When I was younger, I never thought about life after sports for a professional athlete. Athletes were celebrities who had money and fame regardless of how long their playing careers lasted, post-retirement wasn’t as important to me.
Now that I’ve crossed into my thirties, nearing the age many professional athletes retire, I can’t imagine being told I’m no longer able to do what I’ve worked my entire life for. I can’t imagine being “retired” at the age of 31 and the void that it can create for a person.
Former New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro falls into the category of having his playing career cut short and needing to figure out what’s next. Someone that was forced to retire at the age of 31, DiPietro dealt with finding a second career and attempting to fill the void of no longer being a professional athlete.
Concussions, hip, knee and ankle injuries led to a steep decline and ultimately his release, but DiPietro is grateful he found a job he’s excited to wake up for every morning. He experienced nearly everything as an athlete and now the 37-year old is able to take those experiences on-air, mixing them with his off the cuff, comedic personality to make great radio every day on ESPN NY. If it were up to Rick, he’d still be in net for the Islanders, but he’s adjusted well to his new career on the radio, one that he’s passionate about.
For DiPietro, co-hosting a daily radio show on ESPN NY from 10am – 1pm with Dave Rothenberg and former NFL defensive end Chris Canty, is a pretty good life after hockey.
Brandon Contes: How did you get started in radio? Was it something you inquired about, or did ESPN and Alan Hahn come to you first?
Rick DiPietro: It’s actually a great story. I was down in Charlotte, attempting to make a comeback and play hockey again, but it didn’t end up working out and at a certain point I had to face reality that it wasn’t going to happen. I’ll never forget, I was actually sitting in the car with my father-in-law and we were listening to Alan on the radio, who I did have a previous relationship with, and my father-in-law asked me, ‘What’s next? What are you gonna do?’
I had no idea, we went back and forth and I said I love sports, I watch everything, it would be cool to be on the radio. I happened to text Alan about a hockey stat while I was listening to his show and he told me, ‘since I know you, you can’t keep your mouth shut and all you like to do is talk, you should try this radio thing, I think you’d like it.’
Alan had me in studio one night and we were actually filling in for Rothenberg, oddly enough. We did one show, we had a ton of fun and he tagged it, ‘we’ll keep doing this until they tell us to stop’ and it just kept going from there. We went from filling in, to getting our own nightly show, 7 to 10 and then we moved from nights to afternoons, then middays and it just continued from there. So with the help of Alan, I just kinda fell into radio.
BC: When you were younger, did you have a passion for radio at all or is it something that developed later?
RD: I always had a passion for sports, but I never really listened to sports talk radio much. Maybe it was because they were saying negative things about me. [Laughs]
I tried to avoid consuming media while playing, but once I was done, I started listening a little bit and then I did some TV work, but I really fell in love with radio.
BC: Have you listened to other talk radio shows at all, especially now that you’ve gotten into it more?
RD: I listen to everything, I try to consume as much as possible, between radio, TV and everything else.
BC: Mostly sports-related?
RD: Mostly sports. I listen to a lot, like Colin Cowherd and I listen to The Kay Show, I listen to all the shows on our station and I’ll go through the dial just to see what other people are doing and talking about.
BC: What was the hardest part in your transition to radio?
RD: The fact that I was a hockey player, because we don’t talk much hockey, I think people initially questioned my ability to talk about other sports and I remember talking about that with our program director. The question of, how would I do with all sports, and that was probably the biggest hurdle. Because I played in the NHL, everyone thinks that’s all I know, but once you get past that, they see I have knowledge of all sports.
It also goes beyond just basic sports knowledge. The biggest thing for radio and doing this five days a week is it changes the way you watch sports, because as you’re watching the game, you’re trying to create an interesting conversation out of what you’re seeing.
BC: I get that it’s difficult from a credibility standpoint to convince the listeners you have well-rounded sports knowledge, but you can’t talk a lot of Islander hockey on the radio, you don’t talk much hockey in general, so that crutch isn’t there. You were thrown into it and had no choice but to talk other sports. I would think it was harder for Chris Canty to prove himself because he was brought in to talk only football at first and then he was added to the full show later on, so he really had to prove that he could talk other sports.
RD: The best way to describe it is if you look at sports radio or you look at sports talk shows on television, because the NFL is king, these shows talk mostly football.
Radio talks so much football, so if you played football you can always talk about that, all other sports play a lesser role so it’s more naturally assumed a former football player can just learn them as we go. I obviously do know quite a bit of hockey, but what good is that?
BC: Did you ever find yourself trying to come up with any sort of unique angle or go all in on a point just to prove that you know other sports or did you just let it happen organically and let the audience realize it on their own that you can talk Mets, Knicks and Jets?
RD: I know I played hockey, but my passion is baseball. My favorite sport growing up was baseball. I still play men’s league baseball, but proving myself as a radio host to people is just a daily thing. Having the credibility that I watch and pay attention to everything is a daily thing. I don’t think I go out of my way, the audience would notice that. You want to be interesting, you want people to look forward to your opinion and that has to do with credibility, but it also has to do with being entertaining.
BC: Do you like developing show topics? Obviously you’re here early, are you somebody that is trying to come up with different ideas, or is it more let me know what the topics are and let’s get on-air and talk about it?
RD: It’s not even necessarily the topic, I think that every good radio show and everyone on that radio show has a specific role. What I try to do on our show is bring the personal experiences from being an athlete – tell the audience what’s going on behind the scenes and give the mindset of Odell Beckham Jr. or whoever we’re talking about, and then on top of that, just trying to be funny. I think that’s part of my role on the station is to be funny and people not knowing what’s going to come out of my mouth, be unpredictable.
We used to do quite a bit with songs and parodies, but myself, Dave and Chris, we’ll communicate with each other what was going on the night before, what we want to talk about and what interesting ideas we each have. You want to try and draw up as much passion from the listener, whether that’s good or bad passion. You don’t want to be down the middle, people either have to agree or strongly disagree to get them to take the time to pick up the phone and call in.
BC: Alan was obviously working in media a long time before you guys started on the radio together, is that how you developed a relationship with him?
RD: Yeah, I’ll never forget, I get drafted by the Islanders up in Calgary and Alan was there covering it. I went through all of the different requirements after getting drafted and then they told me, okay now you’re going to sit down with the New York media.
So I’m thinking it’s New York, I have this idea of what the New York media is and then I get there and it’s just me and Alan sitting at a table [Laughs]. That’s when we first met then and we always had a pretty good relationship after that. We would always go back and forth with our opinions and we developed a friendship.
BC: What year did you start radio?
RD: It was about five years ago.
BC: And Alan wasn’t even doing radio for that long when he recruited you?
RD: No, he was just filling in, but because he was doing such a good job on MSG with the Knicks, he was looking for more media opportunities and started doing shows here at ESPN. I think he had a weekend show initially and then he would fill-in over the summer.
BC: Which is a little different because usually with a former pro athlete looking to break into radio, they’ll pair them with an industry veteran, but here you were with someone that was still learning just like you were.
RD: Yea, for the both of us, it was here you go, here’s your own radio show, go run with it. And between me and him we were like…what are we supposed to do? So we just decided to have as much fun as possible and hoped it would translate on the radio.
BC: Was there anyone that was helpful to you guys in developing? Or you just built your own thing?
RD: You know this, you listen to a lot of radio and it starts with chemistry, if you have natural chemistry, everything else comes easier. Our Program Director at the time, Justin Craig and [Vice President] Tim McCarthy were great. Justin took a chance on me when he thought I was just a hockey guy.
I remember when I was starting out, I gave an Islander update. It was just a 10-second score update and he walks in the studio to ask what I was doing, and I didn’t know what he was talking about, but he said no one wants to hear about the NHL right now [Laughs].
But Justin Craig, Tim McCarthy, Ryan Hurley, we have a great team here, our producers Ray Deenihan and Ray Santiago, we had RJ Santillo who works on The Kay Show now, everyone was really helpful, everyone really pays attention to what’s going on, so if you ask them to take a quick listen to see what you can work on, they’re all very helpful.
BC: Did you know Dave Rothenberg before he replaced Alan?
BC: Was that a difficult transition? More so than adjusting to Dave, was it difficult to have the forced breakup with Alan, like you said, you guys had that line, “we’re going to keep doing this until they make us stop”, and then they made you stop.
RD: It was tough. We got into a situation where, with the time of the show being moved around and Alan’s covering the Knicks for MSG and their West Coast trips and the times he needs to be on TV, it just became impossible. It got to the point where we couldn’t do the radio show anymore and by then, I listened to a lot of Dave’s shows to know what to expect and he’s a pro’s pro. He was able to step right in and drive the show. We’ve created a chemistry and it’s been a pretty smooth transition.
BC: Has all the tinkering been difficult? You haven’t been in radio that long and you’ve worked with Alan part-time, Alan at night, Alan in the midday, 1 – 3 then 10 – 1. Chris Canty being added to the show, then Alan’s out and Rothenberg is in. For someone trying to break into the business, to have all of those changes in five years, that’s a lot.
RD: [Laughs] It’s like my Islanders career.
I think it’s helped me to be more well-rounded. Especially with three voices and trying to keep with the formatics of a sports talk radio show where it’s – have an opinion, take some calls, stick to the clock. I think you come to the realization that you don’t have to make a point about everything. So sometimes you sit back, listen and then as Chris or Dave are talking, you come up with a unique take. I think it’s helped and it’s made me better, having the ability to work with different people and work in different situations. Even when I call in to The Kay Show, it’s helped to be able to adapt on the fly to whoever you’re working with.
BC: How about The Kay Show being the only other local show on the weekday lineup? Is it a strange dynamic that you’re the midday show, but you don’t have a local lead-in, so you come to the studio and it’s quiet, and then you leave and there’s still no local show right after you, so it’s almost kind of hard to develop any sort of flow between your show and the afternoon show.
RD: I did really like when we were 1-3 because even during breaks, I thought it was great to come out and have Kay and Don there. They were all sitting in the office and even having them coming in for the crosstalk, I enjoyed that. I like having that comradery, I like when I can text Kay and say something about Peter Rosenberg and we’ll go back and forth, but it was even better when we were on 1 – 3 because it gave us the opportunity to bring Pete in or for me to jump on their show. It’s definitely different.
BC: Has radio helped with the adjustment of not being a professional athlete anymore and to fill that void?
RD: Yeah, I think to a certain degree. I’m very lucky because there are a lot of guys that once they’re done playing their sport, they have nothing to do. I don’t think I’ll ever find anything that I can be as passionate about as when I was playing in the NHL.
I think the hardest part for most professional athletes when we’re done is that we’re so regimented. Everything’s on a schedule, so you wake up and know you have something to do and I think the fact that I wake up and have something to do, it’s definitely helped my transition out of the sport – absolutely.
BC: Especially because you weren’t even viewed as an older player, but even athletes that are viewed as older players, they’re 35, 40 years old. They still have so much energy and passion, but it’s forced away, so you’re not at a point where you’re ready to just settle into retirement and do nothing.
RD: No, I would go crazy. I’m lucky to have an unbelievable wife and two great kids and obviously a lot of my time and energy goes into that, but there are only so many athletes like Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis that have the exact career you hope for. Win a championship, get into the hall-of-fame and go off into the sunset completely satisfied. That wasn’t how my NHL career ended, so I always felt there had to be something else I wanted to do and luckily for me I found this.
BC: You signed the 15-year contract, you’re one of the top players in the sport, a fan favorite, representing your country in the Olympics. You’re probably feeling invincible, that this is something that will last forever, but it ended quickly for you, and the way it ends with the fans turning on you while you’re trying to get healthy and get back makes it more difficult. But when you first got released, you made the suicide comments about driving off the Throgs Neck Bridge, and then you said you were kidding.
RD: Yea, it was a joke.
BC: It was completely a joke?
BC: You might not have been thinking about driving off a bridge, but was depression setting in at the end of your career?
RD: Oh yea, absolutely. You’re talking about me having my life planned out, a 15-year contract where if things go the right way after dealing with what we dealt with, being bad and having a high draft picks for a lot of years, eventually we’d get to the point during that 15-year deal where the team would be really good and potentially win the Stanley Cup. I’d be close to 40 at the end of the contract, so in my mind it was – go through the process, win the Stanley Cup, retire, have my number retired and then keep working for the organization. That’s how it would go. I wouldn’t be looking for a job, because I would’ve naturally progressed into being an Islander for life.
It went from the perfect plan, to being put on waivers, sent down, commuting from Long Island to Bridgeport every morning at 5am and yea it was tough. It was tough especially because in my mind, being a young guy, I felt like I could still do it, but to have my body betray me the way it did, it wasn’t easy to deal with. And you’re right, the fact is, 32, 33 years old – I mean what am I doing for the next 50 years of my life?
BC: Right, you’re not thinking about moving to Florida and retiring.
RD: Not at all. It’s a scary thought to just all of a sudden wake up one day and be like “Okay, that career is over. Now what?”.
BC: At what point did you come to the realization that hockey was no longer an option?
RD: In Charlotte. I was with my wife. That’s the hardest conversation to have, to finally admit it to yourself that you just can’t do it anymore. But we were in Charlotte, staying at an extended stay hotel and it was me, my wife, and my mother-in-law sharing a king size bed, trying to make this comeback. And if it wasn’t one thing, it was the hips, the knees and everything else, all of a sudden my ankle started blowing up, I was getting it drained before practice, it was just a mess.
My wife was at one of my games and she saw me limping up onto the ice trying to play and finally said ‘what are you doing?’ And I was still like what do you mean? She said, ‘you can’t even walk and you’re trying to play goalie’ and it was then that I said you’re right, I can’t play at the level that I want to play at. And that was it.
BC: How many concussions did you have?
RD: On record? I think eight.
BC: And you think you had more than that?
RD: Oh, yeah…yeah…definitely.
BC: Have you seen any long-term effects from that at all or is CTE a concern?
RD: Yea, it’s a concern. I don’t think I’m at that point yet, but I struggled a lot with post-concussions.
I knew I didn’t feel right, but it’s one of those things that you just try to battle through it. And again, thank God for my wife because she would say, ‘let me talk to the doctor, I’ll give them the updates because you won’t tell them the truth.’ It’s definitely a concern of mine, but nothing I can do for it now.
BC: Was there ever any animosity towards the fans at the end of your career?
RD: I was never upset with the fans because I understood it, but I don’t think people really understood the long-term deal. They just saw it was 15-years, but the whole point of the deal was sitting down with Charles Wang and trying to get around the salary cap. Throughout the 15-years, my contract would always be reasonable, so we went with a long-term deal to keep the annual number from ever being an albatross of a contract. We wanted to be able to build around my number.
We’ll get calls about Greg Bird and I’ll always argue with fans because it is the worst thing in the world for a professional athlete to be hurt. No professional athlete wants to be hurt.
Fans don’t understand how bad it is, the team makes it uncomfortable because you can’t be around your teammates. It becomes a job, it’s not fun and because I’ve dealt with so many injuries, it seemed like people thought I liked being hurt. I’m not addicted to surgery, playing games is a lot easier than rehabbing injuries. It wasn’t easy, but it was less about the fans and more about the fact that I don’t feel like I achieved what I set out to achieve. There’s still a lot of regret and it’s something that still bothers me every day to be completely honest.
BC: Do you ever find yourself falling back into what you categorized as a dark place?
RD: No. Having my wife and kids helps, although it is a little scary that my son wants to be a goalie – we’ll see how that turns out. It’s not easy to sit here and watch playoff hockey knowing that if I didn’t get hurt, I could still be playing. It’s not easy, but I guess that’s why radio has been a blessing. Having a job where I leave my house at 7am to talk about other sports for the day helps keep my mind off it.
BC: But you’re still able to root for the Islanders?
RD: Oh yea. I’ll always root for the Islanders. I couldn’t be happier for their success. That was the biggest thing that bothered me when I was an Islander. There was a separation from the great Islander teams of the 80’s and us. People don’t realize how passionate Islander fans are, but people are getting a chance to see that now.
BC: Did your experience playing and the way it ended affect the way you can talk about players on the radio?
RD: I feel like I’ve been through pretty much everything, so I know if there’s something that someone’s going through, I feel like I’ve been through it no matter what it is.
Obviously, except for – and that’s why we have Canty [Laughs] because I haven’t won a championship, so it’s tough for me to speak on that. But yea, I think I’ve been exposed to a lot and have personal first-hand experience dealing with everything that comes with being a high draft pick, having disappointment, being in the Olympics and anything that an athlete can go through, I’ve been through it.
BC: Have you ever talked to, or helped players with the transition of going from professional athlete into finding your next career? Because you mentioned being in a dark place and there’s no way you could go through everything you did and not deal with any sort of depression, a lot of athletes go through that and finding the second career isn’t easy.
RD: They always say athletes die twice. I actually had a good conversation with Steve Webb who was my first roommate with the Islanders and that’s something that he and the NHL are now really focusing on – life for hockey players or professional athletes in general after their careers are over. He’s working with the NHLPA, but I think all unions are trying to really step up and give these players opportunities once they’re done playing. But I was fortunate, not only for this job, but I met the perfect woman that really bought into me as a player and then moving forward it didn’t matter that I wasn’t in the NHL anymore and I think a lot of guys don’t have that, which makes the transition harder.
I try to tell the younger athletes to just take advantage of the time you’re playing because it doesn’t last forever. One day it’s going to be gone and you have to be selfish and really focus on taking advantage of your talents and getting the most out of them. That’s why what LeBron, KD and some of today’s stars have done with getting involved in other businesses away from sports is so smart because when you’re playing, all the doors are open and all of those relationships are available. Make sure you take care of those relationships while you’re playing because once you’re done, it’s a lot harder to get those doors to open.
BC: Does radio fulfill any sort of competitive void? Obviously you see the Kay and Francesa radio wars up close, but does radio help fulfill your competitive nature you had when you were an athlete?
RD: I’m always competitive in anything I do, but the one thing I miss most about playing in the NHL, is you always know how you did. There’s always a winner and a loser, there’s a scoreboard. In here, you may think you had one good show, a month or three months of good shows, but you just don’t know. You can kind of judge with social media and phone calls to get an idea if people like what you’re doing, but that’s what I miss the most. Every time I left the rink, I knew if I did my job or not.
BC: Do you pay attention to ratings? And it’s tough because as we were talking before, you guys are on a bit of an island. You’re sandwiched by national shows, whereas the midday show on FAN follows and precedes other local content.
RD: We pay attention to it. In this business, you have to pay attention to it because the point is to get a rating to sell your show and that’s the bottom line. I think we’ve done a good job of selling the show, but our ratings could definitely be better. That’s definitely something that we’re working on.
BC: Were you surprised a couple years ago when you got into a back and forth with Francesa over an Islanders take and calling him “fatso.”
RD: I was surprised Mike went back and forth because he’s pretty hell bent on not acknowledging anyone else’s show, but I just reacted to what I was told. I take offense to the fact that once the Islanders or Rangers are in the playoffs, that’s when everyone wants to talk about hockey, but when I want to talk about hockey, no one else does.
The playoffs roll around and all of a sudden everyone’s an expert. Someone either tweeted it to me or called Alan and I, but someone told us Mike was killing the Islanders because the coach wouldn’t go on his show when they were in the playoffs, but he never wanted the coach on before they were in the playoffs, so why should he have to go on Mike’s show now?! I was just standing up for the Islanders.
BC: It brought a lot of attention to the show, so is that type of back and forth something you enjoy and think is good for radio?
RD: Yea, I think the back and forth is interesting in radio. I love the Kay – Francesa stuff. I’d like to have more of that here where we go back and forth with shows about different things. The three hours we do here, the four hours that Kay does, it’s a show and we’ll do whatever we can to be as entertaining as possible, if that means having beef with a different show or station, I have no problem with that.
BC: You have a relationship with Boomer and Carton, were you surprised Craig went on with Kay after all the negative comments he made about them over the years?
RD: I wasn’t surprised. I know originally he wanted to go on WFAN, but I think Boomer made the right decision in understanding it would be uncomfortable for Gio to have Craigy come back, and then Francesa didn’t want to do it, but how could Kay pass that interview up?
I was interested. I listened and watched the entire thing. He’s talented, he’s an entertaining guy. I was much more shocked by the whole thing going down initially than I was about him going on The Kay Show.
BC: Are you still in touch with him?
RD: I am. I’ve talked to him a couple times. He’s getting through it…
BC: Do you listen back to old shows?
RD: Yea, that’s something I always used to do as a player, go back to look at the good and bad. I don’t know if it’s just my personality, but I never think I did a good job. Sometimes you have to listen back to hear if you really didn’t do a good job or if it’s better than you thought it was, but that’s all part of improving.
BC: How far back will you go? Do you go back years, or just listen back to today’s show?
RD: A little bit of both, but more recent shows. I don’t really like hearing my own voice on the radio. It makes me cringe a little bit, but I try to make sure I know how the show sounds, what works, what was good, what was bad. I want to make sure we’re growing, I never want to be stagnant.
BC: Is incorporating three voices a difficult dynamic? You started out with you and Alan, and Chris Canty was brought along slowly, right? He was only on with you guys on Fridays at first?
RD: Yea, Chris was joining us from Baltimore, but we also had Bill Daughtry on at that time. It’s definitely different having three people vs. two, but also hosting daytime compared to when we were on 7 – 10pm is so different. I could get away with so much more 7 – 10 than I can get away with now.
To stick to the clock, which we try to do, and then take calls and incorporate everything with everyone having an opinion, it’s not easy. Whether it’s me, Dave or Chris, sometimes you have to be willing to take a backseat.
BC: Right, you have an understanding that if you have a lesser take and stay back on one topic, you’ll still get your opportunity to be the dominant voice on something else.
RD: We all have strong opinions and we all watch everything, but we’ll still take some calls and answer questions and we’ll get to a topic where one of us hasn’t seen it so that person lays low for a bit, but it’s almost like a competition between the three of us as to who’s consumed the most from the night before.
We’ll be asked a question about a game that we’ve all seen, so we all have an opinion and now it comes down to who has the strongest opinion and which one of us will sit back a bit. It takes time, but I think we’re still getting better at it.
BC: Do you like radio better than TV?
BC: You did TV first?
RD: Yea, I did some pre and post stuff with the Islanders. I was even doing stuff on Cold Pizza way back. I’ll do SportsCenter, Get Up and those shows. I like it, but to take three hours and have a conversation on the radio, you can get in-depth with those conversations and it’s more fun.
BC: Did you do national radio at all?
RD: I have. I did some Sunday shows in the past, I’ve also filled in on the morning shows, Mike and Mike and Golic and Wingo.
BC: How was that compared to local radio?
RD: I honestly like all of it. There isn’t much I don’t like about radio. I like the interaction with co-hosts, I love when passionate fans call in, I love the disagreements. I love people that love sports and are passionate about sports and I’m just really happy to be on-air.
BC: You mentioned you could get away with more when you’re hosting 7 – 10pm and the goal is obviously to be part of a station’s weekday lineup like you are, but did you like it better when you were on at night?
RD: The demographic of the audience that we’re looking for, age-wise, is in mine and your wheelhouse. So what I think is funny and what I enjoy talking about, I think the people we’re targeting would also find funny. Trying to tiptoe that line without crossing it, because we are Disney and there are things I want to say, innuendoes that are funny, and trying to get those out while tiptoeing that line can be a challenge, but at night I could go off the rails and say some crazier things without getting in trouble.
BC: Did you ever say anything you did get in trouble for?
RD: Not really, but I’ve certainly been dumped quite a bit. [Laughs]
I don’t even have the record. Ron Hainsey, one of my good friends, plays for the Maple Leafs, filled in and did some shows with me over the summer. He has the record. We lost 21 seconds of radio, back to back to back dumps, he thought he had the best comment and little did he know we were dumping the whole thing.
BC: So what’s your goal in radio or the media? You’re on in the midday on ESPN New York, that’s a great gig, but you’re still young and I’m sure driven and competitive – what’s the next step?
RD: I obviously can’t control the time-slots or anything, so the only thing for us is to continue getting better and hopefully us getting better translates into better ratings. That, for us is the next step. We have to find a way to consistently be a top 10 show. It starts there for us and once we get to that point, we’ll continue to build.
For anyone that does this job, you have to make your show appointment listening. You have to have people at home watching a game and the first thing that comes to their mind is, ‘I can’t wait to hear what Canty, DiPietro and Rothenberg have to say about this tomorrow.’
Brandon Contes is a freelance writer for BSM. He can be found on Twitter @BrandonContes. To reach him by email click here.