From the time he learned how to walk, Aidan Cavallini was put in skates. Having a successful NHL player as a dad meant that growing up, hockey was a way of life: Cavallini’s classroom was the rink and his dad, Gino, was his teacher.
When Gino Cavallini played in Germany and Austria at the end of his professional career, a young Cavallini was learning along the way. Cavallini smiled reflecting on his childhood and time spent with his dad in Europe.
“After games he would take me down to the locker room with him and I got to meet some of the guys. When there was a broken stick or something he would cut it down for me and I’d be able to shoot in the locker room with the tape and for me that was amazing, I mean I’m around these pro athletes,” Cavallini said.
Cavallini lived in Germany, Austria and Switzerland for a total of five years while his dad was still playing professionally. Going to school, Cavallini’s parents put him in a German-speaking school where his first five years of elementary education were entirely in German, giving him a unique start to his educational career.
Now settled at UW-Madison and just 64 days away from graduation, Cavallini finds himself five countries, six teams and 20 years later, reflecting on what might be the entirety of his competitive hockey career.
“I mean hockey’s been the biggest focal point of my life for the past 20 years so it’s gonna be—I don’t even know how I’m gonna deal with it but we’ll see when that time comes,” Cavallini said.
After moving back to the U.S., Cavallini grew closer with his brother Max. Bonding over the game that brings their entire family together, Max grew to love hockey.
“When I was in elementary school… we had an ice rink in the winter in the backyard so we’d play outside on the little ice sheet for hours just like battling with each other and getting into fights and stuff like brothers do and just having fun,” Max said.
Learning from his brother, Max learned to play with grit and determination.
“I play with the same aggression. I might not hit someone as hard [as Cavallini] but I’d like to think I have more finesse in me, like there’s a little more moves in me. He’d get mad if he saw that I said that,” Max said with a grin spreading across his face.
Growing up with a brother like Cavallini and a dad like Gino gave Max the inspiration and work ethic that he has today as he’s playing for the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners in the juniors in Ontario, Canada.
“Seeing him when I was younger, like his freshman, sophomore year, and then seeing him even before that playing junior hockey and having to battle to get in the lineup and then him just scoring and everything, that’s made me want to achieve what he’s achieved more,” Max said.
Max is taking a path very similar to the one Cavallini took six years ago by taking a few years off of school to develop in the junior leagues before heading off to play for a university, allowing Cavallini to help Max through the process.
“Me and my brother would always say ‘trust the process,’” Max said. “Always keep your head up and definitely never stop working… I think that… workhorse mentality has gotten him where he is today and I think that’s the biggest thing that I’m trying to follow.”
“Never stop working” seems to be Cavallini’s mantra. Cavallini went through five different minor league teams, playing in his last year of junior-league eligibility before ultimately deciding to come to UW-Madison.
“It almost makes you a stronger person ‘cause you kinda have to deal with that adversity of being traded or whatever it is even if it’s [being] sent down to a lower league,” Cavallini said. “Keep your eye on your goals and why you’re there, you know, what’s your purpose.”
The more he played, what Cavallini calls his “hockey sense,” or the way he sees the game and his ability to see a play before it happens, improved, and he was ready to take the next step and join the Wisconsin Badgers.
“For hockey, Wisconsin is like the cream of the crop, so when I came on my visit I honestly remember calling my dad and I was like ‘it’s like Disneyland for hockey, it’s got everything here,’” Cavallini said. “It’s pretty hard to want to go somewhere else.”
In addition to scoring a goal in Madison Square Garden, Cavallini said playing for the Badgers and getting a chance to prove himself has been one of his favorite memories from his hockey career.
In his time with the Badgers, Cavallini hasn’t shown numbers comparable to some of his teammates, but what he lacks in statistics he makes up in character. Cavallini knew from the beginning of his career with the Badgers that he’d be happy to be whatever player his team needed him to be to succeed, and he didn’t complain once.
“For me on the depth chart I wasn’t a highly touted recruit, I wasn’t a first round draft pick, so I knew If I wanted to play consistently I had to be a role player and be physical and high energy and be a good teammate,” Cavallini said.
“I feel like I’m a hard-energy, physical player and I think that comes from my experiences of playing junior hockey and learning to do whatever it takes to get to the next level and if that means for me being that type of player then so be it,” Cavallini continued.
His work ethic hasn’t gone unnoticed. Cavallini’s teammates, family and coaches praise his style and appreciate what he brings to the Badgers.
“His work ethic, his team-first attitude, his understanding of his role, his willingness to do whatever it takes to be a part of it,” Coach Tony Granato said. “Just a tremendous teammate, easy guy to coach. He’s a sponge for listening and absorbing. He’s been a very big part of the team from day one.”
Teammates Matthew Ustaski (junior) and Jedd Soleway (senior) have been impacted by Cavallini’s presence both on and off of the ice.
“He doesn’t wear a letter on our team but he’s definitely one of our leaders and he works hard every day,” Ustaski said.
Cavallini manages to bring his bright personality and light sense of humor to the team while also being able to be a player that can wear out the competition.
“He’s one of those character guys that has always something to offer when something’s being said in the room or if we’re just having fun,” Soleway said. “He brings an attitude to the ice every day that makes it more fun for us out there, so we’ll definitely miss that.”
“We need him to go out and grind the other team down with his work ethic and his compete level and that’s contagious,” Granato said.
Michael Mersch, a former Badger hockey teammate of Cavallini’s, now playing for the Los Angeles Kings program, still keeps up with the Badgers and is impressed with how far Cavallini has come since they first played together in the 2013-14 season.
“He didn’t play a lot his first year but then when he did [play], he brought a lot of energy to the team and he was always fun to watch,” Mersch said. “Seeing where he’s come from his freshman year to now is pretty cool.”
While he doesn’t know where post-graduate plans will take him, Cavallini knows that he’ll have the support of his family, teammates and coach.
“He’s a wonderful kid and he’s gonna have a lot of success in life whether it’s in the game of hockey or whatever he chooses to do professionally just because he’s a real solid human being,” Granato said.
Reflecting on his time as a Badger, Cavallini had a hard time expressing the impact that his time spent in Madison has made on him.
“I don’t know if you can put words on that. It’s just been an unbelievable experience. I’ve learned so much, met so many great people, and I don’t even know, it’s just been amazing. I wouldn’t give it back for anything,” Cavallini said.
After 64 days Cavallini’s time as an undergrad at UW-Madison will end and his time with the hockey team will be a memory, but in 65 days and for the years beyond, Cavallini will still be a Badger.