Senators’ Chris DiDomenico takes long route to first NHL opportunity

Sens' DiDomenico takes long route to NHL debut

OTTAWA — Three years ago, Chris DiDomenico was the leading scorer for an Italian hockey team in Asiago, a small, scenic town in the foothills of the Alps.

The NHL seemed a world away for the former sixth-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“That’s where people want to end their career,” the 28-year-old forward said in a recent interview. “But that might’ve jump-started my career again.”

Indeed, DiDomenico made the move from Italy to Switzerland and finally into the NHL, suiting up for his first career game last week with the Ottawa Senators almost 10 years after the Leafs made him the 164th overall pick of the 2007 draft.

The Toronto native signed to a two-year contract with the Senators late last month.

It was a long time coming for DiDomenico, who never did get to play for his hometown Leafs. Two months after signing his entry-level contract with the club in the spring of 2009, DiDomenico crashed legs-first into the boards during a playoff game for the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

The Voltigeurs head coach at the time, Guy Boucher, said DiDomenico would be out a “long time”, a broken left thigh bone ultimately sidelining him for more than nine months.

A few months after his return to the Quebec League the Leafs flipped him to the Chicago Blackhawks in a trade for Kris Versteeg and DiDomenico proceeded to bounce around the minors before the Blackhawks finally cut ties in the summer of 2012.

With no interest in a return to the ECHL and in need of continued development, DiDomenico took a chance, opting to play in Italy, an unconventional hockey market but an opportunity no less.

“I felt like I needed to find my game again,” DiDomenico said. “And I thought it would be a good fit to play over there and get my confidence back.”

DiDomenico piled up 46 goals and 132 points in 68 games over two seasons in Asiago before heading north to Switzerland to play for a second-tier league in Langnau. He led that Tigers squad in scoring, helping them leap into the same top Swiss league where Boucher happened to be coaching with Bern.

The Swiss league is populated with ex-NHL players, who, according to DiDomenico, go “when they think their time is done.”

An import player who could be easily replaced, DiDomenico found the pressure to perform to be great. But he excelled, leading the club with 38 points in 46 games last year before totalling another 38 points in 48 games to pace the group again this season.

A possible return to the NHL with Ottawa was originally pegged for next season, but the Senators — now coached by Boucher — needed the depth right away. It wasn’t great timing for the Tigers, who were heading into relegation-round playoffs, but DiDomenico couldn’t pass up the NHL opportunity.

“You never know what can happen in life,” said DiDomenico, one of the last Senators to exit the ice after a recent practice. “After that big injury people said I wouldn’t be able to play again. You never give up and that was always my attitude — you play (every) game like it’s your last because you never know what can happen. You can get a freak injury or you can be driving home one day (and) you can get into an accident. You pray that nothing happens like that, but you don’t want to always leave yourself with that doubt, Oh I should’ve done this and I should’ve done that.”

And, he added, “once I do get the opportunity again I’ve got to show what I can do.”

Follow @jonassiegel on Twitter

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press

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