement that season was on how to play in both ends of the ice,” said Metzger.  “Dawson loved flying the zone and taking the stretch pass.  Had a rough time in the ‘D zone’ but, man, when he would come out low of hash with his speed no one could catch him.”


There are a number of ways to get noticed by talent evaluators, but none better than scoring goals and that is an area in which Dawson has always excelled.

“I remember telling him during a game that he needed eight goals in a game to break the goal record set by Ben Simon and he got eight,” Metzger said.  “He has special goal-scoring talent.”

Team Ohio is a AA program that plays a heavily AAA schedule and, as he piled up goals against them, top midget programs like Belle Tire and Honeybaked took notice and started putting on the full-court press for Dawson to join them the following season.

“I had coaches coming up to me every weekend,” David said.

DiPietro and his parents made the difficult decision to play AAA hockey instead of returning to Walsh for his senior season.  Belle Tire’s home rink, Taylor Sportsplex, is just a mile from the corporate headquarters of Wade Trim, David’s employer.  That made the decision a little easier, and Dawson moved to Michigan to play for the Belle Tire U18 team in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League (T1EHL).

Dawson made a triumphant return to Cleveland that season, scoring the winning goal in his first game back against the Cleveland Jr. Barons team that didn't have a spot for him.  He scored again when Belle Tire defeated the Jr. Barons in the T1EHL playoffs.

DiPietro was still not ready to step right into the lineup of an NCAA D1 team at 18 years of age.  Few players are in today’s college hockey where 20- and 21-year-old freshmen are not uncommon.  So, after Belle Tire, came two seasons of junior hockey in the North American Hockey League (NAHL).  He bounced around between four teams in four different states:  The Topeka (KS) Roadrunners, Coulee Region (WI) Chill, Austin (MN) Bruins and Janesville (WI) Jets.  He produced 76 points (29-47-76) in 108 NAHL games all totaled, drawing the attention of college recruiters.

If being approached by recruiters was a high point, getting traded twice in his final year of junior was the other end of the spectrum.


Dawson played most of the 2014-15 season with Coulee Region and reported for training camp as a 19-year-old veteran in the fall of 2015 ready to take on a larger role.

Chill management had other plans, however, and told Dawson he was going to be traded.

“It was a tough time,” David said of his son’s first experience of being traded.  “He actually came home for a week or two as they tried to sort it out.”

Dawson was finally dealt to the Austin (MN) Bruins.  The Bruins were in first place at Christmas, and DiPietro was leading the team in scoring, so it seemed to be working out.  Then, out of nowhere, he was told that he was being traded again.  Such is life in junior hockey.  Dawson described it at the time as his “lowest point in life”.

“I considered quitting hockey,” he admitted.  “That was something that had never crossed my mind in my life.”

Nevertheless, knowing there was a team that wanted him, he drove 274 miles to join the Janesville Jets.  Jets owner Bill McCoshen would later tell the elder DiPietro it was the best trade he ever made.

Despite being with his third team in three months, DiPietro was selected to represent the Jets at the NAHL’s Top Prospects Tournament - the league’s annual recruiting smorgasbord in Ann Arbor, MI, where every team in the league converges in one place to perform in front of college and pro scouts.

There, Dawson spoke with a handful of DI teams, including WMU, and two weeks later announced his commitment to Murray and the Broncos.

“I do believe that everything happens for a reason,” DiPietro said, referring to his two-year junior hockey experience.  “And I can now say that I took the road more traveled… literally.”


That last step, from the NAHL into the NCAA – the top level of amateur hockey in the U. S. – can be a doozy.  Many players have struggled adjusting to the college game, especially with a team that plays such a competitive schedule.  But DiPietro was prepared, and has passed the tests with flying colors so far. 

“Every level that I have moved up has surprisingly been the same type of adjustment,” DiPietro said. “Every level gets a little faster, a little more skilled, players get stronger, and you must come into every day with an ‘Everything Matters’ mentality. That is something that Coach Murray has instilled on us as players to ensure that we do not take a shift off.”

Lessons learned playing high school hockey in his native Ohio laid the foundation on which he has been building ever since.

“Coach McKendry instilled values in me that I still carry with me today,” DiPietro said.  “He not only taught me the game, but shaped me into a young adult in high school.  We still talk often and he still advises me about my game of hockey and life in general.  One of Coaches’ biggest quotes is ‘stay humble, keep your head down, and don’t say anything’ I finally learned this as I grew older and applied it to my hockey career, ever since, my success has begun to blossom.”

The Broncos are back in action this Friday and Saturday, playing a two-game set on the road against Minnesota-Duluth.  Those games (and highlights from previous games) can be viewed at

--- Scott Harrington, Ohio Hockey Digest