Saugu native Mike Vecchione has been playing professional hockey since April 2017 after leading Union College as captain of the Division 1 NCAA Championship. But after staying in Philadelphia, St. The Louis and Colorado organizations have Vecchione opened his eyes to the powers that be with the Washington Capitals while he has played for their top minor league affiliation in Hershey.
Vecchione is in second place in the offense for Hershey this season with 36 points (12 goals, 24 assists – team leader in assists). The 5-10, 193-pound striker is just four points left compared to tying his AHL career high in points in one season (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 stay at the big club until Eller cleared the minutes. But he liked what Caps coach Peter Laviolette had to say to him before being sent down after only about five days at the parent club. It gave him hope that he could return soon.
Vecchione elaborated on his status after arriving back at Hershey, while also answering other questions posed by Saugus Advertiser and Wicked Local Saugus in the ensuing text.
You were called up to the capital two weeks ago, what goes through the mind of an athlete trying to understand the process?
Well, in my case, they had told me that Lars Eller was tested positive for COVID, so he had to go on protocol for the week. So when I was going to Washington, I knew it was a temporary stay because he was obviously out and they needed an extra forward for a road trip to Columbus and Carolina. These things happen all the time, and as a player in the American Hockey League, you know you have to be ready for small things, especially with the COVID protocols.
Unfortunately, most of the time you have to wait for an injury to occur before you are called up. Then you have an idea of who would go up in anticipation of the position of the injured player. But in this day and age, you can get a guy or a handful of guys to test positive for COVID, and now Caps needs a bunch of guys. You just never know what’s going to happen and you need to be ready for when it’s your time.
Is it discouraging, or are you taking the approach you might be on the verge of becoming permanent in the big club?
I would not say it was discouraging because I knew it was a temporary thing to go in there. I got a lot of text messages and everyone was excited about me, which I really appreciated, but I tried to explain to everyone that Eller would be back in five days, so do not give up hope.
But in these situations, you try to make the most of what they give you and have a positive impact on the team. I have been waiting for five years to get such a call, so when it happened I was very excited.
In previous years, I’ve seen guys around me get called up when I thought I deserved it, which was discouraging, but it’s usually beyond my control. I’m not trying to let it get to me. I just get started on my work and keep on grinding. In this case, when the Caps called and asked for the best available player, my coaching staff at Hershey went to strike for me and told the Caps that I was their guy, which has not been the case in previous seasons. Hearing it certainly meant a lot to me that my coaches respect me to that degree, and I also thought I deserved that opportunity.
I feel like I’m on the verge. I definitely felt like I belonged out there with those guys. It was nice to be up there to get a feel for what it’s like, while I got some confidence from the Caps coaching staff if I were to get a call from them again, but in the meantime I’m in Hershey.
What are your thoughts on the season to date? Do you think you play better now than in previous AHL seasons?
This season has been a roller coaster ride. I’ve been hurt a few times. I have had different line mates every week, due to guys who have been called up or guys who have been given COVID and the schedule has also been less than ideal so it has not been easy for us as a club.
We’re struggling to score as a team right now, but I’m sure things will come together to give us some stability. I have one of my best seasons. We have a big group of guys and it’s a mix of young players and veteran guys so that kind of balance has a huge impact on the team as a whole.
I definitely came into this season with a chip on my shoulder because I did not have many offers under free agency last summer. It fueled my fire way back in July, so I was excited to get things going in Hershey. I have played fantastic. I feel that I play better, because I just have more self-confidence than in previous years, and it has a lot to do with the coaching staff giving me more responsibility, as well as more opportunities to be successful, and I have taken advantage of it all. I was able to win their trust at the start of the camp and it goes a long way with coaches. If you work hard and you are in charge on both sides of the puck, the coaches give you a longer leash and more freedom to play your game.
What did the capitals tell you before they sent you down five days after calling you?
Peter Laviolette, the Caps head coach, called me Saturday night to give me the news. He is a great trainer and even a better person. He just does not send you down; he actually has a conversation with you to explain Peter Laviolette’s things.
Like I said before, I understood that I was replacing Eller, so there was not much to say, but he told me he wished he could have played more against me. (The Columbus game) was a divisional rivalry game that had playoff implications, so I had a feeling my shifts would be few and far between. He told me I was playing well with the time I was given. I had three shots in just 5 minutes and 30 seconds of ice time. I also created chances so I got the best out of what I got and that was all he could ask for. He told me it was proof of my work ethic that I was there with Caps, so I have to keep doing what I did.
Does this yo-yo approach in professional sports have an effect on athletes like yourself?
This yo-yo approach is just part of the game. We as players understand that this is the way things go. Things happen so fast and you just try to be as prepared as possible when your number gets dialed.
Yes, it’s stressful not to know what’s going on, but it’s part of the beauty of the game. Anything can happen at any time and it’s exciting. My main focus is to be the best player I can be for the Hershey Bears, and that’s it right now. You can not focus on things beyond your control. You may hear about an injury or someone getting COVID, but you never know who will get the call. But if I continue to play like I’ve been playing, I’ll hopefully get another crack at it. I’m glad I was rewarded for the work I’ve put in this year, but that’s just the beginning. You always want more and you also have the drive to push to the next level. That’s probably one of the main reasons I’ve gotten this far in hockey, and that does not change until I retire.