Just six games into his collegiate career, New Hampshire freshman forward Patrick Grasso is already being compared to one of the all-time greats to ever lace up the skates at this storied program.
That’s what happens after a four-goal game, bringing his season total to eight, just over a quarter of the way to Darren Haydar’s freshman school record of 31.
“We’re going to hear a lot about [Grasso]. I compare him to Darren Haydar. He plays just like Darren Haydar,” said UNH head coach Dick Umile, referring to the 1998-99 Hockey East Rookie of the Year. “Eight goals in six games is pretty good.”
Despite Haydar playing at the school more than a decade before Grasso arrived, the high praise isn’t lost on the Ankeny, Iowa native.
“I remember watching [Haydar] a lot when I was younger. It’s a huge compliment,” Grasso explained. “We have a little thing in the locker room of all the guys that have worn the number. I wore 20 when I was little.”
Three of his four goals in Saturday’ 6-2 win over Merrimack came from the crease or just on top of the goal mouth.
“He’s real clever. He’s got a great stick. He can score goals. He’s a very smart hockey player,” said Umile.
Scoring goals in the dirty areas isn’t always a common trait for a player listed at just 5-feet-7. However, it is something Grasso takes a lot of pride in.
“It’s something I spend a lot of time on in the off-season and during the season. It’s important, especially as a little guy to be able to find loose pucks. A bigger guy might knock you off if you don’t get to it in time. Being able to locate those and try to bury them, it can be an asset,” explained Grasso.
His older teammates have noticed Grasso’s rink rat mentality and desire to be a sponge for knowledge.
“We got along right off the start,” said senior Tyler Kelleher. “I told him if he had any questions to ask me. Hopefully I can keep helping him out. He has a really good work ethic and he tries to get better every single day.”
Kelleher, who has also enjoyed tremendous success scoring points in Hockey East, has enjoyed watching Grasso and serving as somewhat of a mentor.
“I just told to believe in himself. He doesn’t look very old. He’s a little guy. He has great hands. He has eight goals already which is pretty crazy. He just knows how to score goals and he’s always in the right place at the right time,” said Kelleher, who has assisted on three of the eight markers.
Grasso’s passion for the game stretches past just his time at the rink. He spends a lot of time watching players similar in stature with the hopes of picking up ideas that can help his own game.
“I like to watch a lot of little guys play in the NHL and AHL. I try to model my game after them. They have success at the higher levels. Being able to mimic some of the things they do can help me be a little more successful,” Grasso explained.
Being a smaller player isn’t the only unique part of Grasso’s emergence as a star rookie in one of the best leagues in college hockey. It’s not every day that a kid from Iowa makes his mark on the game.
“My dad started a AAA team when I was young. We had a pretty good group of 10 to 12 guys. We competed against some of the best teams in the country. I went to Omaha for a year then came back to Des Moines to play juniors,” said Grasso.
Despite not growing up in a hockey hotbed, the sport was always in Grasso’s blood. He is related to Joe Mullen, one of the best American born hockey players of all-time, who won three Stanley Cup championships.
[He’s] my dad’s cousin. They grew up in Hell’s Kitchen together. They’re basically like brothers so I consider him my uncle. Being part of that hockey family, I take a lot of pride in that. I try to model a little of what I do after what he did,” said Grasso.
Grasso chuckled when asked the biggest piece of advice he ever received from his famous relative.
“He always said, ‘If you don’t know where the puck is going, how does the goalie know where it’s going. When you’re shooting, you just have to get it off quick,’” said Grasso.
Grasso’s work ethic and self-belief are certainly big factors in his relatively easy transition to college hockey, but playing three years in the best junior league in the country is another major reason.
Grasso played in 196 career games in the USHL for the Des Moines Buccaneers, a franchise that was just a 20-minute drive from his family’s home.
“Spending a couple extra years in the USHL, as opposed to just playing one or two, it prepared me and gave me a little bit of a leadership role playing junior hockey. Being older coming into school helps too, as opposed to being a true freshman. I feel a little more confident than i would have if I had come in here a year or two ago,” said Grasso.
After starting 2-0 in Hockey East play for the first time since the 2012-13 season, Umile and the Wildcat faithful are surely rooting for Grasso’s hot start to continue.