Joe Caligiuri’s path in hockey may not have taken him quite where he expected, but the former Brandon Wheat Kings goaltender credits it with shaping him into the man he has become.
Now 30 and a practising lawyer and certified National Hockey League agent working in his hometown of Winnipeg, Caligiuri says a lot was learned in his Western Hockey League days with the Wheat Kings and Prince George Cougars.
"The first thing is that you mature," Caligiuri said. "That’s first and foremost when you look back from your first year of junior to your last year. The simple things are learning to work with a team, and the one thing that I thought translated very well was the ability to deal with adversity and tough days, being a goaltender and being down because of the way you played. Playing in Brandon and PG, there was very difficult travel in both places.
"It was the grind of getting up and going to school and getting back to work. Those are things that translate really well into the workplace, and you’re dealing with people a lot in the hockey world, and different personalities which I think leads to social skills that you can bring to any workplace … It’s the commitment that shapes you as a person in those important years when you’re growing up to be a man."
Caligiuri started skating at age five, but didn’t play a full season in goal until he was 10. He said the position simply felt more natural to him, and he got more serious about it, he embraced the pressure that comes with being a netminder.
"I really did like the feeling that it was a pretty impactful position," Caligiuri said. "It had a big determination usually in the outcome of games, which I enjoyed. As a kid it’s probably the cool equipment you’re watching on TV.
"I can vividly remember when I was quite young at that point that Dominik Hasek was in his prime and watching him and how cool and creative he was."
He skated on some outdoor rinks growing up, but also lived near the Southdale Community Centre in Winnipeg’s south end.
Caligiuri is the middle of three children, with older and younger sisters. His father Pat, who emigrated to Canada from Italy, had never played hockey but ensured his son was active in the sport.
"He was big into sports growing up and being in Winnipeg, that was sort of something you put your kid in because hockey is so big here," Caligiuri said. "It kind of went from there."
After starting in the game at age five, he said his parents, including mother Franca, were always there and in his corner.
"It was probably stressful, especially for my mom as I got older being a goalie," Caligiuri said. "I know that was hard on her to watch. They supported me from day one. They were never hard on me about it."
He added that as his talent grew, they sent him to goaltending camps in the summers, and when he went on to play with the Wheat Kings, his father never missed a home start.
Caligiuri played with the area Southdale teams until he graduated to the St. Boniface Saints AA teams. He got cut from the Winnipeg Warriors in his first year of bantam, and played in the city midget league as a 15-year-old.
Still, Caligiuri was impressive enough to be picked by the Wheat Kings in the 10th round of the 2004 Western Hockey League bantam draft.
He admits he wasn’t exposed to the WHL much growing up, although he added that it seems every young Winnipeg hockey player ends up a tournament in Brandon and attends a Wheat Kings game.
He said awareness of the league ramped up when he was 14 or 15 because the draft is the talk of the bantam age group. Caligiuri saw the unexpected news that he had been chosen on a computer at home.
"I didn’t think I was going to go but I was hopeful," Caligiuri said. "I was small — at the time I was maybe five-foot-seven and 120 pounds — so I wasn’t very big and I didn’t talk to a lot of teams. I actually never spoke to Brandon before the draft but when I found out I was obviously pretty excited.
"It was an opportunity and an open door, and it worked out quite well."
After spending a sensational 16-year-old season with the Winnipeg Wild — he posted five shutouts and a 2.04 goals-against average in 21 starts — he came into Brandon competing for a spot against 19-year-olds Tyler Plante and Kurt Jory.
On Oct. 12, 2006, Brandon dealt Jory to the Moose Jaw Warriors, and Caligiuri had officially become the new backup goalie for the Wheat Kings.
He said that first season was a whirlwind as he adjusted to life in a different city with new teammates and playing a higher level of hockey.
"I probably wasn’t even close to equipped to live on my own so thank goodness for the support staff they have there," Caligiuri said. "I had incredible billets in Brandon that I still keep in touch with and that made the transition a lot easier but it is a whirlwind. All of the sudden training camp is over and you’re involved in classes and it’s go, go, go. I can’t say enough things about the teammates I had and the billets I had that made the transition as great as possible."
"It happens so quickly when you think about it, but it was an unreal experience," he added.
Caligiuri said if there is any homesickness, it’s gone within a few weeks. He made his first WHL start on Oct. 14, 2016 in Saskatoon against the Blades.
His one clear memory of the game, which Brandon won 3-2, is that the league had just changed the maximum width of goal pads from 12 inches to 11. His new pads hadn’t arrived yet, so he was wearing a pair of demos.
"I don’t remember what the score was but I remember the first goal I let in was very weak," said Caligiuri, who made 23 saves that night. "It was in the second period, I believe — I got through the first — and it was five-hole. Just a bad goal but we did win and getting that first one under my belt was a good confidence booster."
He quickly noticed that the speed and the releases of WHL shots were different than what he faced before, although he noted it helped that he was practising with some top-end talents such as Mark Derlago, Codey Burki and Juraj Simek.
He appeared in 19 games that season, posting a 2.68 gaa and .901 save percentage as Plante’s backup. Caligiuri learned a lot from his partner.
"It’s just habits," Caligiuri said. "He was a very hard worker and had been around. Our styles likely didn’t complement each other too much, just based on he was six-foot-three and I was five-nine-and-a-half, five-10. But in terms of just the day to day and how he handled the workload and his work ethic, he was very dedicated to being a goaltender, and those are things that you appreciate when you look back."
Caligiuri quickly bonded with fellow rookies Cale Jefferies, Colby Robak and Nathan Green, and spent the most time with them. He remains in regular contact with other players such as Matt Calvert and Matt Lowry.
"Those are the times you miss the most when you look back," Caligiuri said. "Whether it’s hanging out at someone’s billets or in the back of the bus playing cards, those are the times that were the most fun and produced the most memories."
After Plante graduated to the pro ranks, Caligiuri became the starter in the 2007-08 season, with Andrew Hayes emerging as the backup.
"It was different because you’re getting all the quality starts," Caligiuri said. "There are challenges to being a backup as well but the pressure is really on you I guess as a starting goaltender because you’re usually going to be playing the important games."
Hayes was hurt early in the season, giving Caligiuri a chance to establish himself. He grabbed the top job and never lost it.
The Wheat Kings had graduated a lot of established talent and not much was expected of them that season, but they went on to win 42 games as Brayden Schenn, Scott Glennie and Calvert came in as rookies.
"It was a bit of a feeling-out process but we had some great veteran guys," Caligiuri said, noting Darryl Boyle was the captain and Keith Aulie was one of the alternate captains.
"We had a bunch of guys in my age bracket who were second-year players, and then we had these young kids who just came in and were dominant essentially right from the start."
Caligiuri put up a 2.73 gaa and a .897 save percentage, but Brandon fell in the quarterfinals.
He returned for his 19-year-old season in August, but the ground had shifted beneath him. Wheat Kings general manager and owner Kelly McCrimmon told him after camp that the team would likely be awarded the Memorial Cup in 2010 and they wouldn’t be carrying a 20-year-old goalie, so they wanted to use the 2008-09 season to evaluate what they had.
On Oct. 14, 2008, Caligiuri was shipped to Prince George for a seventh-round pick in 2009. (Brandon used the selection on a young defenceman named Ryan Pulock.)
"It was tough, to be honest," Caligiuri said of the deal. "I didn’t want to go. I wanted the opportunity to play with those guys, especially knowing they were going to be very strong."
He had 24 starts that season as the Cougars earned the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
"That was a trying year in terms of how good our team was, but when I look back on it, it was probably a good year for me to learn a lot about myself," Caligiuri said.
After the season, Prince George released him and Caligiuri couldn’t find another spot in the league, so he joined the Dauphin Kings of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League as they prepared to host the 2010 RBC Cup.
"It was just sort of a fit for me with them hosting the RBC, and I came to the realization that I wanted to go play CIS — or they now call it U Sports — the year after so it didn’t make a whole lot of sense for me to go elsewhere with the opportunity of them hosting," Caligiuri said. "…Looking back on that, it was an unreal year. It was a good decision."
In 61 appearances, Caligiuri posted a 2.61 gaa and a .909 save percentage as the Kings went 50-11-1, the best mark in franchise history.
Dauphin then won 12 of 13 post-season games and Caligiuri was named playoff MVP as the Kings earned their first league title since 1992-93.
At the RBC Cup, they won all four games in the round-robin and their semifinal matchup, only to fall 8-1 in the final to the Vernon Vipers.
"In my last junior game I didn’t leave on the best note, but all in all it was a really good year," Caligiuri said.
Caligiuri had three years of scholarship money from the WHL, and decided to go to the University of Manitoba, where he spent four seasons with the Bisons from 2010 to 2014 as he earned a four-year bachelor of arts degree.
He also had another terrific learning experience.
In 2009, the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League added him as a third goalie after he returned from Prince George. His job was to simply skate with the Black Aces, who are the players on any team that are part of the roster but not suiting up for playoff games.
When the Jets returned to Winnipeg for the 2011-12 season, he also served as their emergency practice goalie, but Caligiuri knew his future path didn’t lie on the ice after he wasn’t picked up as an overager in the WHL.
"At that point I kind of knew the writing was on the wall in terms of realistically making a real go of it," Caligiuri said. "At that time I looked at it and my parents always emphasized school and I was always strong in that area so at that time is was ‘I still want to play hockey and give it a go at the university level but at the same time it’s probably best that I get on with my schooling."
He started taking university courses in Brandon in his 18-year-old season, and continued during the summer.
After he finished with the Bisons, and while he was in his third year of law school, Caligiuri kept his hand in the game as a coach with the Goaltending Development Institute and with the Kings.
"I always knew that eventually I wanted to stay involved in hockey on the business side of it," Caligiuri said. "That was probably my plan since I was 20, 21 years old. It was great. I got to see the inside of how organizations are run and what goes into scouting evaluations and things like that. It was a good learning experience for me and helped my transition into sort of what I’m doing today."
While he was still in school, Caligiuri attended the Hockey Arbitration Competition of Canada events run by University of Toronto law students that simulate salary arbitration procedures used in the National Hockey League. Participants argue salaries based on real players and real statistics, and Caligiuri was hooked.
"That really opened up my eyes to the world of the CBA (collective-bargaining agreement)," Caligiuri said. "…Kind of right from that point in early second year of law school, it was ‘This is right up my alley, I really enjoy it and it’s something that I want to do.’"
He graduated from law school in 2017 and joined Tapper Cuddy LLP, the firm he had articled with, as an associate. Caligiuri came up with a business model through Tapper Cuddy that he thought would benefit both the player and be something a little different in the industry, and signed his first client last spring.
Once the first contract was signed with his interim certification, Caligiuri went through complete background checks and received his full certification from the NHLPA.
"It’s a start," Caligiuri said. "I’m working on obtaining more clients and getting my name out there but it’s something that isn’t going to happen overnight. This is something that’s more of a long-term game but I really enjoy the nerdy side of hockey, the negotiations, the values, the contracts and stuff like that. It’s been a good fit, based on my background."
His personal life is certainly keeping up. Caligiuri is engaged to be married to his partner Natasha.
So is this the path that Joe Caligiuri was ultimately fated to take? He chuckles at the question.
"I’m very lucky and I really enjoy what I do," Caligiuri said. "Is there a part of me that would have loved to play professional hockey? For sure. At the end of the day, I gave it my all and realized my ability at that time compared to all these professionals was at a different level. Probably the simple answer is yes, I’ve been lucky and allowed to stay involved with the game and I plan to be for many more years. It’s a passion of mine and it’s what I’ve done since I was five years old.
"I look at my best friends, and where did I meet them, hockey. Part of what I do for my career now revolves around hockey. I guess the simple answer is yes."
» Twitter: @PerryBergson