Rocco Grimaldi’s diminutive size might be the most noticeable thing about the Nashville Predators forward when he takes the ice, but it’s his giant-sized faith and magnanimous personality that have made him a fan favorite.
At 5’6”, Grimaldi is the shortest player currently in the NHL; he was also the shortest at the 2011 NHL Draft combine coming out of the University of North Dakota, but that didn’t keep him from being selected 33rd overall by the Florida Panthers. His grit, speed, and skill–evidenced in his team-leading scoring during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff appearance against Dallas–quickly made him a fan favorite, and his faithful witness has found admirers across the league.
The Nashville team is often seen as the favorite NHL squad of Birmingham hockey fans due to its close regional proximity. (Birmingham’s own hockey team is back in action for 2021; check out the sidebar for news about the Birmingham Bulls.) “The fans have been really great to me and my family, and have taken a liking to me,” Grimaldi said of his Southern city, which will be his home for at least another year after signing his recent contract. “It’s special to have that love from them, especially since I’m not the star player on the team.”
The 2020 season, shortened and strange because of the coronavirus pandemic, saw the Predators finish fifth in its division and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2014. The 2021 season is slated to start in mid-January (although that could obviously change with coronavirus issues), and many experts expect Grimaldi’s play to continue to improve and be important to the team’s success.
An Early Faith. Grimaldi’s testimony developed from the foundation of a Christian family and an early desire to accept Christ and know him better. Grimaldi became a Christian when he was just four years old when his mother asked him if he wanted to have Jesus in his heart. “I’m grateful to have lived in a Christian home,” he said. “My parents were both police officers and I spent a lot of time with my grandmother who was a real prayer warrior.” Soon after, he began what became a lifelong quest to learn more from the Scriptures.
When he was in third grade, Grimaldi felt the Holy Spirit leading him to read through the Bible; it took him four years to complete the quest and has since read through it “probably five or six times” –most recently during the pandemic. “A month or two before the virus, I saw a plan and app called the 30-Day Shred,” he explained. “I like tech and I thought maybe I’ll do it over the summer. Then this happened and I said what better time than now? I had a hard copy in my hand and then would listen to it. It went through about two times the speed and it kept me focused.”
Grimaldi said that Christians need to remember that Bible reading, and prayer shouldn’t just be religious tasks. “God doesn’t want you to read to check off a box,” he said. “We close ourselves off when we do that. Instead, it should be a practice of really opening ourselves up.”
Grimaldi said that each time he reads through the Bible he learns something new–and this time was no different. “Something I learned this time was how God requires obedience from us. Obedience is often overlooked because we put so much emphasis on grace,” he said. “God’s given me grace, that’s true and important. But the Old and New Testament states the same thing, that he requires obedience. True followers will follow no matter what, despite the circumstances.”
The circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic challenged the lives of athletes like Grimaldi. He said that the time off gave him and his wife Abby special time together and gave him the chance to devote time to both spiritual pursuits and private workouts and conditioning. “The biggest thing is that I’ve tried not to waste my time. I could basically have this time to do nothing, but I tried to grow my faith and also grow physically in the gym,” he said. During the off-season, Grimaldi worked out every day, read through the Bible, read multiple books, listened to podcasts on hockey and other topics, and spent time virtually with teammates.
A Love for Hockey. Grimaldi said that he loved hockey from the moment he first put skates on as a young child. No one in his California family had ever played hockey, so it surprised his father when he took so quickly to the game. “Dad said that when he first took me ice skating, I just pushed him away and started skating on my own,” he said. “I had played baseball, but when I played hockey, I just automatically loved it. It fit my personality.”
Grimaldi said that his size should have been a disadvantage in playing hockey, but that he instead used it as a challenge. He also said that his size–combined with his speed–has been an advantage in certain types of playing situations. “I never had a victim mentality,” he said. “I never thought, ‘I’m small, so they’re gonna think I’m not good enough.’ I wasn’t raised that way. My family always taught me that it doesn’t matter. You have a fair chance if you do the work,”
“I always expected to make it,” he said. He, in fact, took his size and turned it into an advantage. With his speed and size, he can be low on the puck; players can find difficulty going up against small guys, he said, because they’re low and it’s hard to take penalties on them.
Grimaldi played on United States junior teams, scoring the tying and winning goals against Sweden in the gold medal game of the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship. He also played for the University of North Dakota, where he was named rookie of the year in 2012-13, led the team in scoring the next year, and was then drafted in the second round by the NHL’s Florida Panthers. He saw his first Stanley Cup Playoff action for Florida in 2016 and then played for Colorado and San Antonio before being traded to Nashville as a free agent on July 2, 2018. “I just love the game of hockey,” Grimaldi said. “It’s a really cool culture and hockey players are really genuine. There’s not a lot of flashiness.”
A Place in the South. Grimaldi has been welcomed with open arms by Southern fans, and in turn, he has played some of his best hockey during his time in Nashville.
He finished the 2018-19 season with 13 points (five goals and eight assists) in 53 games and reached double figures in goals for the first time in 2019-20. He was rewarded for his play with a two-year contract signing on Feb. 24, 2020, and many people look to this upcoming season as a big one for Grimaldi. “The fans have taken a liking to me, and it’s special to have that love from them,” he said.
Grimaldi said that he tries to reach out to fans with a generous, Christ-like attitude and witness. “It’s just treating people the right way, especially those who aren’t going to be able to repay you,” he said. “As an athlete, people are always watching you. To just take the time to talk to someone, sign something, smile at them. It’s not really even what I say. I mostly try and be a kind person and not act like I’m better than anyone else.”
Grimaldi and his wife, Abby–a classically trained musician who also leads worship and is releasing an EP in 2021–were married in 2016 and today enjoy their life in Nashville. He said that their marriage is another example of God’s plan and wisdom. “We’ve already been through a lot of struggles together, even though we’ve been married for just four years. It’s been a blessing to go through those things with her,” he said. “They’ve made me a better player, but also a better man.”
Grimaldi uses his relationship with Abby to explain how a relationship with God should work. “I’m married, but what if we only talk once a week or twice a month. Or what if I don’t listen to her? We expect to be spiritually led, but we don’t even talk to God every day,” he said. “We don’t understand that being a Christian is a relationship.”
As hockey starts back up again this month, Grimaldi’s witness–evidenced from his family relationships, personal life, and interaction with fans–will be in the spotlight again. Expect it to shine big and bright.
-Cheryl Sloan Wray is a freelance writer and sports enthusiast who lives in Hueytown. She’s the author of Notes from a Quarantine, available now on Amazon.
Did you enjoy this article? Check out our full January issue here.
Birmingham Bulls Ready for Season
Birmingham’s own hockey team is back for a shortened season filled with activities for fans in a safe environment. The Bulls were recently chosen as one of the five Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) teams selected to play a 2020-21 season and began its season on December 26. The month of January consists of five home games at the home rink at the Pelham Ice Center. Safety precautions for games include temperature checks, required self-assessments from fans, required masks, general admission seating, and a 75% capacity of 3,000. According to David Koonce, Vice President of Communications for the Bulls, the team is offering promotional nights for every game of the abbreviated season. “With a shortened season, we want to do everything we can to make it special for people coming to the games,” he said. Promotions, though, like everything during the season of Covid will look a little different. Koonce pointed to the “jersey off his back” promotion, which usually ends with a raffle winner getting a game-worn jersey directly from a selected player; this year, the jersey will be washed, sanitized, and mailed to the winner. New nights this year include Autism Speaks and a Bulls Legend Night celebrating 45 years of hockey in Birmingham; players from as far back as the 1970s will attend the event. “I’ll be wearing a Bulls shirt out in the community, and someone will tell me that they used to love going to Bulls games in the 70s or 90s,” Koonce said. “I’ll tell them that they can still come watch games. Some people still don’t know that we’re still around.” There will also be two church nights instead of one. Here are a few of the upcoming games you and your family can attend:
Jan. 7: Everything You Missed Night/Thirsty Thursday
Jan. 9: Hawaiian Night
Jan. 18: MLK Game Day
Jan. 22: First Responders Night
Jan. 23: Star Wars Night
Feb. 5: Military Night
Feb. 11: Thirsty Thursday
Feb. 19: Weiner Dog Races
Feb. 25: One-Zee Night/Thirsty Thursday
See a full schedule and learn more about upcoming promotions and giveaways at www.bullshockey.net.