By Adam Kaufman
Most every hockey team has one.
The pugilist on the ice with little to no regard for his own well-being so long as taking a punch or seven to the face, neck and ribs means a spark for his club.
For the Worcester Sharks, that’s fourth-year defenseman Nick Petrecki.
The former San Jose first-round selection — 28th overall in 2007 — is an imposing 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds and, after only 210 American Hockey League games, he ranks third in Sharks franchise history with a whopping 366 penalty minutes. That number would likely be higher through November if not for a broken hand causing him to miss much of the month. Ironically, the hand’s second break came while blocking a Manchester opponent’s shot rather than pummeling his chin in a heavyweight bout.
Sure, the 23-year-old will chip in offensively from time to time — sporting six goals and 38 points in his career — but Petrecki’s key attributes when draped in his hockey armor are his defensive aptitude and his willingness to punish or be punished, friend or foe, for it doesn’t matter if the jerseys do not match.
However, there’s no stat to measure character.
Born in Schenectady, N.Y., and raised in Clifton Park, Petrecki grew up playing youth hockey for both Clifton Park and Troy-Albany, before moving on to Capital District’s squads in the Empire Junior B League and the Junior A Eastern Junior Hockey League.
All the while at home, his father, Mark — now a retired New York state trooper with a masonry and stone business — and his mother, Michelle — who cleans houses for a living — would instill values in Nick that go well beyond table manners or even the codes of conduct and camaraderie often learned when playing sports as children.
“My parents are very generous people and would do anything for anybody,” said Petrecki. “My dad would give you the shirt off his back if you didn’t have anything.”
It’s that type of unspoken behavior, demonstrations of kindness, which would become not simply common practice for Petrecki, but a yearning, even a calling. Whether or not he played professional hockey, he’d undoubtedly be a standout member of the community. But having the cachet of being an athlete in some ways makes it a lot easier.
Petrecki earned the AHL’s Yanick Dupré Memorial Award in 2012 as the league’s Man of the Year for his outstanding contributions to the Worcester community and other charitable organizations, also marking the second straight season he was the Sharks’ nominee.
It would be effortless to devote an entire article to Petrecki’s off-ice efforts alone. He’s the lead spokesperson for his team’s flagship community programs, FINZ Fit Kidz and Reading is Cool, while also playing a key role in mentoring children at several Boys and Girls Clubs throughout Central Massachusetts. Petrecki also speaks to thousands of students at numerous school assemblies to discuss the importance of reading, participated in street hockey clinics, worked with underprivileged kids and painted a street mural to promote Athletes for a Greener Planet. All of that barely scratches the surface.
The blueliner helped organize the Sharks’ fourth annual “Give Moore for the Holidays” Toy Drive last season — a cause created by former Worcester and current Milwaukee Admirals captain Mike Moore — to benefit the Rainbow Child Development Center, rallying teammates to purchase more than $3,000 worth of toys for children and their families. Petrecki’s also an active member of the Hockey Ministries International organization, which worked with the Sharks to arrange a Faith and Family Night last April for local churches and youth groups.
If you’re exhausted just reading that, imagine how Petrecki must feel. All in all, he’s appeared in well over 100 community events during his time in Worcester.
“He’s probably the most recognizable face on our team off the ice,” Sharks coach Roy Sommer proudly noted. “He’s in the community and he cares about everything he does. He’s genuine about it and doesn’t just do it because he’s a sports guy. When he gets into it, he’s in all the way. We’ve been blessed to have a guy like him.”
Along with his upbringing, Petrecki credits much of his desire to partake in the community to his two years as a student at Boston College, where he was a national champion as a freshman in 2008.
“There was a tight-knit
community feeling that we had at school with Coach
(Jerry) York, Coach (Mike) Cavanaugh and our team chaplain, Father Tony Penna, who I’m still very close with,” recalled Petrecki. “We did a lot of stuff at school, going to other schools with the team and using our free time in a positive way.”
Ever since, that free time has eaten at him, forming a void that can only be filled by immersing himself in the public. He understands, though, that’s not every player’s approach.
“Some guys like to do their own thing,” Petrecki said. “They go to the rink, put their work in and then go home and do whatever they want to do the rest of the day. I believe it’s all personal preference, especially in the American Hockey League, where you have so many guys at different phases of their lives.
“Some guys are just starting a professional career and some are married with two kids and have to get home at the end of the day. It’s not like being on a junior team or a college team where everybody is mostly the same age and doing the same thing. There are just so many guys on different schedules.”
Admittedly, it can be frustrating trying to coax some more hesitant teammates into volunteering their time, or when it’s the same few guys going to all of the appearances, but he knows that’s just the reality of the situation.
“It’s a little disappointing if it’s only one or two guys doing everything, but we try to get as many as we can,” Petrecki said. “We can’t force it on anybody. Some guys just don’t like to get up in front of a group and talk about sports.
“Obviously the more people we can get out, whether it’s for a reading program, a fitness program, a toy drive, the Hockey Ministries night that we do, whatever, it’s better because people get a big kick out of it and it makes a bigger impression than you realize. We’re in a tough market here in Worcester and it really helps generate more interest in hockey and in hockey in Worcester.”
With his broken hand last month, Petrecki had more free time to occupy and he immediately sought out Sharks senior director of business and community development Mike Myers to let him know he wanted to put his time to good use. Just don’t accuse him of going after another Man of the Year award.
“I was surprised,” Petrecki said of last year’s league distinction. “It’s not like that’s what I was setting out to do but, at the same time, I take pride and put a lot of hard work into setting up a lot of stuff while working with the Sharks staff to not only do their programs but to expand on them and make them better.
“It’s not just going to a school, reading off a note card and getting out of there,” he continued. “It’s about really taking it and trying to evolve it and enjoy it while stressing the message, ‘This is what I believe in and I think this could help you guys.’ Obviously it was a good honor but I’m just glad that we saw the positive impact in some of the things we did last year.”
One event that will always stay with Petrecki is the holiday toy drive.
“You walk into the room after and see these people,” he remembered. “They don’t have two dimes to rub together and you’re giving them 50 dollars worth of stuff that if you went out at Target, we really wouldn’t sniff at, but it means a lot to them. Seeing that reaction, seeing happy parents and happy kids, a class that really enjoyed what you just talked about, or taking time with somebody at a hospital — it’s all little stuff like that that’s a positive effect not only on them but on you as well.”
So why are the tough guys like Petrecki, charitable and selfless off the ice, the ones who tend to get tasked with clobbering others in a blood-curdling rage out on the ice?
“You got me,” laughed Sommer. “That’s how it goes. Once the game starts up, it’s Jekyll and Hyde. Most of them know their role and they play it pretty good.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.