April 9, 2014

Frozen Four: Vecchione central to harmonious Union

By Dan Guttenplan

Mike Vecchione was the only rookie named to the 2014 ECAC Hockey All-Tournament Team after scoring goals in both the semifinal and championship games. (Photos/John Crouch/J. Alexander Imaging; Union Athletics)

Shuffle through the line sheets for the Frozen Four hockey teams and you’ll find yourself repeatedly coming back to Union’s top-line center.

Freshman forward Mike Vecchione (Saugus, Mass.) was slated to take the opening faceoff against Boston College in the Frozen Four semifinal. This is the same Mike Vecchione who found himself searching for an opportunity to play college hockey after the University of New Hampshire reneged on a scholarship offer after his prolific career at Malden Catholic.

UNH decided to move in another direction after Vecchione’s first season playing for the Tri-City Storm in the USHL. At 5-foot-10, Vecchione struggled to adjust to the speed of the USHL after a high school career in which — as a senior — he led Malden Catholic to a Super 8 championship playing alongside future Boston College forward Ryan Fitzgerald (North Reading, Mass.).

Needing to drum up some interest from college recruiters, Vecchione attended a skills skating camp in Wilmington, Mass., that summer. By August of 2012, he had accepted an offer from Union assistant coach Joe Dumais and head coach Rick Bennett (Springfield, Mass.) to play for a team that was coming off its first Frozen Four appearance in school history.

“There was a little miscommunication between me and the UNH coaches,” Vecchione said. “It didn’t feel right any more. I had to find somewhere else to play. Union came on pretty strong, and I could tell the coaches really wanted me there.”

Even Bennett will admit Vecchione has surpassed his expectations since that time. He returned to the Tri-City Storm for a second season, recording 60 points in 63 games. By the time Vecchione arrived on the Union campus last fall, Bennett envisioned the former high school star as a third-line freshman forward with the potential to develop into a power-play contributor.

“You always envision when a freshman comes in that he’ll provide this and that,” Bennett said. “Mike has exceeded our expectations. We thought maybe he’d play on the third line, possibly jump up on the second. Right now, he’s on one our top lines and doing an excellent job on the power play.”

Vecchione’s ascent to Union’s top scoring line — playing between the team’s top two scorers in senior Daniel Carr and junior Daniel Ciampini — is all the more surprising when taking into account his midseason battle with mononucleosis.

Since his return to health, he has proved to be one of Union’s most productive players. Entering the Frozen Four, he had a plus/minus rating of plus-23 with 12 goals and 19 assists in 36 games. He was named ECAC Hockey Rookie of the Week during Union’s run to its third consecutive conference tournament championship.

Vecchione was the only rookie named to the 2014 ECAC Hockey All-Tournament Team after scoring goals in both the semifinal and championship games to stretch his goal-scoring streak to three games.

“It’s been kind of surreal,” Vecchione said. “I knew the team had been there the last couple of years, and the upperclassmen were so calm. I was a little nervous, but playing on a line with Carr and Ciampini, I knew they’d be helpful with my development, keeping my head on straight.”

Vecchione’s improved late-season play overlaps with a period in which the Dutchmen caught fire at the perfect time of year. The Dutchmen enter the national semifinals 14-0-1 in their last 15 games — all with their first-line center playing a new position. Vecchione played on the wing for his entire high school and junior hockey career. He studied film of other Union centermen to learn the defensive responsibilities that Bennett and his staff demand.

“He had a little blip on the radar as far as consistency, which is normal for a freshman,” Bennett said. “That’s the area we talked about — his consistency. The coaching staff watched a lot of film with him, and that helped. He’s been really good and solid since then. He had a dynamite ECAC playoff for us.”

Vecchione, always a prolific scorer throughout his career, has emerged as one of the smartest centermen in the NCAA tournament field. He has adjusted his game to provide exactly what the prototypical Union center’s job description entails.

“The coaches and upperclassmen preach being a tough team to play against,” Vecchione said. “The coaches always stress being strong defensively. If we’re strong on defense, our offense comes from that. We want to be a strong defensive team first, and go from there.”

Less than two years removed from his lost opportunity at UNH, Vecchione is now growing into a future leader at Union. For a program that has played so many big games over the last three seasons, Vecchione is getting experience playing in the Frozen Four on a top-scoring line against a perennial national-championship contender in Boston College. Of course, sustained success brings increased expectations. Vecchione readily admits nothing short of a national championship will fulfill him and his teammates.

“The upperclassmen here are such great leaders, and I’m going to step into their roles and keep the tradition they’ve given the school,” Vecchione said. “They’ve done a great job creating that winning mentality. Getting this experience and being a big part of all of this, it’s hard to take in right now. I want to learn from these guys and absorb as much as I can so that when I become an upperclassman, I can do as much for the freshmen in keeping the winning mentality.”

Twitter: @Dan_Guttenplan
Email: feedback@hockeyjournal.com