By Kirk Luedeke
They skated together on their first organized hockey team and now some 15 years later, Jim Vesey and Matt Grzelcyk are on the Team USA final roster preparing to compete in the 2013 World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia.
Vesey, 19, is a forward and third-round draft pick (66th overall) of the Nashville Predators who smashed scoring records in the EJHL with the South Shore Kings last season en route to making an instant impact at Harvard this fall.
The North Reading, Mass. native spent a lot of his early years in Charlestown, his father’s home, where he met and befriended the diminutive defender. Although the two chose different paths to reach their current status as NHL prospects (both selected in the same round of the 2012 draft) and NCAA freshman standouts playing in the same city but in different conferences, their friendship has endured over the years.
“It’s really cool to be able to share this,” Vesey told New England Hockey Journal via phone from Finland as he prepared to board the plane that would take him and the rest of Team USA to Russia for the competition. “Us being here together shows how our hockey careers have come full circle. He was on the first organized hockey team I was on, so I think it’s a unique situation for us to have the shared opportunity to play in such a prestigious tournament.”
Grzelcyk is experiencing his first under-20 World Jr. tourney after being a member of the most recent under-18 squad to capture gold last April. Although the final roster on defense has yet to be made official pending a medical decision (rumored to be Beverly, Mass.-born, Ohio-raised Connor Murphy), the Boston University freshman traveled to Ufa Sunday. Two 2012 first-round picks in Brady Skjei (Rangers) and Stefan Matteau (Devils) were cut and on their way home.
“It’s unbelievable,” Grzelcyk said before departing with Team USA for Russia. “Any time you get the chance to represent your country, it’s something that goes beyond words. I had the opportunity to experience this in April, and it never gets old.”
Vesey has made it a personal mission over the last some 18 months to earn notice and respect in hockey circles after he was completely passed over in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. A successful scorer at Belmont Hill that year, Vesey was inexplicably ignored by all 30 NHL clubs in St. Paul, so he went to work to prove himself all over again.
After a 48-goal, 91-point season in just 45 games with the Kings, Vesey became the 66th overall pick of the Predators, whose amateur scouting chief, Jeff Kealty, was a Massachusetts high school star at Catholic Memorial and was a firs-round pick of the Quebec Nordiques in 1994.
Vesey (along with Grzelcyk) then earned an invite to Lake Placid last August to participate in the Team USA Evaluation Camp. Although not a product of the USA National Team in Ann Arbor, nor did Vesey (pictured right) compete for USA at the 2010 Ivan Hlinka tournament (current Boston College superstar and WJC USA forward John Gaudreau was on that squad), he never lost sight of his goal and ultimately made the final roster announced early morning Dec. 23.
“I’m real excited to be able to represent the USA at the World Juniors,” Vesey said. “It’s always been one of my goals since I was a kid. I have to say that the last week of practices and games has been pretty nerve-wracking, but I’m honored to get the chance.”
Grzelcyk, who turns 19 on Jan. 5, left Boston in 2010 to skate with the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. Although undersized, the defenseman who grew up in Charlestown dreaming of playing for the Boston Bruins, has always compensated with his superior skating ability, hockey IQ, and hustle.
Grzelcyk is no stranger to international hockey competition., and he quietly established himself as a key cog on the U.S. National Team in the two years preceding college. Despite not showing up in the top-200 of several of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft’s public scouting lists, the Boston Bruins had their eye on him all along. Although the selection of Grzelcyk 85th overall at the end of the third round raised some eyebrows, his 2 goals and 12 points in his first 15 NCAA games with Boston University has put a lot of talk that the offensive-minded rearguard might have been a “reach” to bed.
“All of our guys were really high on Matt,” Bruins assistant GM Don Sweeney said recently. “I think (Boston assistant GM) Jimmy Benning really trumpeted Matt, and understanding his hockey sense-- pointing out to each and every one of us each time we would go and see him-- how (Grzelcyk) processes the game and you can see it.”
Sweeney understands better than just about anyone what Grzelcyk brings to the table. A standout prep hockey player at St. Paul’s in Concord, N.H. Sweeney was also a smaller, but speedy, smart and tenacious defender who played right away at Harvard and even saw NHL time in his first full pro season. Sweeney went on to play more than 1,000 games in his NHL career, most of them with the Bruins.
“I think he brings stuff to a team that would complement a lot of players,” Sweeney said when asked about Grzelcyk’s chances to make the USA roster for Ufa. “I love the way he plays the game, (and the way he) thinks the game on both sides of the dot to tell you the truth.”
Vesey and Grzelcyk are still in limbo at present. Vesey may be the 13th forward, so he’ll have to make the most of every opportunity he’s given. However, with his size and two-way ability, he can contribute to the team in myriad ways.
“I’m not sure of my role,” said Vesey. “I’ll do whatever the coaches need me to do. I just want to help the team win.”
As one of the seven defensemen on Team USA, we have yet to see if Grzelcyk will skate in a regular rotation and on special teams, where is effective on both the power play and penalty killing units. However, being one of the 23 Americans under 20 chosen for this elite competition is cause for celebration enough.
“I’ve been communicating over email,” Vesey said when asked if he’d spoken to his large Boston-area family. “My family, to include all of my uncles and cousins, are my biggest supporters. So to be able to represent my family name like this is such an honor.”
Unsaid, but integral to young Vesey’s success is his father, who was a scoring legend at Merrimack College and played 15 NHL games with the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins. Jim Sr. has been able to watch the younger Vesey reinvent himself as one of the best young American talents in the game. It’s the best Christmas present any family could hope for, even if it means that Jimmy himself won’t be at home to check under the tree and in his stocking.
"It's surreal,” said Grzelcyk. “We've been friends over the years, but this is special. I’m so proud of (Vesey) and how hard he’s worked to earn a spot. He deserves it and he makes the team that much better."
Vesey and Grzelcyk are two young Boston-area players and NHL prospects, both with a chance to add to their impressive bodies of work. Skating together in Ufa gives them a chance to close the circle that began on the Middlesex Islanders all those years ago, and perhaps write a new chapter in their on-ice camaraderie.
That’s the stuff of which real holiday cheer is made.