SCHENECTADY — One of Mike Vecchione’s favorite classes during his soon-to-be four years at Union College was “War and American Memory.”
There’s the textbook version of events you learn as a kid in school, and then there’s deeper insight you gain by taking the time to consider all the various angles.
“You think you know all about it until you get into
details and the different aspects of how people remember it,” the senior history major said on Wednesday morning, “and everyone’s perspective is so different.”
You could say that about his “other” pursuit, too.
Vecchione, a 5-foot-10, 195-pound center from Saugus, Mass., will graduate this spring, hopefully with honors, then he will be on the phone trying to figure out where he’ll begin his professional hockey career. Somebody will be on the other end with a job offer.
The simple conclusion when you’re in such a position as an underclassman is to take the money and run (or skate), don’t jeopardize your future income by coming back to college and putting your knees at risk, or your head or any other variety of body parts. For all the armor a hockey player wears, sometimes the puck wins, or the boards, or the ice.
Take. The money.
Vecchione, who turns 24 later this month, chose not to, not just after his sophomore year, but also while exploring his pro prospects last year after his junior year, a gut-wrenching decision that could not be boiled down to any one simple factor. It’s complicated.
What Vecchione has discovered already, though, is that no matter what direction his pro hockey career takes, you can’t put a price tag on the rewards of returning for his senior season with the Dutchmen. And the really good stuff hasn’t even happened yet.
Frequently with college athletes, leaving school early to turn pro is not only the smart move, it’s the right one. The truth is, the way the system is set up, some future pros are merely using the college game as a temporary vehicle for the big paycheck.
In Vecchione’s case, staying at Union for his senior season was the right move. Besides the accolades and achievements he has already racked up this season (with more to come), there’s a joy to his game that doesn’t come from statistics or the spotlight.
If his stock goes up in the process based on improving his game, all the better.
One of the trickier reads when it comes to NHL talent and potential is how undrafted college players who become free agents will pan out.
Vecchione’s case is no different, even though he’s the Division I national leader in points per game for the No. 6-ranked team in the country, has played for a national champion as a freshman and is a leading candidate to win the Hobey Baker Award, college hockey’s version of the Heisman Trophy.
That said, Vecchione has rebounded spectacularly from a statistically sub-par junior year in which he was hampered by a cracked rib, and also worked on becoming a better two-way player. With six regular-season games left, Vecchione has broken the school record for career points and assists and made SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays of the Day for his ridiculously deft spin-o-rama goal against Brown on Nov. 5.
“I think he’s taken away a lot of their [scouts’] questions,” Union head coach Rick Bennett said. “The 200-foot game. Not taking shortcuts, the cheat offense. Not sacrificing defense.
That, to me, is not easy to do. As our staff jokes around, you don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Geez, I can’t wait to go play defense.’
“You have to play three zones. You’ve got to be trusted.”
Based on having participated in four NHL prospect development camps, week-long drill sessions that he likened to preliminary job
interviews, including one with his hometown Boston Bruins, Vecchione said he believes his game stacks up favorably to have a solid pro career.
This season, he has been battling hard in the faceoff circle, has hustled back on defense and has not shied away from the dirty areas in front of the crease and on the endboards.
The production — 22 goals and 26 assists in 28 games — speaks for itself, and frequently comes from grit as much as the glamour play.
From what Bennett has heard, this is an opportune year for Vecchione to be coming out, based on the pool of undrafted free agents who will be hitting the market this spring.
“By my junior year, I had already been to three camps, I felt like I could match up, so looking at that . . . Wow, maybe I was ready,” Vecchione said. “But it just wasn’t worth it.”
For one thing, it was important to complete his degree, which he’ll do a trimester early, in March, which will allow him to get on the phone with NHL teams after whenever Union’s postseason ends without having to handle schoolwork, too.
There was a lot to consider for 2016-17. Vecchione knew the Dutchmen would have a terrific team this season.
He is a well-liked captain whose teammates genuinely root for him and don’t hold the public attention against him.
While weighing the pros and cons of leaving early after last year’s disappointing, frustrating season, Vecchione reached out to former teammates, many of whom went through the same process. The pro ranks are speckled with former Union players; most of them, like Vecchione, weren’t drafted.
So after five days of introspection, Vecchione got out of class one day and answered a phone call from his mom, Diane.
“I said, ‘Hello,’ and she was like, ‘What’s wrong? You don’t seem like yourself,’ ” he said. “ ‘Nothing, I just got out of class.’ And she knew it was something deeper. She knew I didn’t want to leave, she was trying to dig it out of me. It was pretty emotional. They knew I wanted to stay and finish what I started here, get that degree.
“I didn’t think about the doubts of coming back; I was thinking about the doubts of leaving.”
“I really felt he did it the right way,” Bennett said. “Not because he came back, but he did reach out to a lot of people, had a lot of advice.”
During the Bruins’ prospects development camp, Vecchione had plenty of family and friends in the stands at the practice facility.
That included his grandparents, long-time Bruins fans, who were sitting in the front row.
During one drill he wound up next to the glass near them and spotted his grandfather crying.
“To see the smiles on their faces, hopefully there’s a day when I could be a Bruin and they could be in the Garden sitting in the front row, and the same situation happens,” Vecchione said.
A swirl of sometimes conflicting factors will have to fall into place for Vecchione to carve out the NHL career he envisions.
As Bennett observed, there are high-profile players from the college and major junior ranks who, for whatever reason, don’t make it.
But if the ultimate goal for Vecchione is peace of mind, that battle has been won.
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