Prospects and pals, Matt Grzelcyk and Jimmy Vesey make NHL wait
BOSTON – Like the ringing bell to Pavlov’s pups, the sounds of roller blades cutting across asphalt and street hockey balls smacking a fence sparked a conditioned response from Matt Grzelcyk. He grew up across the block from the Charlestown rink at Edwards Playground, otherwise known to local skaters as The Kitchen, and the sound of new games often reached his brother’s upstairs window. Only a few more seconds would pass before Grzelcyk grabbed his gear and rushed out the front door to join. “Once he heard the kids were over there, he’d spend 10 hours over there and just play,” says his mother, Kathleen.
Years later, when they were teenagers only halfway through high school, Grzelcyk and three friends won the annual Kitchen Kup. They were among the youngest participants in a field without an upper age limit, playing against grown men in their 20s. “It’s pretty ruthless out there,” Grzelcyk says. “It’s literally just your skates and a stick. No equipment.”
Participating for the second time after a semifinal loss the summer before, Grzelcyk and his pals won the championship on a tiebreaking goal in the final minute, he recalls, and they tossed their sticks in celebration. Then they walked back across the street to Grzeclyk’s house and had a sleepover.
Of those four kids, three were selected during the 2012 NHL draft in in Pittsburgh, representing the 66th, 85th and 189th overall picks. All three also play Division I hockey, each for a different school that participates in the 65-year-old Beanpot Tournament—like the Kitchen Kup, perhaps, but much bigger. Brendan Collier, the second-oldest of the quartet, is a junior at Northeastern who also lists Charlestown as his hometown. So does Paul Myers, his cousin and the fourth teammate.
The other two members of the group are several weeks into their senior seasons, each back on campus with unfinished business. Jimmy Vesey, a third-round choice by Nashville, turned down the chance to join the Predators for the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, hoping instead to help Harvard avenge its second-round NCAA tournament exit and, maybe, repeat as a Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist as the nation’s top player. With 32 goals in 2014-15, Vesey led Division I in scoring but lost the Baker award to the highly regarded Jack Eichel, who was then a teammate of Grzelcyk’s at Boston University.
Behind Eichel, Grzelcyk and others, the Terriers engineered a remarkable 18-win turnaround under second-year coach David Quinn, a 1989 graduate of BU, and won the Beanpot on Grzelcyk’s overtime blast at TD Garden. They fell, however, in the NCAA final to Providence by one goal in that same building, the one that Grzelcyk had skated in since preschool. With the hometown Boston Bruins, who had stunned Grzelcyk by drafting him in the same around as Vesey, now courting him into the professional ranks, Grzelcyk too delayed signing an entry-level contract. He decided he wanted one more turn with the Terriers and recently became the first BU player to be voted a solo captain in back-to-back years since the Great Depression.
Grzelcyk, Vesey and their friends grew up aiming for college scholarships, dreaming about playing in the Beanpot and, when time allowed, waiting for the older kids to clear off the concrete so they could take their turn. While Vesey technically lived in North Reading, his whole family hailed from Charlestown, always a quick drive away after school. Together, they are sons of Boston and champions in the Kitchen, professional hockey not far into the distance, but a college career to finish first.
Grzelcyk first met Vesey when they were around the age of six, playing hockey together for the Middlesex Islanders, a team coached by Vesey’s father, who was known as “Big Jim.” A familiar figure around Charlestown, Big Jim was an eighth-round pick by the St. Louis Blues in 1984 and he eventually spent four games with the Bruins during the 1991-92 season. It was serious hockey from the start, Grzelcyk recalls, with the tikes practicing power plays and systems. He often ventured to North Reading, where the Veseys had a small street hockey court in the back yard that was perfect for freezing over in the winter.
Big Jim, Grzelcyk also recalls, was “like a father figure for most kids,” telling old stories about his four years at Merrimack College, his long stints with the minor-league Peoria Rivermen, his 15 NHL appearances with St. Louis and Boston. He had collected jerseys and sticks and signed pucks over the years, so the kids often went down into the basement and marveled at the museum. “All this crazy memorabilia and stuff,” Grzelcyk says. “Being around Jimmy and his family, they always had people on his team at his house. I think that made us want to pursue hockey.”
Grzelcyk had his own influences at home too. His father, John, worked for more than a decade on the TD Garden’s Bull Gang, the group responsible for converting the venue between hockey, basketball and concerts. Matt was two years old when the old Boston Garden was torn down, but he still has a picture of himself standing on the ice wearing a Bruins jersey with the number 1 and Matt on the back. Whenever the rink was available, Grzelcyk and his friends were welcome to skate. “I never felt comfortable walking in there,” he says today. “Just seeing the players, who were really nice. I think they probably see a little of themselves in you, being such a young kid at that age. It was nice of them to take the time out of their day, talk to me, [let me] ask how they’re doing. It’s what you brag to your friends about.”
The dream, of course, was to someday join the ranks of those NHL players, so Grzelcyk soon left Boston for the United States National Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. After his first season there, he, Vesey and the others won the Kitchen Kup. But Grzelcyk also envisioned a steep climb to playing for the Bruins—or any NHL team, for that matter. He hasn’t forgotten that he was once ranked 177th among North American skaters by Central Scouting. While a dozen teammates in Ann Arbor celebrated their higher spots, Grzelcyk was miffed. “The next day at school I’m sitting there like, this kind of sucks,” he says. “Why did I play in Ann Arbor for two years if I’m not even going to get drafted.”
He thus attended the 2012 NHL draft to support teammates like Jacob Trouba and friends like Vesey, who had been passed over during his first year of eligibility. Grezelcyk had almost no expectations for himself and was hardly paying attention when the Bruins announced his name. “Everything went black,” he says. “I almost went numb and didn’t know what to say to everyone.” Which made everything that much tougher last summer when the Bruins wondered if he might leave school early. Grzelcyk had a decision to make.
Once the triumph at the Beanpot and the heartbreak against Providence subsided, Grzelcyk learned he had suffered a torn ACL on a harmless practice play, eight games before the season even ended. By then, he says, his choice to return to BU was already finalized.
“I thought he could’ve played in the NHL, yeah, “ Terriers coach David Quinn says. “But there wasn’t much of a debate when I sat him down right after the season ended and the Bruins called him.”
Due to his knee injury, Grzelcyk missed skating at the Bruins development camp, but he still worked out with the training staff at Ristuccia Arena. An entry-level deal, one assumes, awaits him whenever BU's season ends.
“It’d be nice to play for the Bruins, obviously,” Grzelcyk says. “Hopefully that would work out.”
On that fateful day in Pittsburgh, Vesey was sitting in the row behind Grzelcyk at Consol Energy Center, ranked exactly 100 spots ahead of his friend, when the Predators chose him in the third round. He was fresh off a prolific season with the South Shore Kings of the Eastern Junior Hockey League, having scored 48 goals in 45 games. This is what Vesey does. He scores goals—lots of them. After the draft, “he just took off from there,” Grzelcyk says. “He was always an elite player.”
At Harvard, the Crimson finished with six wins and 12 regulation losses in each of Vesey’s first two seasons, but underwent a renaissance in 2014-15. Vesey had 58 points in 37 games, including an NCAA-best 32 goals, which earned him the Hobey Baker finalist nod and the quick trip to the award ceremony in Boston during the Frozen Four. By then, Harvard had already been bounced from the NCAA tournament by a 4–1 loss to Nebraska-Omaha, ending its first berth since 2006 in the first game. Harvard fell behind 1–0 early, then Nebraska-Omaha scored with two seconds left in the first period. Vesey often thinks back and wonders what could’ve been different. “We didn’t play our best and a lot of us thought we very easily could’ve been in the Frozen Four,” he says. “This year I think we have a strong team, if not stronger.”
With 11 points in six games entering a long break that bridges Thanksgiving, Vesey has maintained his high scoring pace, which greatly pleases Predators GM David Poile. Nashville pushed hard for Vesey to join the club last April, envisioning him slipping into the lineup for the playoff push. “He said he would look at it at the end of the year, but he always favored going back to school,” says Poile, himself a Northeastern graduate who understands the allure of college hockey in Boston. “There was a hope he’d come out, but it was more of a fit for us than it was for him.”
“Probably some people were surprised,” says Vesey, whos is a government major. “I thought if I wanted to leave, I would’ve been more gung-ho about it, wouldn’t have had any hesitation. After a week of contemplating it, I just thought it was in my heart to come back here.”
Like Grzelcyk, Vesey could let his draft rights expire and enter unrestricted free agency on Aug. 15, 2016 and, like Grzelcyk, his eyes are set on more immediate matters. A home loss to Michigan recently bounced BU from the top 10 in the nationals rankings and Grzelcyk, who missed the first six games of the season while finishing his rehab, injured his other knee. (He expected to play in Red Hot Hockey matchup with Cornell at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 28. That same day, Vesey and Harvard will return to the site of their NCAA tournament loss in South Bend, Ind., this time to visit No. 18 Notre Dame.)
Vesey and Grzelcyk will meet on the ice for the first time this season on Jan. 7 in Cambridge, then possibly again at the Beanpot in early February. After that, their paths will diverge—Grzelcyk off to either Boston or AHL Providence; Vesey to Nashville where Poile calls his eventual arrival “as good a trade deadline deal as I could make.”
Grzelcyk stopped playing in the Kitchen Kup a little while back, preferring not to risk injury, but Vesey returned again last summer. They are known around Charlestown as kids with bright futures, whose potential outweighs even their childhood dreams.
“That was their goal, to get a scholarship,” Kathleen Grzelcyk says. “That was the big draw for them. They couldn’t be happier being here, at school and representing their town.”