Shane Pinto wasn’t destined to play in the National Hockey League. He made it his destiny.
Pinto, a Franklin Square native who is expected to make his NHL debut with the Ottawa Senators on Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Center, spent the first 15 years of his life focusing on baseball and hoping like so many other young Long Islanders to one day play in the majors.
Then, even before he turned 16, Pinto packed his bags, moved away and set out on his own amazing journey. It has taken him to U.S. Hockey League excellence, being selected No. 32 overall by the Senators, two years in a starring role at the University of North Dakota where he was a Hobey Baker finalist – and now to Saturday.
"It's probably going to be one of the best days of my life," Pinto said in surprisingly calm tone during a telephone interview from Ottawa. "I'm just going try to soak it all in. It's once in a lifetime to just play your first NHL game so I'm not going to put too much pressure on myself. I'm just going to go out there, have fun and try to enjoy it as much as I can because it only happens once."
Pinto earned an assist on an empty-net goal late in the third period for his first NHL point. He took 15 shifts and won 4 of 6 faceoffs in the Senators’ 4-0 win.
If Pinto’s demeanor seems something less than-over-the-top about living a dream, it’s because he spent most of his 20 years focused on the here-and-now. That psychological stillness is the reason he can anticipate so much at such high speeds from the center position. It combines with an exquisite understanding of the game to give him what North Dakota coach Brad Berry called "a very high hockey IQ."
But it also was in play when he decided to leave home at such a young age. That’s not to say there wasn’t some passion, but it also involved a sort of epiphany about a series of events during the summer of 2016.
"Two things sort of happened at the same time," Pinto said. "Playing youth hockey, I paid attention to the sport and that season I saw every game the Pittsburgh Penguins played when they won the (2016) Stanley Cup. I think I just sort of started falling in love with the game and started feeling that I wanted to be as good at it as I could.
"And then I got to play in a showcase event (in Red Bank, New Jersey) and coaches from schools and top programs started expressing interest."
Pinto had been no slouch as a baseball player. As a sophomore at Carey High School, he was the starting third baseman for a strong Seahawks program. But on a suggestion at a youth hockey game, Pinto’s parents, Frank and Catherine, brought him to the showcase in Red Bank one summer weekend and something happened.
"It was three days and, on the Saturday, he scored five goals and had two assists," Frank Pinto, a staffing solutions provider, said he and Catherine, who works in information technology, were a bit amazed.
And then their phones began to ring.
"He has always had great timing in hockey and so, too, in life – that can be everything," said Frank Pinto.
His next destination was South Kent High School and Selects Academy, an elite national program in Connecticut that sort of doubles as the school team. He bloomed late going from role player as an underclassmen to central figure as a senior, accumulating 34 goals and 31 assists in 54 contests. It was during that season that Berry first saw Pinto and the next year -- when he played in the USHL -- his future college coach saw him again with the Lincoln (Nebraska) Stars and Tri-City (Nebraska) Storm.
"He had really progressed: he’d always skated well, but you could see the detail in his game," Berry said of Pinto, who totaled 68 points in total games. "We look for what we call ‘hard skills,’ which is great skills and the ability to play hard with them. Where I thought he’d need two seasons in USHL after seeing him in high school, he’d only needed one to develop to our level."
Getting drafted in the NHL can be part of a long trajectory of building in the NHL because a team retains the rights to a player for three years, but allows him to play on an NCAA scholarship. Pinto had always been determined to improve, and he stood out at North Dakota.
"We call them ‘all-dayers,’" Berry said. "These are the players who really invest in themselves. They work to improve their weaknesses before classes and after practices. And Shane got better. He became one of the nation’s best at winning faceoffs and his quickness improved."
The last three weeks have been what he called a "surreal whirlwind." His North Dakota team lost a five-overtime heartbreaker to miss out on going to the Frozen Four on March 27. Four days later, he signed a three-year deal with Ottawa and then it was off to Canada to begin the protocols of quarantine and isolation. Since Saturday, he has been at practice getting his legs back under him to make his NHL debut.
The Senators (14-26-4) will have a dozen games left on this season shortened by COVID-19. The organization has been in a rebuilding mode and Pinto is part of a wave of younger players expected to turn Ottawa into a contender. He will have familiar faces around him, too. His North Dakota teammate, defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker, is also is a part of the youth movement and began playing in Wednesday night’s home loss to Winnipeg.
Asked if there were any moments along this amazing journey where he ever though ‘this isn’t going to happen for me’ or "I can’t believe this is happening to me,’ Pinto replied "not really because I try to always be focused on the coming game. My parents never pushed me to a brink where I lashed out back at sports. They didn’t pressure me. They let me make my own way in the game and, for that, I am grateful. It doesn’t always go that way.
"There will be a time when I will be able to step back and look at how far I’ve come and the great moments – getting drafted was certainly a great one – and a reflect but there will be a time for that. Maybe after Saturday or maybe after the season is over. Who knows?"
Center (shoots right)
Birth date: 11/12/00 (20 years old)
Franklin Square, NY
Height: 6-2. Weight: 192
Draft: Ottawa, Round 2 (No. 32 overall), 2019 Entry Draft
Season Team League GP G A Pts PIM
2018-19 Lincoln Stars USHL 30 17 15 32 51
2018-19 Tri-City Storm USHL 26 11 16 27 12
2019-20 Univ. of North Dakota NCHC 33 16 12 28 46
2020-21 Univ. of North Dakota NCHC 28 15 17 32 4