August 8, 2013

From NEHJ: Boston Common

By Jesse Connolly

Ryan Fitzgerald (North Reading, Mass.), seen here at Boston's development camp, will begin his freshman season at BC this fall after being selected in the fourth round by the Bruins in June at the NHL Draft. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

For even the most casual of observers, the wealth of commonalities Matt Grzelcyk and Ryan Fitzgerald share are glaringly obvious.

The two prospects are both Bay State natives, with Matt hailing from Charlestown and Ryan calling North Reading home. They were mid-round selections of their hometown team, as the Bruins grabbed Grzelcyk in the third round of the 2012 draft and selected Fitzgerald a year later with their fourth-round pick. With Ryan entering his freshman season at BC and Matt embarking on his sophomore year at BU, both will be competing in Hockey East this coming season — on opposite sides of college hockey’s greatest rivalry, to boot.

But the ties between the two teens, and their families as a whole, run much deeper and go a lot further back than you might’ve known.

“My dad and mom grew up in Charlestown,” said Ryan’s dad, Tom Fitzgerald, who played in 1,097 NHL games and closed out his career back in Boston in 2006. “I’ve known the Grzelcyk family for a while here, more because our boys are the same age. My dad actually coached Matt’s dad, John, for the Townies in football. When I turned pro, I’d see old man Grizz at the Garden riding the Zamboni. I struck up a good relationship with him there. It’s just a Charlestown thing. I grew up in Billerica, but I originated in Charlestown.”

“Old man Grizz,” as Fitzgerald refers to him, is John Grzelcyk, a longtime member of the TD Garden bull gang. Being in that position afforded his son the perk of taking to the ice on Causeway Street as a little boy.

“I was there a lot, especially when I was really young,” Matt said. “That’s what got me addicted to hockey. I was always carrying my stick around. I thank my dad for that. He always found time to bring me to the Garden when there was ice available.”

While Ryan was living outside of New England during those years, including during Tom’s stint as captain of the Nashville Predators, it wasn’t long before the two crossed paths.

“I’m not sure exactly when we met. We played for the Middlesex Islanders growing up as kids, and a bunch of summer tournaments and things like that,” Matt recalled.

Ryan had a clearer picture of when the two met.

“Grizz is one of my best friends growing up,” the skilled center said. “I played with him since I was probably 9 or 10 years old.”

According to Tom, who took an active role in those summer tournaments, the two boys quickly struck up a close friendship.

“I just felt that, whether it was a spring tournament in Toronto or the year they went off to Quebec in the Pee-Wee years, there was an instant bond between the two of them,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s the Charlestown thing, because that’s where I started, and all but one relative of mine is from Charlestown. They just seemed to really hit it off immediately as kids.”

 Eventually the two went down different paths. Matt, a gifted, puck-moving defenseman, suited up for the U.S. National Team Development Program. After winning back-to-back Super 8 titles at Malden Catholic, Ryan played for the EJHL’s Valley Jr. Warriors in 2012-13, leading up to his first year of draft eligibility.

Projected to be picked as early as the second round, Fitzgerald — the MVP of the All-American Prospects Game last fall in Buffalo — fell to Boston at No. 120 overall. Tom, an assistant to the general manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins and the brother of Boston’s assistant director of amateur scouting, Scott Fitzgerald (Wilmington, Mass.), made his way from the draft floor in Newark to be by Ryan’s side leading up to his selection.

“Sitting with him kind of just kept me calm,” said Ryan, who sported a BC T-shirt under his gear at Bruins development camp. “It wasn’t too nerve-racking, so it was good.”

“I can tell you, when the Bruins announced, ‘From the Valley Warriors, Ryan Fitzgerald,’ it was … wow,” Tom said. “I’m thinking to myself, man, I don’t know if he realizes what just happened. He just got drafted by his hometown team. … I wanted to get drafted by the Boston Bruins! He gets to live it.”

Tom said there’s no reason for Ryan or anyone to fret about which spot they’re taken in at the draft.

“There’s really, in my professional opinion, there’s no difference between being selected in the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh round,” he said. “There’s not. There might be criteria organizations look for and kids fall, and kids move up.”

Ryan’s phone was flooded with messages as he made his way down to shake Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli’s hand. One of them came from his good pal, Matt.

“I sent him a text right away congratulating him,” Matt said. “I know what the feeling is like, being a local guy. I didn’t want to make it too long, so I just said, ‘Have fun, I’ll see you next week.’ ”

The two got a chance to reunite during Boston’s weeklong development camp at Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington. Tom said having a few familiar faces around was a big boost for Ryan during camp.

“I think it’s huge. I really do. … To have familiar faces around makes you more comfortable,” he said. “But, there’s still some uneasiness going into your first development camp. Where am I going to fit in? How do I stack up? You’re stacking yourself up against kids already in college and major junior. Having familiar faces around is important to have that comfort level. Then you just have to play. Having development camp in Wilmington, just one town over from North Reading, probably helped eased Ryan’s anxiety as well.”

Next up for Ryan, who’s already taking summer classes at Boston College and spending the school week living on campus, is seeing how he stacks up against his BC teammates. He’s certainly in for a challenge, given that the Eagles have won three of the past six national championships and are a perennial powerhouse.

“Fitzgerald should get some opportunities early in the season, as the Eagles usually like to try their freshmen out,” Andrew Merritt, NEHJ’s Hockey East beat writer, said. “However, he’s part of a class that includes four other draftees, two of whom are forwards, and there aren’t necessarily a lot of forward minutes to go around for BC this year. Fitzgerald could make a leap, but he’d almost have to in order to be a primary player for BC this year.”

After a standout freshman season that saw him post 3-20-23 totals in 38 games for the Terriers, Grzelcyk is likely to take on a bigger role on BU’s blue line.

Boston University's Matt Grzelcyk (Charlestown, Mass.) took part in his second Bruins development camp in July. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

“I think Grzelcyk has a lot of the tools to be a standout defenseman,” said Merritt. “The question is whether he’s ready to be keyed on every night — opposing defenses aren’t going to give him a lot of open looks now that he’s a known commodity, and as a sophomore he’s going to be expected to carry more of the load.”

While each of them hopes the other can achieve individual success, they recognize they’ll soon be battling it out for Beanpot titles, Hockey East crowns and maybe even an NCAA championship.

“To be at different schools, especially rival schools, is something funny, so we kind of kid about it a lot,” said Ryan. “We know when the puck hits the ice there’s no friends.”

 His father is quite familiar with that scenario, from his days as an NHLer and his two seasons at Providence College.

“I had a buddy after the game was over, but never in battle,” Tom said. “Playing a sport is about competing. It’s not ‘Oh, I had the puck, you can have it now.’ I played against friends and family members. I played against Keith Tkachuk (Melrose, Mass.), my first cousin. There was no way he was letting me win, and there was no way in hell I was letting him win. To me, that’s what separates a casual athlete from a competitive athlete.”

As undersized players, having that competitive nature and the drive to improve is vital at all times for both Grzelcyk and Fitzgerald.

“I think I still have a long ways to go,” Matt said when asked how close he feels he is to being pro ready. “I definitely need more physical development. My number one thing I work on is just getting in the weight room as much as I can and trying to feel conditioned out there. When you go to the next level, guys are much bigger and stronger, so I think that’s very important.”

In the meantime, Tom hopes to see Ryan make the most of his stint at the college level, both on and off the ice.

“To say we’re excited is an understatement,” Fitzgerald said of his son playing under Jerry York at BC. “I think it’s a privilege that he has that opportunity to play for Jerry, because as great of a coach he is, he’s an even better person. More importantly, it’s the education. He gets the chance to earn a Boston College degree, and that’s very important to me. You need a good education. I never finished in Providence, but I’ve made a career in the National Hockey League. My wife (Kerry) and I are excited that both our older boys are going to get a chance to earn a degree from Boston College.”

As many former college players can attest, not only reaching but staying at that next level — the NHL — isn’t easy.

“I’ve got to be honest with you. My son doesn’t get that far ahead. Speaking to the Grzelcyks like, ‘Oh my god, how awesome is this?’ It never came up,” Tom said when asked if he chatted with “old man Grizz” about the dream scenario of seeing their sons sport the Spoked-B together in the National Hockey League. “I think hockey parents understand the challenges that lie ahead for drafted players, and how things need to fall into place. There wasn’t one word mentioned about potentially Matt Grzelcyk and Ryan Fitzgerald playing for the Boston Bruins. Now that’s the goal of the Bruins. That’s called development. But as parents, it’s never been brought up.

“Ryan understands that there’s a chance for him to play for the Boston Bruins. There’s a chance now. Now the hard work begins. I told Ryan that if his goal was to get drafted, there’s no chance. If his goal is to play in the National Hockey League, he’ll understand the hard work that needs to be put in.”

Tom has seen his son further grasp what it’ll take to reach that goal in the few weeks that have passed since the draft.

“Ryan’s living at Boston College now. He’ll come home right before he has to go to school (in the fall). I see him realizing all the hard work that needs to be put in,” Fitzgerald said. “He knows it’s not going to be easy. He’s no different than me or any NHL player playing now. You need to maintain and be consistent and be detailed in your work. Then you’ll have a chance to play. You can pick any player from the Boston Bruins. If they don’t work on their skills, someone else will take their job. That’s how life works, right?”

Nevertheless, as far off and as hard of a goal to reach as it may be, it’s still pretty cool to entertain the thought of two childhood friends from the Boston area teaming up one day for the Black and Gold.

“That’d be really cool. It’s a little bit surreal right now,” said Matt. “You just kind of want to know what you have to work on and go work on those areas. I haven’t given it too much thought but it would definitely be cool. To one day get out there with Ryan would be pretty special.”

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

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ