The road to playing college hockey isn't easy for anyone, but for Frank Vatrano, the journey was a particularly difficult and arduous one that saw some bumps in the road along the way.
It was all going according to plan at first. He had a scholarship offer to play college hockey at power house Boston College for the legendary Jerry York. However, an enrollment snafu put a halt on those plans in the fall of 2012. After leaving BC before playing in a game, the East Longmeadow, Mass. native ended up playing out the season with the Boston Junior Bruins before electing to transfer to UMass.
"Even before I went to BC, I always thought about UMass. It's a great school, a great place to be. It's close to my home," said Vatrano, who recalled going to UMass games at the Mullins Center growing up just down the road.
"I had come to games here as a kid. I dreamed of playing here even if it was against UMass," he added. "I remember a BC-UMass game where there were 8,000 people screaming even during warmups when both teams were ranked."
He would have to wait longer than expected to finally get to suit up in a game for the Minutemen. The NCAA stepped in and prevented Vatrano from lacing up his skates in an actual regular season game until the 2014 Hockey East playoffs. Instead of pouting and putting on a woe is me attitude, Vatrano used his time away from game situations to get better and improve on parts of his game that would make him a better player when he became eligible.
"I just tried to keep a positive mindset. I worked on getting better and faster. I did a lot of weight training and worked on the defensive part of the game. I knew that I needed that in Hockey East," Vatrano explained.
Vatrano credits the coaching staff for pointing out areas of his game that needed improvement as well as implementing steps to make those progressions come to fruition.
"They really helped me on my defensive game, protecting the puck and moving my feet quicker," he said.
Vatrano made his highly anticipated debut at Vermont in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs. Not surprisingly, Vatrano was held scoreless in that game and the first four games this season. After all, he hadn't seen game action in over a year and needed some time to adjust to the rigors and everyday grind of Hockey East.
"I had to get used to playing college hockey. I had to adapt to the speed and pace of Hockey East. Playing in games is more difficult than practices. I didn't have many games under my belt," commented Vatrano.
Vatrano, a product of the US National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., recorded his first collegiate point, an assist, on Oct. 25 against Boston College. That sparked him to a five-game point streak including his first career goal on Nov. 1 at Maine.
Prior to being held scoreless in last weekend's nonconference series against Maine, Vatrano had tallied at least a goal in four straight games and in seven of eight. He's a natural goal scorer with quick hands and he's formed good chemistry with his linemates, center Dennis Kravchenko and left wing Ray Pigozzi.
"We all have different styles. Ray and Dennis are more playmakers while I'm more of a goal scorer, but we mold together. We all play up tempo," explained the right wing.
Even when not scoring, Vatrano's knack for finding the puck and getting quality shots on net is evident. He's the type of player that will give it his all every shift and fight for the puck.
"I try to use my shot to my advantage and bring energy every shift," when asked what the strength of his game is. "Playing hard and fast, finishing checks," added Vatrano about how he makes up for his lack of size.
At the halfway point UMass is a disappointing 6-15-0, but Vatrano said he and his teammates have stayed upbeat and expect a strong finish to the season.
"We just need to be consistent night in and night out and play a full 60 minutes every night," Vatrano said.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.