Dom DeLuca is relaxing at home on what should be a quiet night, but when the subject shifts to hockey, the 50-year-old can’t camouflage the excitement in his voice and you can feel the passion he has for the sport.
He recounts memories from years ago. He names players as though they played for him yesterday. He remembers the dramatic comebacks, the provincial finals and the friendships he’s made along the way.
But most of all, he remembers the players, the kids he’s coached and the men they’ve become.
Now in his second year back of coaching bantam rep hockey after helping Kevin Panco with the midget rep team for a couple of seasons, DeLuca is as excited today as he was 20 years ago when his coaching journey first took off. He has been mentoring the Sault’s up and coming players for close to two decades and his personable demeanour and engaging personality have always made him a likeable person. Combine that with his ability to teach and motivate and you have a recipe for success.
“I always had a love and passion for that bantam age group and there always seems to be such a hunger there with those kids,” DeLuca said. “They’re just so receptive. They’re willing to learn – I’m not saying the midget kids aren’t either – but there’s a big gap between 13-14 year olds and 16-17 year olds. The younger kids are really focused on what they want to do and they still have big aspirations.
“It’s just always been an age that I just felt really comfortable with and those kids are sponges and they just want to learn.”
In reality, they’re a lot like DeLuca was when he was just a young kid coming up through the ranks. He played minor hockey during his youth, with his most memorable days coming while playing under the tutelage of the late Mike Zuke, whom DeLuca says was ahead of his time and the most incredible coach he ever played for. He also played post secondary hockey at the University of New Brunswick.
“I played here as a kid for the Soo Legion Bantams with Paul DiPietro who was my linemate and Mike Zuke was probably my favourite coach of all time,” DeLuca said. “He was just a wonderful person. He had such a way with the younger guys and he allowed us to develop, to be creative, to work on the finesse part of the game. I’ll never forget going to his outdoor rink three to four hours every night.
“The game has obviously changed over the years but so many things I learned back then, the agility stuff, the finesse, he was teaching us then. He was ahead of his time.”
And like Zuke, DeLuca wants kids to flourish. He doesn’t want them to be afraid of making mistakes. He encourages creativity and he isn’t one to bark down a kid’s throat if he makes a mistake.
“I love kids that are cerebral,” DeLuca says. “Structure is important, but you also have to allow for these kids to flourish and to be creative. Aside from the X’s and O’s, I really enjoy building that family atmosphere and people that know me know how much I care.”
Family has always been important for DeLuca. His dad, Dom Sr., who passed away in September of 2018 at the age of 74, was always a part of his son’s life, often serving as the team trainer. Known as ‘Dooley’ by his peers, Dom Sr. was perhaps his son’s biggest supporter.
When he died, Dom Jr. felt a huge void and had a difficult time but found solace and comfort in the confines of the rink. Aside from his immediate family, that’s where his support group was. His players, the parents, they all felt DeLuca’s loss and were there for him.
“When my dad passed, they were there for me, even the players,” DeLuca said. “There’s always been that bond. They know I’m there for them, too, as a friend or a mentor or whatever.
“We were just getting started with this 2005 group in 2018 when my dad passed and it was early on in the season and I never missed a practice or a game or a tournament. I just had to be around the rink and I know my dad would have wanted that. It helped to keep me focused.”
This season, as his club embarked on its playoff journey, DeLuca brought a picture of his dad into the dressing room and showed it to his players.
“I’m still emotional about it,” he said. “I put it on the wall and I said to the kids that I’ve been to five all Ontarios and my dad was with me at every one and I asked them if he could come along again.
“The kids loved it and they knew how much it meant to me.”
Unfortunately, DeLuca’s squad was in the midst of an incredible run before COVID-19 struck, cutting their season short. They were tied 1-1 in the best-of-five championship series against Sudbury and DeLuca was optimistic they had a solid chance of advancing to the provincials. They also won the Belle Tire Tournament in Detroit earlier in the season.
‘It was tough,” DeLuca said. “We were tied 1-1 coming home against Sudbury and if we win those next two, we would have gone to the all Ontarios and that would have been nice. You only get that chance once every two years (they don’t have all Ontario at bantam minor).
“I’ve been to five all Ontarios as a coach so it was disappointing more for them. I wanted them to have that chance to experience it as kids.”
For DeLuca, one of the most rewarding byproducts of coaching minor hockey is the relationships that are formed. He fondly remembers his 1990 age group that featured the likes of Dean Howard, Jarrett Burton, Zack LaRue and Dylan King. He also coached so many other talented players, among them Colin Miller, Brett Perlini, Brett Findlay, Brendan Perlini, Michael Amadio, Anthony Stefano, Cody Caron, Christopher Buonomo, David Quesnele, the list goes on.
“We’ve had some really great players throughout the years,” he said.
And while there have been many great victories and accomplishments, one of DeLuca’s biggest memories came with his 1990 age group when they defeated a talent-laden Markham Waxers squad that included the likes of Steven Stamkos, Cody Hodgson, Michael Del Zotto and Cameron Gaunce, four guys that all went on to play in the NHL. It was at the provincials and the Soo trailed 4-0 and 5-2 in that game before rallying for a dramatic 7-5 win that clinched a spot into the playoff round
“That got us into the semifinals,” DeLuca said. “We didn’t win the tournament, but that was our Stanley Cup that year. I’ll never forget it. Brett Perlini scored a hat trick in that game. It was a remarkable comeback.”
Today, DeLuca insists he has as much passion for coaching as always. His wife, Nadia, is the team’s manager and he says he could never have lasted this long without his family’s support.
“You go through times when you think ‘am I going to do this another year,’ but then within seconds I say to myself ‘what else would I be doing.’ It’s something you love. My wife loves it, I have great support from her and my two girls and she (Nadia) knows my heart’s at the rink.
“We spend a lot of time as a family, but they know dad loves his hockey time and I love to give back to the kids.
“I think it was just something I was meant to do.”
And fortunately for Sault Ste. Marie, Dom DeLuca is still teaching, still coaching and still having fun at the game he loves.