NCAA Hockey Tournament: Union's Mike Vecchione makes best of opportunity

Union College freshman Mike Vecchione carries the puck in Friday's - Matt Dewkett

Freshman Mike Vecchione centers Union's top line.

BRIDGEPORT, CONN. - The old notion that everything happens for a reason and everything works out for the best is something that can be attested to by Mike Vecchione.

The freshman center is getting his first shot at the NCAA Tournament this weekend as some of his teammates are making their fourth appearance in college hockey's version of March Madness.

Union, the regular season and tournament champions in ECAC Hockey, is the No. 1 seed in the East Regional and will face No. 3 Providence Saturday at 3 p.m. ET on ESPNU after defeating Vermont, 5-2, in the first round.

It almost didn't work out this way for Vecchione. The high scoring schoolboy hockey star was committed to New Hampshire, but the Wildcats chose to go in a different direction, something that ultimately was a blessing in disguise for Vecchione.

The Saugus, Mass. native and Malden Catholic alum committed to Union College after the recruitment process with UNH fell through.

Vecchione played two seasons with the Tri-City Storm in the USHL following his terrific high school career at MC. He committed to Union in August before his final season in the nation's top junior league.

"I didn't know what to do when I was de-committed from UNH. I got a couple calls from schools and then I got a call from [Union assistant] coach [Joe] Dumais. They got right back to me. They really wanted me here. I talked to coach Bennett over the summer and he said ‘if you want to come here, we'd love to have you,'" said Vecchione.

It's a decision that Vecchione believes has benefited him tremendously already and will continue to in the long run.

"Everything happens for a reason. Looking back at it, UNH is a great school, but the success I've had here, I don't know where I would have been if I went there," explained Vecchione.

With the confidence of knowing his college destination, Vecchione had a terrific second season of junior hockey. He potted 26 goals and added 34 assists in 63 games played during his final season in the USHL.

Vecchione believes the similarity of junior and college hockey helped prepare him for the NCAA level this season as well as making him a better player in his own end.

"[Junior hockey] is very defensive. It's a 64-game season. It's grinding with long bus rides. It's very similar. Playing those 64 games for two years helped me build and give me the stamina to play at the college level," said Vecchione.

"It was a great two years. I had a lot of fun and we had a lot of success out there. It definitely made me into the player I am now," added Vecchione.

Vecchione has become an integral part of the Dutchmen team in his rookie season, posting 12 goals and 19 assists for 31 points in 34 games played.

"Mike has had a very good freshman year for us," said third year Union head coach Rick Bennett, who has led his team to the NCAA Tournament in each season behind the bench.

Vecchione, a winger in high school and junior hockey, has transitioned well to playing center in college. He has been responsible in his own end and has taken many important faceoffs for his team.

"I played wing all through high school and juniors. I just started playing center this year. It's just getting low and being strong and quick on the stick. I look at what other guys are doing and watch film on the other guys," said Vecchione, who has a plus/minus rating of +23.

Vecchione is one of the most hockey savvy freshmen in college hockey this season and uses all the tools at his disposal to be good in the faceoff circle.

"I try to see [the opposing center's tendency] of going forward or backhand. I try my best to beat him at the puck. It's about wanting it more and getting in there and fighting for it," he added.

"Part of his overall game has been the faceoffs. He has a nice low center of gravity. He's built really well. He uses his strength to help himself in those faceoffs," said Bennett, a former player at Providence College.

Everything wasn't easy about his freshman season. Vecchione had to battle through some injuries and illnesses that hampered his development during the first part of the season.

"I struggled with mono halfway through the year. It was a battle to get back in the lineup and get healthy," said Vecchione.

"He's battled a lot of adversity through his freshman year. Battling through all that adversity has really helped him. The injuries and through a bout of mono, he's starting to hit his stride right now," said Bennett.

Get healthy and back in the lineup he did. Vecchione joined the top line with star senior Daniel Carr and junior Daniel Ciampini and took off, finding the back of the net seven times and adding 11 assists in 16 games following his return to action.

"Once I got healthy and was at 100 percent, I started playing with Carr and Ciampini. We've just been on a roll. It's been an unbelievable season. I couldn't ask for a better freshman year," explained Vecchione.

Vecchione was quick to praise Carr, the school's all-time leading scorer at the Division I level, and Ciampini.

"You can't say enough about those guys. Carr is just an unbelievable goal scorer. His shot is just unbelievable. Ciampini is another great player who sees the ice very well and makes smart plays," said Vecchione.

Vecchione was part of a great high school program at Malden Catholic, which he says has a lot in common with his new school.

"[Union and Malden Catholic] are very similar. Both are really small schools. Coming from MC really helped me be the player I am," said Vecchione.

Vecchione, who was part of the first of four straight state championships for MC, credits a lot of his success to the late Chris Serino, his high school coach.

Serino, a former Merrimack head coach and UNH assistant as well as a legendary high school bench boss, constantly pushed Vecchione to be better.

"I learned everything I know from Chris Serino. He always preached to me to be a leader on and off the ice, even when I was an underclassman. He wanted me to be the best player I could and work hard every shift, every game and every practice," said Vecchione who also credited skating guru Paul Vincent for his help during the summer.

Vecchione said he still keeps tabs on his former teammates that just won the school's fourth straight Super 8, including ESPN Boston Mr. Hockey winner Tyler Sifferlen.

"I couldn't be more proud of those guys. I still talk to Sifferlen. I wish him good luck before the games. When I was a senior, he was a freshman. I knew he was going to be a captain his senior year. His work ethic is second to none. He definitely deserves it. He did a terrific job of keeping that winning mentality alive," said Vecchione.

--

Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.

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