Every morning for a couple of weeks in the fall of 2000, Dale Rossetti would be waiting at an outdoor ice rink on Neville Island, keys in hand. He directed his celebrity client to park in the back, out of view, then provided water bottles and pucks and watched as three men went through intense hockey drills.
Mr. Rossetti helped keep a huge secret -- Penguins Hall of Fame center Mario Lemieux was preparing to come out of retirement.
"The only people we told were our wives," recalled Dee Rizzo, who joined Mr. Lemieux and Jay Caufield, a former Penguins player turned trainer, on the ice those mornings.
"No one else knew. It was all orchestrated by Dale. We skated at least for two weeks before anyone knew what we were doing. He got the biggest kick out of that. He was so proud of that secret."
Mr. Rossetti, who helped operate many ice rinks in the area -- including the Ice Palace, which years ago was part of Monroeville Mall -- and helped promote youth hockey locally when that sport was not nearly as popular as it is now, died Friday of prostate cancer. The Churchill resident was 56.
"He was one of those original people before Sidney [Crosby] and Mario who loved the game," said Mr. Rizzo, who had Mr. Rossetti as a skating instructor at the old Monroeville Mall rink and now is a player representative with CAA, an agency whose clients include Mr. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins.
"Dale was a true hockey pioneer in Pittsburgh," Penguins vice president Tom McMillan said in a statement on behalf of the National Hockey League club. "He was promoting the game with great passion back when almost no one else was doing it. He literally loved being around the rinks. A lot of growth and success of local youth and amateur hockey was built on the shoulders of guys like Dale. He will be missed."
Earlier this year, Mr. Rossetti was one of the recipients of the inaugural Pittsburgh Penguins Amateur Hockey Founders & Builders Award.
"He was thrilled to have received that and surprised with the recognition," Mr. Rossetti's wife, Laurie, said.
Most recently, Mr. Rossetti was director of operations for the Soffer Organization, which operates the SouthSide Works, and the receiver of the Valley Sports Complex in New Kensington. In the latter role, he was appointed by the courts to help rehabilitate the sports complex after the owners defaulted.
"They figured he would be the best person who would be able to sell it," Mrs. Rossetti said. "He was. We have a close date this month for it to sell."
Growing up in Turtle Creek, he would flood a set of basketball courts in the winter to make a skating rink.
"He had had a rough life growing up," his wife said. "He was not from an affluent background at all, and later he started a hardship program for kids who couldn't afford to play hockey.
"I just want people to know he was an extremely caring person and really tried to help anyone he came into contact with. He helped a lot of people in hockey and skating."
Over decades, Mr. Rossetti helped plan and operate many ice arenas locally, including the now-razed Golden Mile Ice Center, the Blade Runners complexes and the Island Sports Center on Neville Island.
Mr. Caufield, a hockey analyst for the Root Sports Pittsburgh cable-TV channel, joined the Penguins in 1988. Staying in Pittsburgh year-round hinged on finding a place to skate in the summer. He had a hard time until someone gave him the phone number of Mr. Rossetti, who was operating Golden Mile in Plum.
"I called him, went out to meet him," Mr. Caufield recalled. "He gave me the keys to the rink. Even though it was a rink he was trying to develop with programs, he gave me ice time any day, anytime I wanted it."
Because of that relationship, the Penguins occasionally practiced at Golden Mile years ago, even though it was not up to NHL standards. Mr. Caufield said Mr. Rossetti had coffee and doughnuts for the players before practice, and the fixings for Italian hoagies afterward.
Mr. Rossetti also loved golf. He and Mr. Caufield would sometimes play a round at Latrobe Country Club after Mr. Caufield skated at Golden Mile in the summer, and Mr. Rossetti later played in charity outings.
Arrangements are pending through Herbert R. King Jr. Funeral Home in Hampton.
Donations may be made to Mario Lemieux Foundation, 816 Fifth Ave., Pittsburgh 15219 or www.mariolemieux.org.
Shelly Anderson: email@example.com or 412-263-1721.