By John Manasso
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The rejection letters came bundled in one day’s mail, as if a condemnation from the hockey gods.
Four arrived from prep schools that cruel summer day in 2000, shortly after Dave Caruso graduated from Roswell High School. He was one of the top goaltenders on the Southern travel circuit, a solid student who was counting on a chance to play at the next level.
But players from Georgia don’t get much recognition from coaches and scouts in the Hockey Belt. So instead of waiting to be noticed, Caruso took his game North. Six years later, he’s a Gwinnett Gladiator playing in front of friends and family.
Caruso signed a free-agent contract with the Atlanta Thrashers last summer, shortly after graduation from Ohio State. He was assigned to the club’s AA affiliate in Gwinnett, where he’s compiled a 20-8-4 record, a 3.12 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage, often with a personal cheering section of 15 behind him at Gwinnett Arena.
“It’s definitely a dream come true,” said Caruso, 24. “… Who wouldn’t want to play in their hometown?”
A little help from his friends
Linda Caruso imbued a love of hockey in her son from his earliest years in Hicksville, N.Y. She would take him to watch her brother, Lou Schwing, playing goalie for Connecticut College. They went to New York Islanders practices. At 9 months, baby Dave could hold a hockey stick.
Dave was 7 and already involved in the game when his father, David Caruso Sr., was transferred south by Wilkinson Sword Inc. Dave took his game to the Marietta Ice Rink and eventually on the road.
The entire family went on the travel-team circuit: Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, Charlotte and the epicenter of Southern youth hockey: Huntsville, Ala., with its Division I college program at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. David had three younger siblings by then.
“We didn’t go on a lot of vacations,” his father said. “We’d go on hock-cations.”
While a senior in high school, Caruso won an award given by the owner of the Marietta rink to its top player. If Caruso could find a place to continue playing hockey, the award pledged scholarship money.
So the quest began. It appeared hopeless at the outset.
When Caruso got shut out by Northern prep schools, his mother took it hardest.
“Did I do the kid an injustice by living down here?” Linda Caruso wondered. “I was crying. I didn’t know what to do.”
Out of the blue, an answer came.