After the New Jersey Devils acquire a player, the organization immediately acquaints him with his new northern New Jersey surroundings. For many professional hockey players—products of Canada, Russia and the American heartland—it can be a tough adjustment.
The Devils saved that step when they traded two draft picks to the Anaheim Ducks for Kyle Palmieri in June 2015. Palmieri, who was raised in Montvale, is right at home in the Garden State.
But despite his deep Jersey roots, Palmieri, 25, occasionally sounds Canadian, betraying a north-of-the-border cadence on words like about and south. “I’ve been around Canadians for so long that it rubbed off,” says Palmieri. “I never did have the New Jersey accent my mom has or the Long Island accent of my father.”
Palmieri left Montvale when he was 16 to join the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Finishing high school in Ann Arbor, he earned a scholarship to Notre Dame—he attended the university for one year—and was picked in the first round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft by the Anaheim Ducks.
But Palmieri learned hockey and honed his early skills in New Jersey, spending much of his youth on the ice at DePiero’s Country Farm, his family’s well-known spread in Bergen County. When Palmieri turned seven, his father Bruce built a rink on the farm, which had been established by the family of his mother, Tammy, in 1924. In time, the little patch of ice grew to 30 by 85 feet. (DePiero’s Farm was a Bergen County icon for nine decades until the family downsized the operation in 2015 to make way for a Wegmans and other retail space.)
Palmieri, a muscular, compact 5-foot-11, grins when reminiscing about his early hockey days.
“It all started on that ice,” he says of the family rink. “It got bigger, and I became a better skater. My dad put lights up, and my buddies and I played until we passed out.”
At 12, Palmieri took part in the Devils youth-hockey program at West Orange’s venerable Richard Codey Arena (then called South Mountain Arena). The professional Devils team practiced at the same facility, but Palmieri didn’t envision himself one day sporting the red and black.
“I favored the Rangers,” he admits. “I embraced the Rangers when I was really young. They had Mark Messier, Adam Graves and Mike Richter.”
Not that it mattered to the Devils. In February 2007, while Palmieri was playing at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, the Devils named him high school player of the month. Zach Parise, then the Devils’ star forward, posed with Palmieri for a photo.
Kevin Fox, who played alongside Palmieri at St. Peter’s, says his teammate’s talent was immediately obvious. “He was clearly one of the best players on the ice as a freshman,” says Fox, now senior manager of grassroots and amateur hockey operations for the Devils.
Palmieri left small-town Jersey for a rare opportunity to train for the USA national team in Ann Arbor. The invitation came as something of a surprise. “I really didn’t know I was on that level,” he says. “I was lucky enough to make that team at 16 and improve my game in Michigan.”
After making the most of his time in Ann Arbor, Palmieri entered Notre Dame. In his first and only season playing highly competitive Division 1 hockey, he scored nine goals and 17 points in 33 games. He left Notre Dame to turn pro in 2010. He played five seasons for the Ducks until the trade to the Devils.
“It was a great experience being in Anaheim,” says Palmieri, “but I was so disconnected from home. You’re on another coast and a different time zone. Everything is different.”
Palmieri was ecstatic when he learned during a golf vacation in Ireland with some NHL buddies that he had been dealt to the Devils. “It’s been awesome,” he says. “I’ve had the opportunity to come back and be around friends and family. They have helped me with their support.”
It’s not idle talk. Palmieri doubled his point production during his first season with the Devils, scoring 30 goals to go along with 27 assists—both career highs. He parlayed the strong year, in which he played all 82 regular-season games and was the team’s leading scorer, into a five-year, $23.25 million contract.
“It’s great to be able to say I’ll be here for the next couple of seasons,” says the right-winger. “I love it here for so many reasons. My friends and family are only about 20 to 30 minutes away.”
Palmieri also loves his new hometown of Hoboken. “I hang out with guys I’ve been friends with since I was in the third grade,” he says. “The great thing is that these guys grew up playing baseball and basketball, so the conversation about hockey begins and ends with me and the Devils. That’s a huge break, for me to be able to go out and blow off steam and not think about hockey when I’m not playing.”
Among Palmieri’s Hoboken haunts is Benny Tudino’s, the venerable Washington Street pizzeria. And while Palmieri’s signed picture hangs on the wall, he’s in a Ducks uniform.
“We don’t want any Devils pictures in here,” says restaurant manager Agron Dushaj. “We’re Rangers fans. We’ll accept a picture of Kyle with just a regular shirt on if he wants to update the photo, since he’s a Jersey guy. But he’s a good guy. He comes in here for a plain slice.”
Despite all his youthful achievements, Palmieri never takes his success for granted. “I know how fortunate I am to play the game,” he says. In fact, he is one of only a handful of Jersey-bred NHL players. Others currently making an impact include Cherry Hill’s Bobby Ryan (Ottawa Senators); Middletown’s James van Riemsdyk (Toronto Maple Leafs) and his brother Trevor (Chicago Blackhawks); Carneys Point’s Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames); and Woodbridge-raised John Carlson (Washington Capitals).
Bruce Driver, a defenseman for the Devils from 1984 to 1995, says Palmieri learned a “fast, aggressive, supportive” style of play growing up in Jersey. “Kyle is not only a talented hockey player,” adds Driver, “he is a great teammate.”
Fellow Devils star Adam Henrique, who lives in the same Hoboken apartment complex as Palmieri, concurs. “Kyle is a great teammate,” Henrique says. “Playing with him this past season, it’s easy to see why he had a great year. It’s great that he can do it in his backyard, where his family and friends can enjoy it.”
Palmieri smiles when the conversation turns to family. In addition to his parents, Palmieri’s inner circle includes his two older sisters, Tahrin and Taylor, and his younger brother Devon, who plays Division I hockey for Stony Brook University on Long Island.
“I have great siblings and incredible parents who helped make this all a reality,” says Palmieri. “They enabled me to get here.”
These days, the former Rangers fan takes pride in his Devils uniform. “It’s an honor to carry on the Devils tradition,” he says. “I think about it when I look up at the banners with the retired numbers and see Ken Daneyko and Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens and Marty Brodeur’s names up there. It all came full circle to when I practiced at West Orange. I was just a kid playing hockey back then, but it makes me think about being a role model. Kids who were part of the same programs I was part of can watch me play in front of 15,000 or 20,000 people and believe that—if they work really hard-—they can play hockey for many years to come, because they see me out there, a guy who was just another kid from Jersey.”
Ed Condran is a freelance writer based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.Click here to leave a comment