Utah Grizzlies: For D.J. Jelitto, there’s no place like home
Hockey • Utah forward playing for hometown team while his father battles cancer.
Published: February 4, 2014 03:51PM
Updated: February 4, 2014 10:57PM
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Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Grizzlies' D.J. Jelitto, a hometown kid from West Valley City, after practice at the Maverik Center in West Valley City, Utah Monday, January 27, 2014.

West Valley City • Utah Grizzlies forward D.J. Jelitto is dedicating this season to his father, who is fighting a tough battle with cancer.

He’ll be the first to tell you that Dirk Jelitto made him the hockey player he is today — lacing him up in skates when he was a kid, building a makeshift ice rink in the backyard so he could hone his hockey skills and taking him to too many pro hockey games to keep count of.

“He deserves it,” Jelitto said of his father. “He got me started and this is my way of giving back. It’s the least I can do right now. I wish I could do more. …”

Difficult as all this has been, there is a silver lining: Jelitto is playing this season in the place he grew up, skating for the hometown team, with his family close by.

The Grizzlies’ winger is a native of West Valley City and a graduate of Hunter High. This is actually his second stint here — he played with Utah for two seasons beginning in 2005, before the club changed affiliations — but the return trip is obviously a lot more poignant.

“It was a big decision for me to come back, but it’s worked out for the best,” he said. “Even if it wouldn’t have worked out, I still would have come back for my dad.”

Jelitto has been a grinder, career-wise.

He started out playing high school hockey for an independent team (hockey is an unaffiliated club sport in Utah), then helped organize Hunter’s first hockey team, all the while posting a 3.98 GPA and earning an academic scholarship to the University of Utah. But he gave it all up to chase his hockey dreams, signing on to play as a junior professional in Canada.

“It was a big eye-opener,” Jelitto said of his introduction to hockey outside of Utah. “I came from being a top-end player here in Utah where it was quite easy to get around … and score goals and get points to going up there and … [being around] these big boys with beards. … It was a little intimidating. It took me a year or two to get my foot in the door, but … I really grew as a hockey player.”

He played well enough to earn that first contract in Utah. And though his first tour with the Grizzlies was less than fulfilling — “It was a rough couple years getting started, but I don’t think it’s easy for anyone,” he said — it did pave the way for what was to come.

Jelitto’s career flourished in Oklahoma City, where he scored 25 goals in back-to-back seasons and accumulated 92 points in just 118 games. That opened the door to play professional hockey in Germany, where he continued to thrive. After six seasons away from home, however, he received news that his dad had been diagnosed with late-stage metastatic melanoma. Despite his professional success in Europe, there was no way he could stay. Jelitto wanted to return to Utah to be close to his father, not knowing whether he would be able to continue his hockey career.

As it turned out, Jelitto’s return to Utah this season coincided with the Grizzlies’ worst goal-scoring drought of the season, and Utah coach Tim Branham was looking for more offense.

“I was contacted by one of his friends,” Branham said. “To be honest, I needed players at the time. We weren’t scoring a lot of goals. I had never seen D.J. play, but looking at his stats from Europe, I know some players that have played in that league and he had better stats than them so I decided to bring him in. I understood the situation [with his father] and we needed good players … guys that could put the puck in the net.”

Since joining the Grizzlies, Jelitto has played a vital role in the team’s resurgence, scoring seven goals and eight assists and helping lead the Grizzlies to the ECHL’s best record since Christmas. At one point during that critical stretch, the “hometown boy” as his teammates call him, led the league in plus-minus and, appropriately enough, scored the game-winning goal to extend the Grizzlies’ home-unbeaten streak to 11 games, the longest home unbeaten streak since the team moved to Utah in 1995 — when Jelitto was just 11 years old, his dad was turning on the faucet to create a frozen pond in the backyard and the family was going to Salt Lake Golden Eagles games.

Dirk’s condition doesn’t allow him to attend many Grizzlies’ games, but Jelitto knows his father is proud of his accomplishments, and the person he has become. To honor his dad, he’s wearing No. 62, the year his dad was born. He’s also playing the best hockey of his career.

“I feel like I’ve amped my game up,” said the Grizzlies forward. “Now every time I have a game I’m excited to play at that high level and intensity. … I try to do my best on the ice, and even if it doesn’t work one night, I come back the next day with [my] head held high.”

And why not? He’s one proud son.

A closer look

Pro career of Utah Grizzlies forward D.J. Jelitto:

2002-03 • Sarina (OHL)

GP G A 5 0 0

2002-03 • Saginaw (OHL)

GP G A 21 0 2

2004-05 • Omaha (USHL)

GP G A 59 15 23

2005-08 • Utah (ECHL)

GP G A 48 7 6

70 15 14

3 0 1

2007-09 • Oklahoma City (CHL)

GP G A 59 25 16

59 25 26

2009-13 • Hannover (2.GBun — Germany)

GP G A 51 14 16

29 15 10

45 18 23

48 13 29

20013-14 • Lausitzer (2.GBun — Germany)

GP G A 1 1 0

20013-14 • Utah (ECHL)

GP G A 27 7 8