TORONTO – The kid from Binghamton, New York was 19 at the time, shoulders puffed out wide, confidence brimming, strut on lock.
"I came in too high and mighty on the horse," he said, looking back. "Just trying to think my [expletive] didn't stink and felt like I could be making the team my first year. And I think that was a big problem going into it, definitely as a rookie."
Jerry D'Amigo has done a lot of growing up since his first training camp with the Leafs in the fall of 2010. Hype was booming for the sixth-round pick back then. A standout performance with Team USA at the World Juniors the previous winter had made him a popular sleeper selection for the Leafs opening day roster. All that sizzle quieted down in a hurry though, and by February, not only was D'Amigo not a Leaf but no longer a Marlie either, assigned to play with Kitchener in the Ontario Hockey League.
By the end of what was an underwhelming season, D'Amigo was drained; his body "worn down" from 71 games across two leagues – more than doubling his total from a year prior with R.P.I. – his star dashed for all to see.
Only a week went by before the light burst on. "Something clicked in my head," said the now 21-year-old D'Amigo. "And I'm like, 'I'm not going to stay long in this league if I keep on going the way I'm going here.' That was one of the things that sat in my head and wanted to make me change.
"I wanted to show Toronto that I have more, [that] I'm not just an average guy with an average work ethic. I've got something to prove here and I'm going to do that."
Inspired and ready to get serious about his craft, D'Amigo set about instilling change in every dimension of his preparation. His off-season focus would have to heighten with greater scrutiny, his training habits would have to be fine-tuned and manicured with professionalism, and the greasy foods of his diet all but erased. "I had to change that up and notice that, listen there's a lot of other guys that are better than me, I've just got to beat them out of their spot and do a lot better than I am," he said.
The first hockey player Rob Baxter would train at the BX Player Development Group in Binghamton, D'Amigo dug in with his workouts in the summer. He'd train for five days each week, cycling after a workout three times, hitting the track at least once, while getting outdoors as often as possible. For his five-foot-eleven frame, D'Amigo would ensure that his weight remained a sturdy 195 pounds, becoming leaner "and making sure my body was more fit."
Frequent trips to his favourite local restaurants became another fabric of the past. "That really takes its toll," said D'Amigo of eating out, noting how much better he felt without the regular intake of burgers and fries in his diet. Three big meals a day were replaced by six smaller portions, with breakfast becoming a staple of the meal plan. D'Amigo also took to cooking, churning out chicken and pasta while also swiping a recipe or two from his mom.
"I learned how to make her sauce," he chuckled. "Nice Italian boy learning his mom's sauce is always good."
Rather than pacing into the rink at the very last moment, D'Amigo also started showing up to work early, stretching with precision before making his way to the gym each morning. He'd hit the ice early, stay late; whatever it took to raise the underlying elements of his trade.
Dallas Eakins took notice.
D'Amigo rapidly evolved into a vital contributor for Eakins and the Marlies last season, an energetic penalty killer with a coarse two-way game that saw him post 15 goals, 41 points and a plus-13 rating in 76 games. A strong regular season gave way to an even better post-season, eight goals and 13 points with a plus-12 rating.
"I think I went a little above and beyond what I thought I could do and what I could contribute to the team," said D'Amigo. "I wanted to prove myself from last year; I had a rough go of it and I just wanted to turn things around and I think I did that."
Challenged to snatch back the buzz of that first training camp, D'Amigo is anxious to continue the buildup of his resume. He's looking to sharpen his offensive game this season, but must also maintain his effectiveness as a checker while becoming a more consistent agitating force. He wants to make the jump to the NHL this season (lockout withstanding), proud that he's moved past the missteps of his younger days.
"I can't go back to that," he said. "I've got to stay high and keep that same level of play [that] I had. And to do that, I've got to put my expectations higher; I've got to want to be Dallas's first guy [that] he puts on the ice, first guy that comes to mind to go on the ice against their top line…just to know that he can count on me in every situation. Maybe this year it's power-play, I could do something like that. Just trying to improve on things and just getting to that next level where he's like, 'Listen, he's good in this league, I think he can make the step,' that's the point where I want to be this upcoming year."