It's getting harder for Mike Vecchione not to notice his name at the top of the leaderboard. It's becoming even harder for everyone else to ignore the numbers next to it.
In 19 games as a senior for Union College this season, he leads Division I players in goals (18), points (37), points per game (1.95) and shorthanded goals (3), is second in assists (19) and plus/minus (+27) to his linemate, and is tied for no. 2 in NCAA with four game-winners. He's also among the national leaders in shots (76), shooting percentage (23.7) and face off percentage (62.6).
“They keep popping up.” Vecchione says about his stats with a laugh. “John Buccigross tweets them out quite often and he lets the public know that I'm the Hobey leader right now. I just try and leave that on the back burner for now.”
It might not be able to stay there for much longer, as Vecchione continues to certify himself as a favorite for the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top Division I collegiate hockey player.
There are larger things at play for the 23-year-old center, however. He wants to bring some of the glory of his freshman year back, a season in which the Dutchmen, led by players like Daniel Carr and Shayne Gostisbehere, won ECAC regular and postseason titles followed by their first NCAA championship in school history. In two campaigns that followed, however, the team experienced what Vecchione calls “down years,” going a combined 32–32-11 and failing to qualify for the postseason while finishing in the bottom half of the league.
“You see what the top of the mountain is like and you feel all those things, you just want to get back to that, you just continue to work as hard as you can to make it back there,” he says.
The team struggled in 2015-16, and Vecchione especially, falling from a sophomore season that saw him rank ninth in the country in scoring with 50 points to just 29 in 34 games as a junior.
“Last year was a tough year, for us as a team and for myself.” he says. “I was nicked up and banged up throughout the year. I felt like I was trying to do a little too much and put the weight of the world on my shoulders. It just wasn't a great year for me and the whole team, we struggled, I struggled. You just kinda learn from those years, what works and what doesn't.”
This season, there’s been a lot that’s working up in Schenectady. Union sits at 13–2–4 on the season, including an 8–1–1 mark in ECAC play, having ascended to ninth in the USA Today/USA Hockey poll. Vecchione and linemates Spencer Foo and Sebastian Vidmar, both in the national scoring race mix, have helped the Dutchmen lead the country in goals and be among the leaders for their power play, penalty kill and Corsi stats.
“I think everyone went home knowing that if we all work hard and improve that we can be a solid team this year.” he says. “Everyone came back in top shape, ready to go. Especially me, going into my senior year, and I thought last season fueled the fire for me a little bit. I definitely had a chip on my shoulder.”
That chip drove his off-season workouts, which focused on changing speed and creating deception, slowing the game down and making the smarter play. The increase in goals has been a natural progression and other teams have felt the brunt of it in the first half of the season. Vecchione has registered 12 multi-point efforts so far—including a four-goal, five-point effort against Niagara in October, and a three-goal, one assist night against league-rival Yale in November. He's been kept off the scoresheet just three times.
It’s all part of an effort to be a better leader in his second go-round as the team’s captain.
“Being a captain, I feel you put a lot of pressure on yourself,” Union coach Rick Bennett says. “To Mike's defense, I don't think we're the easiest staff for him to wear the letter. I would say he's become more of a vocal leader, but I would say he's far from a Mark Messier. He does it in his own quiet way, but he's more vocal this year.”
“It’s not all that rah-rah stuff,” Vecchione says. “It’s more telling guys what they need to do and what they need to hear and go out there and show 'em. I tried to stay the same person I was, and I feel like the guys really respect that I haven't changed as a leader. Talking, saying what needs to be said at times, but mostly I’m a leader by example.”
Vecchione is lauded as a 200-foot, three-zone player by his coach, praise shared by scouts who have had the Saugus, Mass. native in their sights for some time now. While he can skate, pass, shoot and score with the best of them, his calling card is his face-off acumen. He’s won over 59% of his draws in his NCAA career, ranking among the top centers since his sophomore season.
When he lines up at the dot, Bennett has a pretty good idea of what to expect.
“We have a pretty good chance of winning that face off,” he says with a laughs. “He's had that since freshman year, and I believe the way that Mike is built, he has a low center of gravity, he's very well built, he uses his strength to his advantage.”
“I just want the puck more than the other guy,” Vecchione says. “I’m tenacious. I'm smaller than a lot of guys, but I'm pretty stocky so I try to get in there and use my body and leverage. It's a puck possession game, and I'm the guy that's supposed to win the faceoff, so if I'm not winning the faceoff, we don't have the puck and we can't produce if we're on defense. I take a lot of pride in it.”
It's that kind of pride in his game that could make help him become the latest Union alum to join the NHL ranks alongside Carr, Gostisbehere, Keith Kinkaid and Josh Jooris. It's not that the undrafted free agent hasn't had the offers, either. He's attended development camps with the Flyers and his hometown Bruins (“It was a dream come true for me, something that's tough to explain”), though he's turned down pro deals since his sophomore season to continue wearing the Union garnet. Part of his reasoning is because the liberal arts major wants a degree to fall back on.
“I've grown up playing hockey every single day of my life, and it's the one thing that i truly love.” he says.”I hope it's going to take me a long way in life, but at the end of the day it's gonna be that degree I'm going to have to fall back on. If I'm lucky I can play so many years in professional hockey, but one day it's gonna come to an end.”
Another piece of the puzzle? Unfinished business.
“I wanted to win some of those trophies back that we lost the past couple of years. I wanted to go out with a bang.”
One look at the national leaderboards and it's pretty clear that he's already making a whole lot of noise.