When he was a kid growing up in Stouffville, Ontario, Michael Del Zotto played on outdoor rinks while dreaming of playing in the NHL. In 2008, his dream came true. He was drafted 20th overall in the 2008 NHL Draft by the New York Rangers. It wouldn’t take long before the small town Ontario boy would be stepping onto the ice at the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. Del Zotto would get his first NHL goal on home ice against the Ottawa Senators in 2009. After twelve NHL seasons, that included a 2019 Stanley Cup winning St. Louis Blues, Del Zotto returned to Ontario to join the Ottawa Senators.
Though Michael Del Zotto has only been with the Senators since the summer, he is already establishing himself in the community. He’s reignited his work with Ronald McDonald House through the Senators, and is committed to working with Ottawa’s children’s charities throughout the next few seasons.
Michael Del Zotto intends to have a big impact on and off the ice in the Nation’s Capital. We spoke to him recently about his journey, his career and his outlook on the new season with the Ottawa Senators.
Tell me about Draft Day, 2008. Did you know that you were going to be selected by the Rangers, or was it a complete surprise?
It was actually a complete surprise. I went 20th overall, and had numerous meetings with other teams. A few I met with 2 or 3 times… they flew me down to Boston for interviews and fitness testing. There were numerous teams that said that if I fell to them they would take me, so I was thinking I’d get 13, 15, maybe 17. I didn’t think I was going to get 20. That was kind of my first rude awakening of the business side of things. I only met with the Rangers once, and it was at the combine. I wasn’t really expecting it, but I was certainly happy I was going to an Original Six team, and getting to play at Madison Square Garden, one of the most famous arenas in the world.
Fast forward to your first NHL goal, the day after you make history as the youngest defenceman on the team to play on opening night. What was it like for you to enter into the Rangers team and have that early success?
My first game was actually in Pittsburgh against the Penguins, and they had won the year before. So before the puck drop I remember just being in their old arena, with the Stanley Cup banner, looking across the ice at Malkin, Crosby, Letang, Bill Guerin, and a bunch of other veteran guys, Marc-Andre Fleury. It was definitely surreal, and it added to the nerves.
You were named to the NHL’s All-Rookie team following your first season with the Rangers, but in your second season you were sent down to the AHL after struggling to start the year. What did that second year teach you?
That you have to prove yourself every single game, every day. I learned what it takes to be a professional, day in and day out. I was 19, and I thought my second year would come a little bit easier than it did. I was taught a lesson. I was also injured, so I was out half the year. But I bounced back the following year and had good career numbers. So that year was like early motivation for my career, and now I’m going into year 13.
You were part of the St. Louis team that won the Cup in 2019, and while you didn’t get to play in the playoffs that year, you seemed to have bounced back with two strong seasons following that Cup run. Tell us what you learned from your 2019 season.
It was unfortunate not being able to suit up. The team stayed healthy, which is very rare, especially for defencemen. The opportunity wasn’t there, but just being part of that team, that close knit group. And also to see what it takes to battle for 10 months of the year and those extra 2 months of playoffs was amazing.
What was the biggest reason you signed a two-year deal with the Ottawa Senators this off-season?
I love the direction of the team, the second half of the season, and how well they did. The way DJ coaches, it’s an old school mentality that I like. He gets the most out of his players, and demands a hard work ethic that you don’t see too often anymore. So that fit in with my game and my mentality. I think they are trending in the right direction. They are out of the rebuild, and the younger guys have now become more mature members of the team. I’m really excited for the season ahead.
Tell us about your life away from the rink. How did you get into DJing?
I was one of the only single guys in Philadelphia, and I just got sick of watching Netflix. I would come home from practice at 1 and I’d cook, watch Netflix, and go to bed. It just got to a point where I realized I needed to do something more productive with my spare time. One of my buddies is Tiesto, who is one of the best DJs of all time. I’ve seen him perform probably 15 times, all over the world. I also got to see him work in the studio. The coolest thing about DJing or performing any type of music is that it’s an international language. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you have the ability to put a smile on someone’s face and take their mind off of whatever stresses they have in their life, even just for a moment.
Growing up in Ontario, what were the holidays like for you?
My Christmas Eve was always at my parents’ house. My dad‘s parents lived with us and my other set of grandparents were right next door, so it was easy for them to come. It was always Christmas at our place, and we did the Italian tradition and had fish. My family are typical Italians, who always cook way too much food (laughs). We had a backyard rink growing up, so the kids would always be in and out of the house all day playing and eating. We would get to open up one present at midnight before we went to bed. So definitely lots of hockey, lots of games, mini sticks inside, and we always ate way too much food.
What is your favourite Christmas movie?
Home Alone, and Lost in New York. That’s a good one.
Tell me a little bit more about your family. What role did your parents play in your success?
It wasn’t just my parents, it was my grandparents and my older brother, too. Both of my parents worked 95% of the time. So one of them would go with me to the rink, and the other would go with my brother. The odd times that they weren’t able to make it, my grandpa would pick us up. It was really a group effort. That’s definitely where my motivation comes now: acknowledging the sacrifice that they made for so many years for us. I want to make them proud.
You said you like to cook. If you were hosting a team dinner, what would you prepare for the guys on the team?
Hmm, probably parmesan ribs. That’s the favourite. In Philly, we had a few more guys that were around so I would have them over maybe once a week for dinner. The Schenn brothers specifically, anytime they would come over they would ask for the ribs… so that’s my specialty.
What’s something that people may be surprised to know about you?
There are a lot of things I don’t share. In what we do, there isn’t a lot that remains private, and I like staying a little bit mysterious. I like to keep to myself, but one of the most surprising things would be that I play the alto saxophone. I also love reading. I go through a book pretty much every 2-3 weeks. I love reading non-fiction books.
You have done a lot of work with charities throughout your career, and you’re doing work already here in Ottawa with Ronald McDonald House. Why is it so important for you to give back?
My first year in New York, when I was 19, I saw a young boy watching our practice. After I got off the ice I brought him a signed puck. That led to us becoming friends, and I got to know the family better. Here we are 13 years later and we are still very close friends. He’s visited me in numerous cities and he is now in college, which is crazy. But that’s what started it for me. When I go into a new city, I look at the local charities and see how I can help, especially with kids. When I was in Vancouver, I went to visit the younger Ronald McDonald House there. I hit it off with a few of the kids and families right away. They gave me a volunteer pass and I was able to come and show up whenever I wanted. We traveled a lot there. I tried to get there once a week, sometimes twice a week if we were home for a while. It is amazing to see the resiliency that these kids possess, every single day.
What advice would you give to any young hockey players aspiring to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.
Photography by Sean Sisk