Coquitlam Express forward Massimo Rizzo is coming off the most frustrating year of his young career. 2018-19 was his draft year, but he spent the majority of it rehabbing major injuries.
“Everybody wants to get drafted and play in the NHL,” said Rizzo. “It was pretty frustrating, having to come back from injury, then play a little bit and get hurt again and just have to manage it through the whole season.”
Despite playing in only 37 regular-season games, many of which were played at far less than 100 per cent health, the 18-year-old still managed to play at over a point-per-game pace, finishing the season with 11 goals and 29 assists for 40 points.
Although he had to wait longer that he had hoped, Rizzo was eventually selected in the seventh round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft by the Carolina Hurricanes.
“Because of what happened during the year, I didn’t want to sit there in front of the TV and watch the whole thing,” he said. “I got the call from my agent a couple minutes before, then I turned on the TV and saw the pick happen. I was with my family and a couple friends so it was a pretty great moment.
“For me, it didn’t really matter where I got drafted or if I got drafted. It’s a long career and you’ve just got to trust in the process, try to get better and work towards your ultimate goal.”
For Rizzo, who is born and raised in Burnaby, B.C., it was important to have his family around for that important day. Family has been a huge part of his hockey career, especially in his younger days playing at the Burnaby Winter Club (BWC).
“We lived pretty close to the rink and my family loves hockey,” he said. “So they were at every game supporting me and driving me to practice early in the morning before school. Even at home, I’d play hockey in the basement with my dad. They were a big part of my hockey life growing up.”
At BWC, Rizzo got the opportunity to learn under the tutelage of several coaches that ended up having a big impact on his career. He credits coaches John Batchelor and Bill Hunt as being positive influences in his early years, as well as his Academy coach Maco Balcovec.
“You learn the characteristics of a champion from them and they also shape you as a good person off the ice.” said Rizzo. “They teach you to be good in the community and to hold yourself accountable.
“[Balcovec] was one of my favourite coaches because he pushed me to be the best player and person I could be. He saw a lot of potential in me and worked with me a lot. I was pretty fortunate to have those coaches in my time there.”
After his final season at BWC, Rizzo got a taste of what was to come as he joined the Penticton Vees as an affiliate to close out the regular season and played in seven of the team’s playoff games on their 2017 run to the Fred Page Cup championship and an appearance at Nationals.
“That made the transition [to the BCHL] a lot easier for me because I got to go through that process with them and see their day-to-day living and have that ability to play at the playoff level, which is obviously a lot higher than the regular season,” said Rizzo.
Rizzo broke into the league for real the following year as a 16-year-old, posting 39 points in 50 games in his rookie season, which led to the high expectations for his draft year.
Following his injury-plagued 2018-19 season and the NHL Draft, he was traded to the Coquitlam Express, in a move that was more than just a hockey trade.
Rizzo needed hip surgery in the offseason and thought it would be best to be closer to home for his recovery.
“It was just best for me to stay here and work with the people that I’ve worked with before to get back to 100 per cent healthy,” he said.
Rizzo missed the start of the season, but made his Express debut Oct. 3 against the Chilliwack Chiefs. He hasn’t looked back since returning to the lineup and is right back near his point-per-game pace with 13 goals and 19 assists for 32 points in 33 games this season.
“It’s definitely a lot more fun playing healthy,” he said. “When you’re not having to deal with certain things day-to-day and have those thoughts in the back of your mind, things are a lot easier. To be 100 per cent again, you’re having a lot more fun.”
A big reason why he’s having more fun is the on-ice success of the team. Coquitlam has clinched the Mainland Division and currently sits first overall in the BCHL standings, three points up on his former team Penticton. With just under a month to go in the season, they’re doing everything they can to stay sharp heading into the playoffs.
“We push each other to be better everyday and I think that’s why we’re having a lot of success,” said Rizzo. “We’re a super-close bunch of guys and our coaches are really close with us too. They expect the best from us and expect us to get better.”
Beyond this year’s playoffs, Rizzo is committed to the University of North Dakota next season, a program that has seen a lot of BCHL alums have major success. Recent grads include Troy Stecher and Tyson Jost who both played in Penticton and are both currently playing in NHL.
“I thought it was best for me to go to college and have that extra couple of years of development,” he said. “Obviously the college route has been a lot more popular lately. You see guys coming into the NHL from there and having a big impact.
“I just thought that would be the best spot to accomplish my goals.”
Those goals are lofty ones, but certainly within grasp given his success in the BCHL and his outlook for the next few years playing NCAA hockey.
“I just want to play in the NHL and have a successful career there,” said Rizzo. “That’s always been my dream and that’s what I’m working towards.”