Asked when he believes he’ll be ready to make his Wild debut, Rossi, the No. 9 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, didn’t hesitate to answer.
“I’m ready, 100 percent,” he said during the first round of the draft Oct. 6.
Asked later to elaborate, the 19-year-old center from Austria again gave a succinct and quick explanation.
“It’s a perfect fit,” he said. “They need a center, I’m a center and I’m 100 percent ready.”
Confidence clearly isn’t a concern when it comes to Rossi, who scored 120 points (39 goals, 81 assists) in 56 games for Ottawa of the Ontario Hockey League last season, leading the Canadian Hockey League (OHL, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Western Hockey League) in assists and points.
“He’s got a swagger to him,” Wild general manager Bill Guerin said. “He believes in himself. He’s going to bet on himself. If he can come in and play well enough, he can make the team. If not, we’ll figure out what’s best for him. I like that he has the confidence.”
Rossi has the motivation and mental toughness too, intangibles he’s had since he was 13 years old and riding shotgun in daily three-hour round-trip car rides with his father, Michael, from their hometown of Rankweil, Austria, to Zurich, Switzerland, so he could play in a better program and challenge himself to improve and grow as a hockey player.
Rossi played in the ZSC Lions system. He eventually made it to the GCK Lions, ZSC’s affiliate in the Swiss League, the second-tier professional division in Switzerland.
“I’d go for work starting at 6 and I looked to try to get in my eight hours before 3 o’clock,” Michael Rossi said. “I’d get home, pick up my son at 4 o’clock. Mostly he’d do his homework with my wife together, and at 4:30 we’d go to Zurich. We’d get there around 6. He’d start with off ice around 6:30, start with practice at 7:30 until 9. He’d come out I’d say at 10 o’clock, and we’d get home at 11:30; if traffic, midnight.”
The trips to Zurich took a toll on Michael’s stress level and body. He was working in real estate marketing, but he’d miss emails and assignments while making sure Marco got to practice on time.
He eventually had to leave his job and find another. But that didn’t stop the stress.
His back hurt. He couldn’t sleep well.
Marco remembers his father, a defenseman who played professionally for 20 years in Austria, missing the exit off the highway and driving another hour before realizing it. He remembers seeing his dad sweating while driving.
“The whole week, the daily was pretty hard, and the weekend I’d also go for work,” Michael said. “My boss didn’t want me to go crazy with hockey and the job together. He said, ‘Michael, you must make a decision, you can’t go like this, it’s not healthy for you.’ So I stopped and I took the next job, and I did it again. It was the same problem after a few years.”
Marco worried about his father every day.
“You drive four years, so many [hours], you think it could maybe go wrong one time, maybe a car accident, anything like that,” Marco said. “I was praying the whole time because it’s not normal what my family did for me. There are no words to thank them what they did for me.”
Michael knew from his own experience how talented his son was, and how that talent had to be honed. He knew Marco needed to be challenged, and that he would find it in Zurich.
“The last time when we drove to Zurich, back and forth, I was like, ‘Holy cow, how did we do this?'” Michael said. “I was sweating, literally sweating. I can’t believe we did that for four years. But when I talk with Marco now, he says to me that he thinks it made him mentally strong. He told me that every time we went to Zurich, he felt it was like a road game.”
Marco said he developed his commitment to the game during those car rides.
“At 13, I realized I’m not going to just do that for fun, driving so many hours to practice and back,” he said. “Since then, I really took it serious and said, ‘OK, if I do that, I want to be a hockey player one day in the best league in the world.'”
The car rides stopped when Marco moved to Canada to play for Ottawa at the start of the 2018-19 season. Michael’s health began to improve too, his stress level decreased.
“It was the best decision,” Michael said. “I think this was the last thing to get the complete Marco Rossi puzzle so he could take his life on his own, grow as a person. I think it was very, very good for Marco. Ottawa did an amazing job. Every time when I got to Ottawa, he was growing more. I could see it. He was unbelievable. I was so proud of Marco.”
His pride grew on draft night, when the first step in Marco’s dream became a reality.
“It wasn’t just for fun,” Michael said. “For me it was no question to help him do that. And Marco was a beast every day. He’s still a beast.
“I think Marco is 100 percent ready.”