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Mike Vecchione knows championships

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Accomplished Saugus native owns three titles on three different levels, and he’s not done yet 

By Joe McConnell

Mike Vecchione has known nothing but success throughout his hockey career. The Saugus native first led Malden Catholic to its first Division 1 Super 8 state championship as its captain in 2011, when they defeated St. John’s Prep in overtime at the TD Garden. Six years later, he captained Union College to the NCAA Division 1 title, and last year he won his first pro championship with the AHL’s (American Hockey League) Hershey Bears, the Washington Capitals minor league affiliate. The Bears are now on pace to repeat as Calder Cup champs with Mike still in charge as a team captain on the ice. Will the Stanley Cup be in his future? Quite possibly, but let him tell his story.

In 59 games, Vecchione, who plays leftwing, has 15 goals and 16 assists. As a team, Hershey has the best overall record by far to date in the entire league at 47-12-5. The Providence Bruins are second to the Bears in the Atlantic Division – fourth in the entire league – with a 38-19-7 record. The Coachella Valley (Southern California) Firebirds, out of the Pacific Division, has the second-best record in the league at 40-14-9. The Central Division Milwaukee Admirals ranks third in the league with a 42-20-1 mark. The regular season concludes on April 21.

Vecchione expects to win another Calder Cup this year after stints in the Philadelphia Flyers, St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche organizations. He signed on with the Bears several years ago, because of the club’s winning tradition.

“One of the things that drove me to sign with the Hershey Bears a few years ago was their will to win every year,” Vecchione said. “There’s never really a rebuild in Hershey. We hold ourselves to a certain standard, and so does the town. It seems like every single season they build a team that can win the Calder Cup, and that’s what you want as a player.

“After winning last season, we knew we were going to lose some guys to other teams, as well as the European leagues so the quest to repeat started well before the season,” he added. “Although we lost a handful of key contributors, we were able to replace them with the same caliber of player, and once the season got going, we immediately had chemistry and picked up right where we left off. We tried not to look too far ahead. We stayed pretty level-headed throughout the entire season. We just took it one game at a time, and strived to achieve certain milestones to keep us motivated. We put ourselves in an incredible position to clinch home ice throughout the playoffs, which we didn’t have last season. Our goal right now is to finish the regular season on a high note, playing playoff-style hockey with high intensity to lock-in the top overall seed.”

Despite winning a state high school title and a collegiate championship on the highest of levels, Vecchione considers last year’s conquest the hardest of the three.

“Winning the Calder Cup was one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through in my career,” the Saugus native said. “When it comes to the Super 8 or the national collegiate championship, it’s a one game, winner-take-all scenario. To put it into perspective, I played more games last year in the Calder Cup playoffs than I did in the Super 8 and NCAA tournament combined. The grind of playing every other night, series after series, with long travel times between sites was very difficult, but the reward in the end was well worth it.”

But then came Game 7 of the AHL Finals against the Firebirds, and what led to Vecchione’s most memorable goal ever. “Everyone was so tense. It seemed like we were approaching a second overtime, and then it happened and a wave of adrenaline hit me,” he said. “It’s still hard to describe the feeling of scoring the winning goal in overtime in Game 7 to clinch the Calder Cup. The emotions were so overwhelming, but everything I had gone through in my career helped me get through that moment.”

But Mike doesn’t take any of these championships for granted. “It truly is a unique experience, and I’ve been extremely fortunate to have won at each level,” he said. “It really takes a full team to win a championship, and I thank all my teammates over the years for giving it everything they had. I remember being most nervous in the Super 8 game at the TD Garden. It was my last game as a high school hockey player. After three years of coming so close and failing, doubt started to creep in. I felt like there was such a weight on my shoulders being the captain, and not getting it done would be devastating. You just have to bury those doubts and give it everything you have. Playing in that type of situation as a kid prepares you for when the stage gets a little bigger and the lights shine a little brighter. By the time I got to the NCAA Division 1 national championship game, I was well-prepared mentally and physically to go out and play without the weight of a title on the line. You just have to put the distractions aside and focus on the task at hand.

“When we got blown out in Games 1 and 2 of last year’s finals, that doubt started to creep in again. But I was given great advice from former Bears legend Chris Bourque. He reached out to me and said: ‘You are never running away with it and you’re never out of it. Take control of the series.’ We did just that to win all three games at home in dramatic fashion. When it got to Game 7 in Coachella, it felt just like another game to me. I remembered being in this situation before as a high school and college player. It was another one game, winner-take-all scenario, and so I was prepared to embrace the moment. You never want to take these moments for granted, because they don’t come around that often, but when you win that moment lasts a lifetime.”

But naturally, aside from winning another Calder Cup this year, he’d love to play in the NHL (National Hockey League) someday to have an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup.

“My goal has always been to play in the NHL and win a Stanley Cup,” Vecchione said. “It would be quite a remarkable feat to add that to my collection. I’m still hopeful it can be done, even though the door seems to be closing. I can only control what I do on the ice. I can’t control call-ups. The only thing I can do is to continue to play to the best of my ability, and if the time comes, I know I will be ready.”

Vecchione, who just turned 31 on Feb. 25, knows he’s one of the oldest players on the Hershey roster.

“It really is crazy how fast time flies,” he said. “I’m not quite the oldest on the roster…yet. There are several other players on our team older than me, but I understand I’m 10 years older than our youngest guy, and I’m on the back nine of my career. I’ve been a captain on many teams, and my responsibility as a leader hasn’t changed throughout my career. I’ve always been a leader whose actions speak louder than my words. Whether it’s in a practice or a game, I want to go out and execute at a high level.

“When it comes to mentoring, I’m always open to help out younger guys in any way I can. They have scouts, developmental guys and coaches constantly in their ears telling them what they need to do, so it can get stressful for them. Although we are competing for jobs on the NHL Capitals, we are also teammates competing to win a Calder Cup together. It’s a weird dynamic to think about, but if a guy is struggling with something I’m always here to help him out. When I was a rookie, I sat around with the veterans, picked their brains and worked with them after practice to improve little aspects of my game that helped to elevate me. Now it’s come full circle, and I’m happy to pass on some of that wisdom to them.”

Stanley Cup still in the cards

“I still have another year (with the Capitals organization), but honestly, I’ve had the most fun since turning pro playing right here in Hershey, and I can’t picture playing somewhere else right now. If we win another Calder Cup this year, I would then be looking for a threepeat,” Mike said on his future. “Like I said earlier, Hershey builds teams to win every year. They have already locked in our coaching staff and our leadership group, which really sets the foundation and culture of our team. You lose guys every year to free agency, but when guys sign with the Bears, they are hungry to win. They see the banners, they see all the pictures, they see the videos and hear the stories, and all they want is a taste of it. It’s a good recipe to build a team, and it’s a big reason why I signed here. When my contract is up after next year, we will see where the wind takes me. I think I’d be happy finishing my career as a Bear, but if a Stanley Cup contender calls me, I’m all ears. I’ll never completely shut the door on the potential of winning a Stanley Cup, but I’m also I’m not an idiot. I’m a realist and understand I’ve only played three NHL games in my pro career. But anything can happen. You just have to be ready when it does.”

Always a Saugonian

Vecchione has traveled the country throughout his pro career, but Saugus remains his home. “I bought a home around Saugus Center about five years ago, and live there in the summer. When I get home, I usually hit Joe’s Gym, where I get some good work in with my dad. I also like to put on the rollerblades, and work on my craft in the park. That has always been where I found peace. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always gone to the park to master the game I love. I’ve always found that the work you put in away from the rink has the biggest effect, because you only have a certain amount of ice time in the summer, and it’s expensive,” Mike said.

“There’s nothing better than getting the boys together and playing hours of street hockey until we had blisters on our hands and feet. Later on in the summer, I would do more on ice skating and shooting to gear up for camp, but I live playing on the street hockey court. That being said, Saugus could really use a new street hockey rink. I’m no politician, but Anna Parker is a mess with weeds growing through the concrete. It really makes it nearly impossible to even go down there and enjoy playing. It’s been 25 years since the court was made, and no maintenance has been done on it over the years. It’s a shame the place I spent countless hours at is in such disarray, and so I have to drive to another town to get a good skate in. it’s time for an upgrade, please.

“The tennis courts at Belmonte and the basketball courts at Evans are absolutely beautiful, but this has always been a hockey town and it’s time we find a place to put a street hockey rink in with boards and a fence. I’d be willing to raise money and donate my own money to make it happen. A new or renovated facility would inspire more kids to chase their dreams like I did.”

But Mike Vecchione’s dreams are far from over, and by June he just might be hoisting another Calder Cup trophy with the Hershey Bears, his fourth title in the past 13 years on three different levels, an achievement that will certainly be difficult to replicate.

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