Former national state championship hockey player progresses
Saugus native Mike Vecchione has been playing professional hockey since April 2017 after leading Union College as NCAA Division 1 championship captain. But after stints in the Philadelphia, St. Louis and Colorado organizations, Vecchione caught the eye of the powers that be with the Washington Capitals, while playing for their top minor league affiliate in Hershey.
Vecchione ranks second on offense for Hershey this season with 36 points (12 goals, 24 assists – team leader in assists). The 5-foot-10, 193-pound forward is just four points away from matching his AHL career high in single-season points (2017-18: 40 points).
The Caps acknowledged his explosiveness and called him up two weeks ago to replace Lars Eller, who was out after being diagnosed with COVID. Vecchione knew it would be a short-lived stint with the big club until Eller agreed to the protocols. But he liked what Caps coach Peter Laviolette had to say to him before he was kicked out after only about five days with the parent club. This gave him hope that he might return soon.
Vecchione explained his status after returning to Hershey, while answering further questions posed by announcer Saugus and Wicked Local Saugus in the text that followed.
You were called up for the Capitals two weeks ago, what goes through the mind of an athlete trying to figure out the process?
Well, in my case, they had told me that Lars Eller had tested positive for COVID, so he had to follow protocol for the week. So going to Washington, I knew it was a temporary stint because he was obviously away and they needed an extra forward for the road trip to Columbus and Carolina. These things happen all the time, and as an American Hockey League player, you know you have to be ready in a heartbeat, especially with COVID protocols.
Unfortunately, most of the time you have to wait for an injury to occur to get a summons. Then you have an idea of who would go up based on the injured player’s position. But these days you can have one guy or a handful of guys testing positive for COVID, and now the Caps need a bunch of guys. You never know what’s going to happen and you have to be ready when the time comes.
Is it daunting or are you taking the approach that you might be on the verge of staying with the big club permanently?
I wouldn’t say it was disheartening, because I knew it was something temporary. I was getting a lot of texts and everyone was excited for me, which I really appreciated, but I tried to explain to everyone that Eller would be back in five days, so don’t expect too much .
However, in these situations you are trying to make the most of what they give you and have a positive impact on the team. I waited five years to get such a summons, so when it happened, I was extremely excited.
In previous years I’ve seen guys around me get the call when I thought I deserved it, which was disheartening, but it’s usually out of my control. I try not to let it get to me. I just go about my business, and keep grinding. In this case, when the Caps called asking for the best player available, my coaching staff at Hershey fought for me and told the Caps I was their man, which I didn’t. in recent seasons. To hear that, it really meant a lot to me that my coaches respected me so much, and I also thought I deserved this opportunity.
I feel like I’m on point. I really felt like I belonged with these guys. It was nice to be up there to get a feel for what it’s like, while gaining the confidence of the Caps coaching staff in case I get a call from them, but in the meantime I’ll be in Hershey.
What do you think of the season so far? Do you think you’re playing better now than in previous AHL seasons?
This season has been a rollercoaster. I have been injured several times. I’ve had different teammates every week, because of guys getting called up or guys getting COVID, and the schedule has also been less than ideal, so things haven’t been easy for us. as a club.
We’re struggling to score as a team at the moment, but I’m sure things will fall into place to give us some stability. I live one of my best seasons. We have a great group of guys, and it’s a mix of young players and veterans, so that kind of balance has a huge impact on the team as a whole.
I certainly went into this season with a chip on my shoulder, as I didn’t get many offers during free agency last summer. It fueled my fire in July, so I was excited to start things at Hershey. I played very well. I feel like I’m playing better, because I just have more confidence than in previous years, and that has a lot to do with the coaching staff giving me more responsibility, as well as more opportunities to succeed, and I capitalized on everything. I managed to gain their trust at the start of the camp, and that goes a lot with the coaches. If you work hard and are responsible for both sides of the puck, coaches give you a longer leash and more freedom to play your game.
What did the Capitals tell you before firing you five days after calling you?
Caps head coach Peter Laviolette called me Saturday night to tell me the news. He’s a great coach, and even a better person. He just doesn’t send you; he actually has a conversation with you to explain the Peter Laviolette stuff.
Like I said before, I understood I was replacing Eller, so there wasn’t much to say, but he told me he wished he could have played me more. (The Columbus game) was a divisional rivalry game that had playoff implications, so I had a feeling my shifts would be infrequent. He told me that I had played well with the time given to me. I had three shots in just 5 minutes and 30 seconds of ice time. I also created chances, so I took advantage of what I was given, and that’s all he could ask for. He told me it was a testament to my work ethic that I was there with the Caps, so I have to keep doing what I did.
Does this yo-yo approach in professional sports have an effect on athletes like you?
This yo-yo approach is part of the game. As gamers, we understand that’s the way things are. Things happen so fast and you just try to be as prepared as possible when your number is called.
Yes, it’s stressful not knowing what’s going on, but that’s part of the beauty of the game. Anything can happen at any time, and that’s exciting. My main goal is to be the best possible player for the Hershey Bears, and that’s it for now. You can’t focus on things beyond your control. You might hear about an injury or someone who gets COVID, but you never know who’s going to get the call. But if I keep playing like I did, then hopefully I get another chance. I am happy to have been rewarded for the work I have done this year, but this is only the beginning. You always want more and you also have the will to take it to the next level. It’s probably one of the main reasons I’ve come this far in hockey, and it won’t change until I retire.