A first round draft choice in the National Hockey League is an extremely rare title that belongs to only a select few. Of the billions of people who exist in the world, there are only a mere 1,172 individuals since the inception of the draft in 1963 that can lay claim to being a first rounder. One of them is former Boston Bruins’ and Toronto Maple Leafs’ player, Robert Cimetta. Selected 18th overall in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft by the Boston Bruins, Cimetta experienced the fortune and the excitement of being drafted by an “Original Six” NHL team.
“It was definitely a dream come true”, Cimetta tells me. “An Original Six team… the history surrounding it… but it was just the beginning”. The actual beginning though for him was an entire 12-years earlier. Born in Toronto, Ontario on February 15th, 1970, Robert Cimetta started playing organized hockey at the tender age of six. “Growing up I lived a block away from the indoor and outdoor rink. I learned from the older kids that kept knocking me over” <laughs>. Little did he realize at the time that as his career progressed he would play his major junior hockey as well as a portion of his professional career in his hometown too.
Hailing from Toronto, Cimetta was definitely a Maple Leafs fan as a youngster, but his true hockey heroes with whom he would find inspiration were the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. Starting from the age of fourteen until he was already into his own second professional season, his idolized Oilers would win five Stanley Cup championships; the ironic part being that Edmonton defeated Cimetta’s Bruin teammates in the Cup Finals for their fifth championship during the 1989-90 season, though Cimetta himself would not see any playoff action. A handful of his Edmonton heroes, like Glenn Anderson, Andy Moog, Ken Linseman, Mike Krushelnyski, Dave Hannan, and Grant Fuhr, would all eventually become teammates of his as his NHL career went along.
Drafted into the Ontario Hockey League by his hometown Toronto Marlboros, Cimetta would have a remarkable major junior career. “I was drafted by Toronto. I debated whether I should wait to receive a scholarship to play at a college or university, but Harold Ballard (former Chief Executive of the Marlboros and former owner of the Maple Leafs) offered me a full ride to any Canadian university if I signed, so I committed to playing major junior with the Marlboros”. Cimetta would have three very productive seasons offensively with the Marlboros, increasing his point totals each year. Despite being limited to 50 out of 66 games, his third and final season was his most productive; Robert not only led Toronto in team scoring with 102-total points, but his 55-goals led the entire OHL. Arguably, it was this particular season that promoted Cimetta to being a heralded first round draft prospect consideration for any number of NHL teams, as well as a nod to the 1989 World Junior Championships for Team Canada.
The 1989 tournament was held in Anchorage, Alaska, and it would be dominated by the Soviet Union and their incomparable top line of Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny, and Sergei Fedorov; widely considered by many to be the top forward line in the history of the World Juniors. Though Canada would finish fourth place in the standings and fail to medal, Cimetta was by no means a slouch in his contributions. While Americans Jeremy Roenick and Mike Modano were the leaders in tournament scoring with 16 and 15-points respectively, Robert Cimetta would lead the Canadians in team scoring, on a roster that included many longtime NHL players like Andrew Cassels, Eric Desjardins, Rod Brind’Amour, Sheldon Kennedy, and Mike Ricci, among others. In 7-games, Cimetta would score 7-goals and 4-assists; the 7-goals being three ahead of Fedorov, tied with Mogilny, and one shy Bure’s total for the tournament.
“I think around the age of fifteen you realize that the jump from major junior to the NHL is the next natural and attainable goal”, Cimetta surmises regarding his success during his teenage years. Being selected by an NHL team as historic as the Boston Bruins would in many ways be everything a hockey-crazed young man could have dreamed of, and it would not take him very long to find the opportunity to play for the organization. With the 1989 World Juniors wrapping up January 8th, Cimetta would play his first NHL game just weeks later on January 21st in a 6-5 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at the Boston Garden. Beginning with the game against Buffalo, there would be a string of 5-games at the end of January where he would suit up for the Bruins, including a home-and-home series against Buffalo starting with that first game. Through those first five games, Cimetta would go pointless and was a minus-5; a bit of a rough start.
It can be exceptionally trying for an eighteen-year old to not find immediate success in a new environment, especially after having been so highly productive prior to becoming a professional. Growing pains of sorts. Fortunately though for Robert Cimetta, there would be a strong veteran presence on the Bruins’ roster to help see him along, particularly the team’s captain. “Ray Bourque. Just a great leader, and he led by example”, Cimetta recalled of the superstar Hall of Famer and Boston’s longest tenured player at the time. Having gotten through perhaps the toughest portion of the big jump to the NHL, it would be over 2-months later during a second run with the team that Cimetta would record his first two points in the league; a pair of goals that he netted on April Fools’ Day during a 5 -4 victory over the Quebec Nordiques. Cimetta would finish out the year with one more regular season game to bring his total to 7-games for his first season. He would also make a playoff appearance during Game-One of a 1st-round Adams’ Division battle between the Bruins and the Sabres that year; Cimetta would record 15-penalty minutes in the lone playoff game of his NHL career.
Cimetta’s time with the Bruins would be relatively short-lived. The following 1989-90 season would be his first full season in Boston and it would be his final one. Though he would play a handful of games with the Bruins’ American Hockey League affiliate the Maine Marines at the tail-end of the season, Cimetta would spend the bulk of the year with the parent club Bruins from October through March. He would play 47-games for the “B’s”, registering 8-goals and 9-assists for 17-points. And then that would be it. The chapter on Cimetta’s career as a Boston Bruin would come to a close.
The Fall of 1990 would see the Bruins trade the esteemed first-rounder to his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for seldom used defender, Steve Bancroft, who would not even appear in an NHL game for Boston. The trip back home would be a bit of a comfort for Cimetta, and he would split his playing time fairly evenly between the Maple Leaf’s and their AHL affiliates. “Toronto was a good fit at the time for a trade”, he recalls. “They knew me pretty well from my time in junior. And playing in Maple Leaf Gardens itself was just a very special place”. While Cimetta would begin the 1990-91 season with Toronto’s Newmarket Saints of the AHL, he would eventually be called up to the Leafs in late-January and be able to contribute a pair of goals and 4-assists in 25-games. The following season was relatively the same but in reverse; he would begin the 1991-92 season with the Leafs, scoring 4-goals and 3-assists in 24-games, but would be sent down to Toronto’s new AHL affiliate, the St. John’s Maple Leafs in late-January. Cimetta’s final NHL game would come January 25th, 1992 during a 6-4 Toronto win over the Philadelphia Flyers; he would finish the game as a plus-2.
Robert Cimetta’s time in the NHL was unfortunately brief. I say “unfortunate”, because I believe that if he ended up with more opportunity to play with either the Bruins or Leafs, or even another club, he would have eventually made his mark in the league. Even Cimetta recognizes the challenges that he faced in order to make it in the greatest hockey league in the world. “I just could not stay healthy, unfortunately. I was feeling a lot of confidence as a player building up, but there were just too many injury setbacks”. He would play two more seasons of professional hockey in North America, before making a dramatic change in his career. More importantly, he would also find his scoring touch once more. The 1992-93 season would see Cimetta play 76-games for the Saint John’s Maple Leafs, finishing second overall in team scoring with 28-goals and 57-assists for 85-points. The following campaign, 1993-94, he would move onto the IHL (International Hockey League), where he finished first overall in team scoring for the Indianapolis Ice with 26-goals and 54-assists for 80-points.
Despite the success both in the AHL and the IHL, Cimetta would opt to play overseas to finish out his professional career. “Playing in Germany evolved during the lockout year (1994-95 season)”, he tells me. “I did really well over there, and I was given a very lucrative deal that was relative to being a fringe NHL player at the time”. Cimetta would be a solid player in seasons with both the Mannheim Eagles and the Berlin Capitals of the German Elite League. “There were great life experiences and we won a few championships while I was over there”, speaking of the back-to-back championships that Mannheim won while Cimetta was on the team during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. Thoroughly enjoying his time playing in Germany, it would not last forever. After those seven years Cimetta would officially retire. “I had a few meniscus tears, and at the age of 30 I had to stop”.
Looking back on his career, the game taught Robert Cimetta some key concepts. “Hard work, drive, and dealing with adversity are what build character and yield success”, which is very well stated to me by a man who accomplished much at a young age, and at the highest of levels – professionally and internationally, even. Cimetta qualifies his statement though by adding, “but we need some luck in there too”. While I agree with him that we do need luck, I think Cimetta’s achievements were more so accomplished by his own hard work and determination. When I look upon his career, I feel that what Robert accomplished at the 1989 World Junior Championships is what is most remarkable. He carried the weight of a nation on his shoulders at that tournament and did so quite wonderfully. After all, it is “Canada’s game”, and expectations were very high. But to see that his production was on par with Hall of Famers and Stanley Cup champions like Fedorov, Bure, Mogilny, Roenick and Modano, I cannot help but think that if he only had more of the luck he had mentioned that his name in hockey may have reached the same level as theirs, and that he could have produced similar numbers and results across a storied NHL career of his own. But alas.
There have only been those 1,172 first-round draft choices in NHL history. Robert Cimetta is forever one of them. And that is not because of “luck”. Instead, that is because of Cimetta’s “hard work, drive, and his having dealt with adversity”. Cimetta is a man with character.