| The Detroit News
Growing up in Austria during the Detroit Red Wings’ back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances in 2008 and 2009, Marco Rossi had his choice of favorite National Hockey League superstars to emulate from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins to Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.
Now a top-10 prospect for the 2020 NHL Draft next Tuesday after leading the Ontario Hockey League in scoring with 120 points in 56 games with the Ottawa 67’s last year, Rossi chose Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk but not just because of Datsyuk’s highlight-reel goals and sleight-of-hand passes.
Datsyuk was also a three-time winner of the Frank J. Selke Award given to the forward with the best defensive skills and Rossi’s father valued defense after a 20-year career as a defenseman in Austrian hockey leagues, highlighted by a European title and Spengler Cup appearance with nine-time league champion VEU Feldkirch in 1998.
“My dad always taught me to play well in the defensive zone,” Rossi said. “He said if you understand how to play defense, you’ll be in position offensively. I took that advice really serious when I was young. When I watched hockey highlights, Pavel Datsyuk was my idol. It was crazy that a superstar that good could be so good defensively.”
It’s Rossi’s all-around game that has the Red Wings considering the 5-foot-9, 185-pound center with the fourth overall pick along with Erie Otters defensemen Jamie Drysdale, Saginaw Spirit center Cole Perfetti and Swedish winger Lucas Raymond. The top three picks are expected to be Rimouski Oceanic winger Alexis Lafreniere, Sudbury Wolves center Quinton Byfield and German winger Tim Stutzle.
Ottawa coach Andre Tourigny feels it’s unfair to compare the 19-year-old Rossi to future Hall of Famer Datsyuk, but he said Rossi is “NHL-ready in terms of his approach to the game” and wouldn’t be surprised if he makes the big leap to the pros.
“He’s a super driven kid who is willing to do whatever it takes to become a pro player,” Tourigny said. “He’s the best player in our league, super competitive on and off the ice, really good defensively on both sides of the puck. His goal is to play in the NHL and that’s the way it should be. It all depends which teams takes him in the draft.”
Just as Stutzle could become the highest-drafted German hockey player ahead of Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award winner Leon Draisaitl (No. 3 overall by the Edmonton Oilers in 2014), Rossi could surpass Austrian and former Red Wings forward Thomas Vanek (No. 5 overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2003).
Vanek, who has offered advice to Rossi and was a hometown hero for most of the younger 15 Austrians who have played in the NHL, scored 31 goals in his freshman season with the 2003 NCAA champion Minnesota Golden Gophers, 42 goals in his rookie season with the AHL Rochester Americans and 373 career goals in 1,029 NHL games, including 31 goals in two stints in Detroit in 2017 and 2019.
“Even if I get drafted before Vanek, it doesn’t mean you’re going to have a better career or something,” Rossi said. “To be honest, I try to control what I can control like my work ethic, how I work on my body, how I work on my game. If you compare me back to March, I’m two completely different persons. I’m faster and I’ve had a big improvement in my speed, stride and explosiveness. I’m just getting ready for the season.”
Tourigny, the head coach of this year’s Canadian junior hockey team which could face Rossi’s Austrian team at the world championships in the bubble environment in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta on Dec. 26-Jan. 5, says Rossi isn’t a “speedster like (Connor) McDavid” but he’s projected to be an “above-average” skater in the NHL.
“Did you watch the game last night?” Tourigny said. “How did Brayden Point play? He’s 5-10 and he’s a pretty good player. It’s not about the size of the dog but the size of the fight in the dog. Everybody would take Marco on their team. He has the same kind of professionalism, competitiveness. I have no problems comparing him to Brayden Point.”
Rossi says he gets his “mental toughness” from his father, who lost two jobs moving the family to Switzerland from Austria to be closer to better teams, coaches and players. The drive to Zurich for practices was an hour and a half and he says his dad would be up at 5 a.m., head off to work, pick him up after school, go to practice and cook him something to eat when they got him before midnight.
“Without my dad, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Rossi said. “When I was 8 or 9, I was the best player in Austria but it’s not that good in Austria at that age. He always wanted to show me there were other good hockey players in the world.
“At 13, you have to make the decision. Should I go to practice in Zurich with that long drive or do I want to go to the cinema with my friends? If you’re that young and you make those decisions, mentally, it makes you stronger and stronger.
“Dad tested me sometimes. Today we’re not going to Zurich. Today you have a day off. I said, ‘No, we’re going to Zurich right now.’ I packed my bag. I was waiting in the car. He said, ‘OK, I guess have to drive now.’ I could sleep. I have no words for what he did.”
When Rossi made the move to Ottawa for his rookie season, which produced a 65-point season and a trip to the OHL final, his father told him to “respect the coach.” Tourigny said Rossi’s father “trusted him” and never “interfered” with his son.
“First and foremost, they’re a close family,” Tourigny said. “The first year was tough for Marco with the language, the style of play. When they came over, you saw the smiles and the body language, you could tell they were really missing each other.
“His second year, he was a role model, an influencer. People who have influence are leaders but that doesn’t mean they influence in the right direction. He does the right thing, makes the right decisions and understands his role with others.”
Ottawa teammate Jack Quinn improved to 52 goals last year from 12 goals in 2018-19 and he credits Rossi for “pushing” him to become a better two-way player.
“He’s a great player,” said Quinn, who is the seventh-ranked North American prospect by Central Scouting (Rossi is rated sixth). “When I was out there with him, he was definitely a great passer. I got open and he set me up for a lot of goals.”
Rossi said it would be “really nice” if he’s drafted by the Red Wings because of his idols Datsyuk and Vanek but says he’s “not really thinking about that right now.” As one of the older players in the draft (late birthdate on Sept. 23), he’s been called one of the most mature and prepared players to make the NHL next year.
“When I was 8 or 9, I was playing against 16-year-olds,” Rossi said. “When I was 15, I was playing against men in pro hockey in Switzerland. I’m not afraid to play against bigger and strong guys. I’ve had a really long summer and I’m ready to play.”
Marco Rossi glance
Who: Marco Rossi
Born: Feldkirch, Austria
Age: 19 (Sept. 23, 2001)
Weight: 185 pounds
Background: Led the Ontario Hockey League in scoring with 39 goals and 81 assists in 56 games with the Ottawa 67’s. Won the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHL’s most outstanding player of the year.
Quote: “What I like about Marco is he likes to get down to business,” Ottawa coach Andre Tourigny said. “He’s not a guy to talk about cars or fashions or movies. He loves to talk about hockey, his country, history.”