Kent Denver grad DiChiara finding true excitement playing junior hockey in ’21-22 for MHL’s Mariners
AJ DiChiara graduated from Kent Denver in 2020 and then spent a post-graduate year at the Deerfield Academy last season in Massachusetts.
This season, the Denver product is playing out his junior hockey eligibility with the Maritime Hockey League’s Yarmouth Mariners, located in southwestern Nova Scotia.
To understand how DiChiara wound up in Canada starts with his time in Colorado.
“My story starts in Colorado where after playing for the Thunderbirds for a couple of years, I played varsity hockey at Kent Denver and was named All-State Second Team my senior year,” said DiChiara. “After a showcase back east, I was recruited by Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts for a post-graduate year. The plan was to get exposure to some East Coast colleges but, unfortunately, we basically did not have a season last year because of COVID-19.
“The Colgate hockey staff, however, did reach out for my Deerfield coach and said they would be interested in me, but I would have to get into Colgate on my own and play juniors for a year. It was not easy getting into Colgate, but the hardest part was making a junior team as an unknown 20-year-old. I spent most of this summer traveling all over North America looking for the right fit on a junior hockey team. In August, I was in Ontario trying out for a team and their coach told me he was good friends with a coach in the MHL with the Yarmouth Mariners. A week later in September, I was in Nova Scotia with the Mariners for their training camp. After a long week of tryouts, the fit seemed to be right, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Now truly immersed in the team and city of Yarmouth, DiChiara said one of the biggest things that has stood out to him has been the location and atmosphere of the town. That doesn’t mean he has been homesick from time to time, however.
“Yarmouth is a fishing and tourist town right on the Atlantic and although it is a relatively small town, all the people here love the Mariners,” DiChiara said. “I didn’t really understand how ingrained hockey was in their culture until after our first preseason game when three local kids asked me to sign their hats. Playing in a different country with such support (we get 800-1000 fans a game) and love for the game has been so fun. I think my favorite part about the league is that really any team can win on any given day and as a goalie, keeping that constant readiness has really helped develop my game.
“The thing I miss most from home is home-cooked meals. I am currently living on my own and although I now can make a wonderful chicken and rice dish for almost every meal, it can get a little old.”
So far this season, DiChiara is 8-2-0 with a 2.04 GAA and a .923 save percentage with three shutouts. His GAA and shutouts lead the MHL, while he is fifth in wins and third in save percentage.
“I think the season started off pretty well with my first game being a shutout, but I struggled a little bit the next couple games after,” DiChiara said. “Some pucks just weren’t bouncing my way and I was a little down on myself. I stayed focused and things turned around with some luck. I think being named player of the week has been great, but I did not achieve that on my own. No matter how good a goalie is at this level, if the team in front of them can’t play well, they can’t either. I think my team has done a really good job giving me a chance to make some good saves and that gave me the opportunity to receive the MHL player of the week award a few times now.”
Originally from Basking Ridge, N.J., DiChiara got into hockey there some 15 years ago.
“My dad was a goalie when he was younger and I think I always wanted to try it,” DiChiara said. “I was very mediocre as a player and when a team asked me to throw on goalie pads for a game, I took a liking to it. I then played for the New Jersey Colonials for a few years before moving to Denver when I was 12.
“When I first moved from New Jersey to Colorado, I tried out for and made the Colorado Thunderbirds. I had a coach in my first year (12U) named Kevin Fredrick. Although his approach at the age of 12 seemed a little over the top, now with hindsight I appreciate his philosophy and for introducing me to all the elements necessary for success at this level, like conditioning, nutrition, goalie coaching, all that. After I left the Thunderbirds, I started to play for my high school team, Kent Denver. The Kent Denver hockey program was not the most successful at the time, but a couple other players from the Thunderbirds, Ben Zimmerman and George Kandel, really helped turn the program around some over a few years. We eventually ended up making it to the Elite 8 my junior year.”
With a bright future ahead, DiChiara is excited to see more of his dreams become reality.
“My goals with school and hockey have always been very intertwined,” said DiChiara. “A large reason why I decided to continue to pursue hockey through boarding school and juniors was for the prospect of college hockey. I have always seen hockey not only as something I love to play, but also as a path to explore other opportunities, like playing juniors in Canada.
“I have also recently found out that I am eligible for dual Italian citizenship, so that is something I am beginning to explore in terms of my hockey career.”
— Matt Mackinder
(December 2, 2021)