Bruins rookie Frank Vatrano’s unlikely rise to the NHL is stuff of local legend
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — As promised, the smell is propelled by the whirring ceiling fans and greets the nose upon entering Antonio’s Grinders and Pizza, where the drive-thru menu guarantees QUALITY AND SATISFACTION, the street sign features a chuckling, mustachioed chef, and the restaurant contains little mention of the owners’ fourth son, the left winger for the Boston Bruins whose diet now contains little room for sizzling cheese. “Even to this day when you walk in you smell the pizza, the fresh slices on the rack, you want to throw one in the oven and eat one,” Frank Vatrano says. “But right now it’s something I have to stay away from.”
He restrains because he must. No more buffalo chicken and chicken parm stuffed between toasted bread. He’s now a ripped 21-year-old with body fat below 10%. Growing up in nearby East Longmeadow, Frank and his friends were regulars here, scampering around customers in the front when they were younger, sneaking through the back for an after-workout snack while they were growing up. His job is hockey now, the result of a stratospheric rise from college to the AHL to the NHL in eight month’s time, the reason why he is absent on this beautiful Sunday in mid-November, the afternoon after his fourth game with the hometown NHL team. But Clara and Gregory Vatrano are here, overseeing the lunch rush like always, and soon they settle into a booth to retell a story that’s become local lore.
“Oh my god, overwhelming,” says Frank’s mother.
“It happened so fast,” says Frank’s father, who is wearing a gray UMass sweatshirt. Greg never graduated college. This is the only job he’s ever had. Being your own boss, he says, is ideal for leaving for three, four, five days at a time. It’s perfect when your son plays for the Boston Bruins.
How fast was Frank’s rise? On Oct. 4 of last year, he scored his first college goal with UMass Amherst, a massive relief after a torturous road toward gaining NCAA eligibility. On April 4 of this year, Frank scored his first professional goal with the AHL’s Providence Bruins, having chosen to leave school and sign with the Bruins. By Nov. 1, after a summer of swearing off pizza and losing 15 pounds, Frank had cranked 10 goals in 10 games for Providence and his phone began ringing a few days later, interrupting a trip to the mall with teammates before the minor-leaguers flew to Utica.
“Ma,” he soon told Clara, who was in mid-shift at Antonio’s. “I got the call-up.”
How fast? The next morning, Greg and Clara’s brother-in-law, Barry Almeida, jumped into a car and peeled toward Montreal, four hours away. Greg had once obtained a passport to join Frank on an overseas trip for the 2012 under-18 World Junior Championship, but Barry only had his law enforcement ID, birth certificate and license. This would’ve been enough to cross the border back in the day. They hoped it was enough now.
They reached the Canadian border around 2 p.m., with plenty of time to spare with the Bell Centre only 90 minutes away. No other cars were in line. “I’m up here seeing my son play hockey,” Greg told the border guard. “He’s making his NHL debut.” But when Barry couldn’t produce a passport, the guard ordered them to park along the curb. Two customs officers walked out, slipping on gloves. “This is not good,” Greg thought.
They checked the car then stuck him in a small room, separate from Barry. Greg checked his watch. Two o’clock. Three o’clock. Three-thirty. The door opened. The officers had conducted their background check. They knew that Greg owned Antonio’s. They also knew this: “Yeah, so, your son Frankie,” the official, a French-Canadian, said. “Ten goals in 10 games in the American League, eh?”
Freed from the border, Greg and Barry tore toward Montreal, checked into their hotel, reached the rink, and took their seats next to a diehard Canadiens fan from Newfoundland, who soon began rooting for Frank. In the second period of a 1–1 game, Greg saw Frank field a pass inside the right face-off circle, along the half-wall, and dance up toward the blue line. When no red jersey challenged him, Frank stepped forward and pelted the puck past goaltender Mike Condon. In the stands, holding his beer, Greg rose and cheered. His phone went berserk, gathering $600 in roaming charges because he forgot to set an international plan. The Canadiens fan asked for an autograph.
“If I cannot have a piece of Frank, I can have a piece of you,” he told Greg. So he signed: Greg Vatrano, Frank’s dad.
Of the four Vatrano brothers, three of them future college hockey players, only Frank never worked at the Antonio’s on State Street, one of two Springfield locations still in existence. (Frank’s grandfather, Sammy, runs the other on Longhill Street, about a half-mile south of the Basketball Hall of Fame.) Once, Greg hired him on a one-day contract, but something came up. Something was always coming up.
From two years old, when Frank strapped into roller blades several sizes too big and skated into the road wearing diapers, his life was hockey. “How does he know all these things?” Clara often asked herself, when Frank would rattle off some random hockey fact taken from hours of watching the NHL Network. He attended the Bruins’ Stanley Cup parade in 2011. Clara only recently fixed the puck-shaped holes that pierced the family garage door.
At 15, Frank moved away from home for the first time, joining the United States National Development Team in Ann Arbor, Mich. “There’s a job to be done when you go there,” Frank says today, sitting inside the TD Garden dressing room, a Providence Bruins Dopp kit hanging from his stall. He talks fast, with a certain polish atypical of NHL rookies who are only recently able to legally drink alcohol in this country. As well as honing his puck-handling and powerful shot over two seasons in Michigan, he also watched videos of Bruins conducting interviews. “Little things you don’t think hockey’s all about,” he says. “It’s so much more than the on-ice stuff.”
Frank had committed to Boston College at the beginning of his sophomore year of high school, a dream decision for any area kid. But three days into his enrollment there—“three lousy days,” his father says—Frank was ruled ineligible for an invalid SAT score. He could have returned to the USHL or joined the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but Frank returned to his local junior team, the Boston Jr. Bruins and soon enrolled at UMass-Amherst. “He handled it like a very mature adult,” says Peter Fish, Frank’s agent. “There was no blaming. There was no pointing fingers. Like it was a bad shift. Onto the next one. Let’s go.”
His NCAA appeal dragged out and was denied, so Frank spent almost two full seasons without any college action. He practiced with the Minutemen and always stayed late but wasn’t allowed to travel on road trips. Instead, he settled into a routine—drive 45 minutes back home, dinner with Greg and Clara, watch his teammates play from the family couch. His parents recall him wearing bracelets and hats that read, “PPW,” which stood for, “Prove People Wrong.”
“Practice for sure I’d get frustrated, when you make a mistake or didn’t make a play you wanted to make,” Frank says, “you’re like, ‘how can I make up for this mistake?’ You’re not in the lineup this weekend. I think I got everything put on my shoulders all at once and had to take it all in.
“This whole experience is kind of unexpected for me. If you asked me these questions a few months ago or a year ago, I couldn’t tell you when I’d be able to play pro hockey, or when it’d ever happen. And it happened faster than I ever expected.”
Even when Frank regained eligibility and posted 18 goals in 36 games, the Minutemen struggled in the brutal Hockey East, finishing 11-23-2 during his only full college season. He had more years available at UMass, so Fish thinks Frank flew under the radar of NHL teams searching for undrafted free agents. But several clubs showed their interest, none more persistent than the Bruins. So when Notre Dame bounced UMass from the 2015 Hockey East tournament, Frank signed his entry-level deal with Boston. He suited up for five games with Providence and scored his first goal. That puck, along with those from his first college goal and first tally in the NHL, sit stacked on Greg’s bureau. He looks at the three every morning.
Business is good at Antonio’s these days. Students from American International College come for late-night fare and visiting sports teams often drop by before driving home. Reporters come around more often, fans in Bruins jerseys too.On Nov. 14, after Frank logged 14:07 and four shots on goal during a 3–1 win over Detroit, Clara and Greg took him out for dinner in Boston. True to his diet, he only had a bite of dessert.
“Vatranos aren’t made to be below 10 percent body fat,” Greg says, rubbing his belly and waving around the restaurant. “Tenders, slices, pasta, pizza. But it can be done.”
Aside from the framed photo of Frank at UMass, hung next to the framed photo of his brother playing for AIC, there is no hint that an NHL rookie was raised here. The pucks will stay on the bureau, too, personal for public viewing. Maybe another picture will find its way onto the walls. But the Vatranos are humble, working-class folk too. After watching Frank play in Providence, Greg often returned to the restaurant after midnight to close up shop. When Frank won the AHL’s rookie of the month honor, he never bothered to tell Greg when they talked on the phone. Only when a message pinged from Singapore, where Frank’s oldest brother lives, did his father learn the news.
And yet …
“Did we think it’d be like this?” Greg says. “No way. It’s like we’re playing for the Bruins.”
“No,” Clara agrees, “we didn’t expect this at all.”