February 28, 2013

From NEHJ: Vesey, Gaudreau worth their weight in gold

By Bill Keefe

Jimmy Vesey’s (26) promotion to the first line helped spark the Americans’ golden surge. (Photo: USA Hockey)

Harvard freshman Jimmy Vesey and Boston College sophomore Johnny Gaudreau have always felt they have something to prove. Whether because of speed or size or something else, they’ve heard they are “not-something-enough.” They were good, no doubt, just not fast enough or big enough.

In June 2011, Vesey was passed over in the NHL draft. The right winger from North Reading, Mass., was not invited to the National Junior Team Evaluation Camp that summer; Gaudreau was. In December, Gaudreau was cut after the pre-tournament camp.

Both of those experiences served as motivation. There have been some rewarding moments of disproving the naysayers, but at the World Junior Championship, they teamed up to do it and helped earn the U.S. its third gold medal in tournament history.

Vesey went from just making the team to playing limited shifts as a 13th forward to moving to the first line and sparking the Americans to four straight victories in four must-win games after a 1-2 start. After hearing questions about production through three games without a goal, Gaudreau erupted for seven in the final four games after Vesey joined his line and had nine points overall.

Four of Gaudreau’s tallies came on the power play without Vesey, while three were even strength. Vesey had three assists in his first period playing with Gaudreau and went 1-4-5 over the four games. Their linemate, J.T. Miller of the AHL’s Connecticut Whale, finished the tournament 2-7-9. Also on the team from New England was Providence freshman goalie Jon Gillies (South Portland, Maine), who stopped all seven shots he faced in the game he played in. Starting goalie John Gibson was named MVP of the tournament.

“The first couple of games I was getting scoring chances, but not finishing,” said Gaudreau, a 2011 fourth-round pick of the Calgary Flames. “Jimmy came on the line and we started clicking. I’m not sure what it was. It was a good combination with all three of the guys. It was nice to have that close to the end of the tournament. It was a new start. We played really well from there on out.”

After Gaudreau was cut in 2011, the 5-foot-6, 150-pound then-freshman center wanted to prove he belonged on the squad. He went on a tear, earning the Beanpot and Hockey East tournament MVPs and scoring in the national championship game victory.

After not getting taken in the 2011 draft, Vesey worked hard in the gym then broke the Eastern Junior Hockey League single-season scoring record. Last spring, the Nashville Predators drafted Vesey in the third round. This year, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Vesey has made an immediate impact at Harvard as a freshman, twice winning ECAC Rookie of the Week. Still, when it came time for the World Junior Championship, he was sweating it out. The full complement of forwards left camp in New York for pre-tournament games in Finland.

Unfortunately, Vesey had more than hockey to deal with. When he arrived in Finland, Vesey had studying to do for a final exam the next morning in American government. He woke up at 6:30 a.m. to take the exam at 7. The exam was scanned and emailed to Harvard alum and U.S. director of player personnel Tim Taylor (Guilford, Conn.), who acted as proctor. Vesey had three hours to complete it, but he said he finished in a little more than two and Taylor scanned and emailed the exam back to Cambridge.

“I felt pretty confident in how I did,” Vesey said. “I got a B in the class; I must have done somewhat well on the exam.”

That night was an exhibition game against Sweden so there was a team meeting, a meal and a nap before heading to the rink. “I was so tired,” Vesey said. “I was stressed about the whole exam thing. I was nervous for the game. I got on the bus and there was a lot of traffic to the rink. It took 40 minutes to get there. I was out cold on the bus.”

Vesey was creating offensive chances and had an assist in a 3-2 overtime win. He was named the Player of the Game.

Vesey didn’t dress for the next and final exhibition game. Word was that was the team that would comprise the final roster and go to Russia. “I thought I was cut at that point,” Vesey said. “I let my parents know I thought I was coming home.”

After the game, USA Hockey decided to wait until the next day to make cuts. There was a team meeting. A couple players were asked to stay at the end. They were released. “I didn’t believe it until when I was on the plane to Russia,” Vesey said, “or when USA Hockey finally released the roster.”

At the same time, Vesey’s excitement was somewhat tempered by the situation facing his longtime friend, BU freshman and Bruins fourth-round 2012 draft pick Matt Grzelcyk (Charlestown, Mass.). A defenseman suffered an injury in the second game that could have been day-to-day or could have been worse. It was too early to tell. Three defensemen were being brought to Russia for two spots and Grzelcyk was one of the three. After an 8-0 opening win against Germany in which Vesey skated a handful of shifts, Grzelcyk was cut.

“He’s had a great year at BU,” Vesey said. “He deserved to be on the team as much as anyone else. I wish he could have been there.”

Vesey saw limited ice time in the next two games, 2-1 losses to Russia and Canada. Then, needing a win to reach the medal round, Vesey was moved up against Slovakia and had three assists in the first period of a 9-3 win. “As I played more and more games in the tournament, I gained more confidence,” Vesey said. “I realized I could carry the puck and make plays the same way I usually do on my regular team.”

Gaudreau scored his first goal of the tournament from Vesey, added another one and also had an assist. Gaudreau then netted a hat trick in a 7-0 quarterfinal win against the Czech Republic.

In the semis, the U.S. faced Canada, which four days earlier beat the Yanks. Gaudreau scored two and assisted on one while Vesey netted one and assisted on one. Vesey’s goal gave the U.S. a 4-0 lead in the second period, putting the game out of reach. Gaudreau crossed the blue line and pulled up. He saw Vesey going wide and made the pass. Vesey drove the net and beat Canadian goalie and Bruins 2012 first-round pick Malcolm Subban to the far side.

“It was probably the most memorable goal I ever scored,” Vesey said. “It was USA-Canada. It was a good feeling to score on (Subban). He’s a first-rounder and highly touted goalie. It was nice to get one on him.”

The U.S. won the gold with a 3-1 defeat of Sweden. “After beating Canada, it wouldn’t have meant anything if we didn’t finish the job,” Vesey said. “It was a great feeling to be on the ice singing the national anthem with the flag going up.”

After that sky-high moment, Vesey’s next ice touch was the morning after he returned from Russia. He heard a bunch of friends were playing pond hockey, so he joined in.

Now, the world of hockey comes full circle as Vesey and Gaudreau, linemates and catalysts for a gold medal, will face off Feb. 4 when Harvard plays BC in the first round of the Beanpot. “It will be a good experience playing with a player I spent a good amount of time with,” Gaudreau said. “It should be fun. It’s a special tournament. I get so excited for it. We both know each other’s style and it will be fun to see.”

Said Vesey, “It’s unique how the game of hockey is: linemates one game, enemies the next.

“(The Beanpot is) what I’ve always dreamed about, watching it with my dad and my brother. It’s going to be cool to play against John and also Grizz, who I played my whole life with. It will be an awesome experience.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.