‘I hate losing more than I like winning’: Keith Petruzzelli’s contract with the Leafs and the moment he will remember forever
Photo credit:Christian Bonin/TSGphoto.com
By Nick Barden8 months ago
It was just another game in Belleville. Except this time, it wasn’t.
After spending a year bouncing back and forth between the Newfoundland Growlers and Toronto Marlies, Keith Petruzzelli was ready to enter this season in one spot. The AHL.
Little did he know what was coming his way.
Erik Kallgren and Petruzzelli began the season as the Marlies’ two main goaltenders. It was expected that Kallgren would get more of the games, but they would be pretty split between the two.
That was quickly short-lived though as Kallgren — 27-and-a-half minutes into the first game of the season — was crashed into by Rochester’s Ethan Prow.
Toronto’s third goaltender at the time, Dylan Ferguson, came in to replace the 26-year-old goaltender for the remainder of the game. Luckily, Kallgren would be okay.
The following day, Matt Murray took the ice at Scotiabank Arena for the Maple Leafs’ morning skate. Except he left 10 minutes after he stepped onto the ice surface with what we now know was a groin injury.
Toronto needed another goaltender for the game that night and the coming weeks, so that meant Kallgren would head to the NHL. In turn, that also indicated that Petruzzelli would be the Marlies’ number one goalie for the foreseeable future.
He held the reins.
The 23-year-old was pulling out win after win in his second year of professional hockey. Petruzzelli’s confidence grew throughout every game and it didn’t seem like the belief in himself would go away.
“I think last year he proved with us (in Newfoundland) that he was just a really really good goalie,” Marlies defenceman Noel Hoefenmayer said.
Petruzzelli secured his fifth-straight win in Laval and two nights later, he had the chance to go undefeated through six games in Belleville.
The 23-year-old walked into CAA Arena prepared like he always would for a game. His undefeated streak was on the line, but Petruzzelli, not thinking about it at all, just went out and battled.
“He’s a gamer. That was the first thing I said to everybody,” explained Newfoundland Growlers head coach Eric Wellwood when looking back on the first time watching Petruzzelli.
When you think of the word ‘Gamer’ you might imagine someone who plays video games. And while he might be a gamer in that sense, it means something totally different in hockey.
“He competed so high and when the chips are down, he seems to find the save.” Wellwood said.
Petruzzelli remembers beginning hockey at a very young age.
“As soon as I could stand up,” he recalls.
His father and older brother were big influences when it came to playing the sport. Whether it was on the ice, on the pavement, or in the basement with mini sticks, the 23-year-old and his older shared a bond through the game of hockey.
And that’s how Petruzzelli became a goalie.
“The youngest brother got goalie duties and I always loved it,” the 23-year-old chuckled.
What did his parents think of the position?
“My mom’s gotten better with it, but like in college she would even have a hard time watching my games because she’d get really stressed out about it. But they’re the best. They’ve been incredibly supportive of me since day one and yeah, they’re awesome.”
Petruzzelli fell in love with being a goalie instantly. His fondness for being a goaltender allowed him to push the limits of junior hockey, and that eventually landed him in the hands of the Detroit Red Wings, who picked Petruzzelli in the third round of the 2017 NHL draft.
A lot of the traits that he dawns now — as a goaltender — came from when he and his brother would play different sports together when they were young.
“We would play mini sticks, play football in the yard. I’ve always been a competitive kid. I hate losing.” Petruzzelli said.
“I hate losing more than I like winning.”
After Petruzzelli’s final junior season back in 2017, he left for Quinnipiac University where spend four years, majoring in civil engineering. He was recognized fairly often at school for his goaltending, winning the ECAC Hockey Goalie of the Year and being a Top-10 Hobey Baker Award Finalist in 2021.
Petruzzelli left university in the summer of 2021, and that’s when he signed a two-year AHL contract with the Marlies.
“I think it’s a great spot,” said Petruzzelli in November of 2021. “There’s a ton of resources here, so just trying to use that to my advantage. Really grow my body, grow my game, and grow my mind to become the best player I can be.”
He began his professional career in the ECHL with the Newfoundland Growlers in the fall of 2021.
It was there where Petruzzelli cemented himself as a goaltender who plenty could see receiving an NHL contract in the next year or so.
“There was a period of time where he wasn’t letting much in. I felt like he was unbeatable.” Said Growlers forward Todd Skirving. “I mean, the size helps, right? It gives the goalie an advantage. But I mean, he was just so big in that net, like he never made himself small.
“He was just always that reassurance, that we just felt, like, he was going to come up in those big moments and give us an opportunity to win the game”
Skirving was one of Petruzzelli’s first teammates in professional hockey. He would be one of the players to shoot on the 23-year-old before practice and even got to sit beside Petruzzelli in the Growlers’ locker room.
“Keith was my stall mate, so I pretty much saw him everyday.” Skriving said. “But, from my standpoint, he is more of a quieter guy. He is to himself, but at the same time, he’s pretty funny too.”
Goaltenders can often be a different type of person. Some quiet, some louder. There might even be some who are loud on the ice but quiet in the dressing room. It all depends on the player.
Petruzzelli, like Skirving said, is more of a quiet person. However, there were moments where the netminder would speak up in the Growlers’ room.
“There was times where we were probably not at our best, and it might’ve only been 3-5 all season where he did speak up in between periods,” Skirving said. “I thought it carried a ton of weight because he doesn’t say much to begin with.”
Down in the ECHL, Petruzzelli spent a lot of time on the ice. There were days where he’d get on the ice with the goalie coach, then take shots from players, and then take in a full team practice after that.
It was sometimes upwards of two hours on the ice, and that doesn’t include the workout that he does either before or after practice.
“I always thought it was pretty crazy if you asked me,” Skirving said. Like, those guys would be out there 30 to 45 minutes before us, we’d join them about 15 minutes into their little on-ice session just to do a little bit of shooting, and then we’d practice. It was a huge workload in my eyes, but I mean, it works.
“I think he was very appreciative of the opportunity that he had. I mean, the East Coast is a starting point for some people. Obviously a lot of guys want to be in the American League and to the NHL and beyond. But he came down here and really used his time and his opportunity to be that guy last year.”
Petruzzelli finished off his first season in the ECHL with 16 wins and a .927 save percentage over 23 games. He was one of the top goalies in the league.
“I think there was a lot of times where he was our best player in that game, and we have a lot of good players down here.” Said Wellwood.
“You could be up by a goal and they’re getting three or four high-end chances where it should be a tie game and it’s not. So, I think that’s where you could say to yourself, ‘Thank god he’s in the net.'”
The Marlies took on the Senators on the same night that the Maple Leafs were playing the Boston Bruins.
Ilya Samsonov was starting for the Maple Leafs in a game that saw Kallgren as the backup with Murray still out. Toronto was walking on thin ice as they did not have any goaltender under Kallgren who could be called up if there was an injury.
Luckily for them, Nicolas Aube-Kubel was claimed off of waivers earlier that day, which opened up a contract slot for Toronto just in case something bad happened.
And of course, that’s when the worst occurred.
Samsonov fell awkwardly on Brad Marchand’s penalty shot attempt and ended up injuring his knee. An unfortunate scenario for the 25-year-old, though it opened the door for a goaltender, like Petruzzelli, to be signed.
In the midst of this situation, the 23-year-old was holding the fort for the Marlies in Belleville. He stopped 26 of 28 shots in a 5-2 win over the Senators and improved his unbeaten streak to six games.
That’s when just another game in Belleville turned into something bigger.
Marlies GM and Maple Leafs Assistant GM, Ryan Hardy, announced in the dressing room after Toronto’s win that Petruzzelli would be signing an NHL contract. A moment that him and the rest of the team will cherish for a long time.
“It’s always been a dream. Obviously growing up playing hockey, you want to play in the NHL.” The 23-year-old said. ” It was super special. All the boys reacting to it and being around me. I had no idea, so it was a bit of a whirlwind.”
But what was Petruzzelli thinking at that exact moment when Hardy said, “Keith Petruzzelli is going to sign an NHL contract”?
“Just really happy. You know, proud of myself,” Petruzzelli said with a smile. “That was a goal that I had set for myself this year, was to come out of this year with an NHL contract.”
Marlies head coach Greg Moore said he felt “elation” in the dressing room as the moment transpired.
“Good people working hard, getting rewarded. It’s what fulfills personally myself to love what I do and watch these guys chase their dreams. For Keith to sign an NHL contract and get to put on the sweater, a special moment for him and just a fun day for us to watch it happen.”
Alex Steeves was right in the middle of the celebration with Petruzzelli. He, too, thought the Marlies announced it in a very special way.
“It was pretty cool how they did that,” Steeves said. “I don’t think anyone was really surprised. There’s 31 other teams in the NHL who could offer him, guys were starting to get a little worrisome that Keith might be getting scouted.
“But obviously, Toronto did the right thing and jumped all over him. He’s such a great guy, honestly. Kind of the ideal personality for a goalie. He’s just confident, calm, collected, does his thing out there. We’re all super happy for him. It couldn’t have happened to a better guy.”
Petruzzelli said he texted his father right after it happened. And the 23-year-old began to get emotional when asked who he’d like to thank first after the game.
He said his parents.
“They’re everything to me,” Petruzzelli said. “I still call my dad after every game. I talk to my mom every day, if not, every couple of days. We’re still a very close family. They’re just incredibly supportive of me.
“I owe everything to them.”
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