By Seth Daniel
When Jimmy Vesey sees Matt Grzelcyk, or Matt Grzelcyk sees Brendan Collier, the three young men don’t just see hockey jerseys from Harvard University, Boston University or Northeastern University – they see Charlestown.
And Charlestown has enjoyed seeing them.
Over the last four years, the hockey trio from the Town has played out three very successful college careers very close to home (though Collier is still a junior) and against one another. Vesey (Harvard University) and Grzelcyk (Boston University) – both senior captains – have played one another nearly 10 times over their career. Collier, who transferred to Northeastern from BU, hasn’t played Vesey as many times, but plays Grzelcyk several times in a season – including three times last year.
And when they see one another on the ice, all three said it’s very different from facing a normal opponent. In fact, they all agreed that neighborhood bragging rights and friendly competitions that go back to childhood games on the Eden Street roller hockey rink are most certainly in play.
It’s not just any other opponent, it’s a neighborhood thing that few others understand. Yet, it’s coming to an end as Grzelcyk and Vesey get set to graduate this year and likely move on to professional careers – as all three were drafted in 2012 by various National Hockey League (NHL) organizations. Collier said he will return to Northeastern next year to finish out his career before going on to bigger things, but there won’t be that Charlestown game on the calendar next year, or the celebrated Bean Pot where all three annually face off in the TD Garden.
“It’s great we all got to go to college in Boston so we could play against each other every year close to home and have so many people from Charlestown come to see us,” said Vesey, 22, who grew up in North Reading but has extensive roots in the Town. “Every time we play each other there is some bragging rights that are on the line. These are some of the last times we’ll get to play each other in college. Looking back it’s an experience I’ve enjoyed a lot in my college career.”
Grzelcyk, 22, said he usually marks the calendar for the games when he gets to play his friends.
“It’s cool any time you get to play against your friends,” he said. “It’s a game you circle on the calendar. As a competitor, you look forward to those match-ups and they’re always fun games. We’re pretty competitive players and hate losing, but especially to someone we know. Whoever wins I guess gets to jab the other here and there.”
Collier, 22, said when he plays against Grzelcyk or Vesey, he knows there’s a larger game going on, but he also knows there’s a Charlestown game on the ice too.
“When we play against each other, we’re obviously only thinking about that,” he said. “You don’t want to lose to your best friend. None of us wants to lose to our best friend and then go home and get a jab here and there from people reminding us that we lost to our best friend…It’s really been awesome. We grew up playing on the same youth hockey teams since we were 6. We played roller hockey together for hours in the summers. Outside of hockey, we’re all friends. It’s pretty unique – three guys from the same neighborhood making a mark in hockey, college hockey and the NHL draft too.”
The trio is largely credited with a recent revival in Charlestown’s ultra-rich hockey tradition – one that spans many decades (and includes Vesey’s father, Jim) and numerous professional and collegiate players.
While the Bean Pot is the major showdown for the three players, individual games throughout the season are not any less competitive. That was evidenced last Thursday, Jan. 7, when the two seniors, Vesey and Grzelcyk, faced off at Harvard in a game with national implications.
Both players shined, scoring goals, but a late barrage of three goals in the final period pushed BU ahead 6-5 for the win, and likely was a defeat that stung for Vesey as Grzelcyk hit one of the late, deciding goals.
All through Harvard’s arena, one could find young people and adults from Charlestown who regularly come out to see the three young men from the Town face off. Being so close to home, there are no shortage of fans from the neighborhood on either side at any such game.
“It’s a really cool thing that’s happened as we look to build our program,” said Al Carrier of Charlestown Youth Hockey. “I know for a fact that some of the kids in the Bantams and Midgets know Brendan and Matt well. They know a lot about them. A lot of kids like to go to games and we’ve brought the kids to the various arenas and got to go out on the ice to play mini-games. There’s a lot of folks who go to the game and like to see the Charlestown kids from the neighborhood going on to Division 1 hockey and doing well. It’s a huge thing.”
For fans like Joey Brennan, who also played hockey and is Vesey’s cousin, it shows a revival from very tough times when, he said, a generation of the Town’s players were lost to violence and substance abuse. For him, seeing his cousin Jimmy and the other two Charlestown players shows the Town has come back from harder times.
“Seeing this is kind of a really heart-felt emotional thing for me,” Brennan said at the Jan. 7 game. “I grew up in the era when the urban centers had a lot of problems and drugs grew out of control and wiped out a generation of players through to the early 2000s. These kids were the ones that came after and really had a chance. They had a chance to grow up without that and you see what happens. Up until the early 2000s, Charlestown was really devastated by substance abuse. You saw a lot of great players get mixed up in that. I come here and see them play and say, ‘This is what we are.’ We aren’t the place that stands for the violence and the drugs. We’re a hockey town and this is what we stand for. That’s what this means to me and that’s pretty amazing.”
EDEN STREET: WHERE IT BEGINS
While that Charlestown hockey tradition is played out on the ice at high school rinks, college arenas and professional stadiums, the bones are cut on the asphalt at the Town’s roller hockey or street hockey rinks – most especially on Eden Street.
The Eden Street rink is the natural place where many young people in Charlestown begin their love for the game of hockey. Whether on foot with sticks or on skates, young people in the Town can be found at the rink – which has recently become a piece of regional and national sports lore, quite similar to the famous outdoor basketball courts in Brooklyn where pro hoops players cut their teeth.
Brennan has run the now-famous annual ‘Kitchen Cup’ roller hockey tournament for the last 13 years, and changed over the long-standing August tradition to roller skates when he took it over. He said the tournament has existed longer than anyone can remember and that he has been approached by sports documentary makers to chronicle its history and its penchant for attracting high-quality talent and breeding young dynamos.
It’s all in the name of fun, and certainly most inside the Town are surprised to hear that those following hockey would make such a big deal out of the neighborhood’s fun tradition. But Brennan is quick to point out that as the talent has increased in Charlestown and the rest of Boston, the tournament has grown to include players like Vesey, Collier and Grzelcyk. Add in other pro draftees and traditional hockey powers like the Fidler family and the DesRoches family of Charlestown, and a fun tradition can begin to turn the heads of sportswriters.
“It’s an incredible atmosphere an the best tournament around,” said Brennan. “At one point two years ago, we had six professional draftees playing in that tournament. ESPN has written about it and I think all that started when it was mentioned in the coverage of the Bean Pot a few years ago.”
Vesey, Collier and Grzelcyk all confessed that roller hockey in Charlestown was instrumental in their development as young players – and something they still love to play in the summers back in the Town. They had been the reigning champs of the Kitchen Cup for a few years, but apparently lost out last August to the Fidlers – launching a new local rivalry most certainly.
“People fail to recognize how much it really helped us,” said Collier. “You go down there and practice skating and making certain moves that you can’t try in a game or at practice without having the coach yell at you. You can really try new things and it transfers to the ice really well. I know it was a big help for our game because we played against guys five or six years older than us in roller hockey. You learn to adjust to the speed of that and it helps you later adjust to the speed of college hockey. It’s pretty special because you play and have fun and it’s great memories down there.”
Vesey said though he grew up in North Reading, he spent a good deal of his time playing roller hockey with his friends and family members at Eden Street.
“The three of us were always playing street hockey at Eden Street playground,” he said. “Looking back, those are some of the best memories I had as a kid. You could go down there for a couple of hours and get away from everything and play hockey with your friends. I think the street hockey definitely carries over to the ice. We usually played three-on-three and that translated into a lot of skill development on the ice.”
COMING BACK HOME
Aside from being great players on the ice, all three young men said they have a real desire to be good role models for Charlestown kids off the ice too.
All three are known for donating their time and energy to local raffles or efforts, such as Charlestown Against Drugs (CHAD) or the annual Warren Tavern Toys for Tots campaign.
“It’s a small town and tight knit so the three of us really take pride in trying to be a role model for the young kids on and off the ice,” said Vesey. “Hockey is very popular in the Town and the little kids see us playing games on TV or live and we pride ourselves on being good role models for our community.”
Said Grzelcyk, “It’s obviously a huge role to play. If we can do as much as possible to show the kids the proper kind of image on the ice and off the ice as well, it can provide them a good example to follow. That’s something we want to do.”
Collier said he also takes it very seriously, and tries to show kids that if he can make it to Division 1 hockey, they can have the same dream.
“It’s pretty special to be looked up to by the young kids in the Town,” he said. “They know they can one day get where we are because we did it. They see that if they put the work in and want to buy in, they can get to this level some day.” Carrier said it’s his goal to try to integrate the three young men into the youth program as it continues to build up and churn out more high-quality players. That, he said, is important so that city kids can see that there is a future that can come from humble beginnings. “Our ultimate goal is to get these kids back and help us out,” he said. “We want them to be role models and heroes to these little kids. They can say, ‘Look, I grew up a street away from you or I have family on your street and I still come back and play roller hockey like you in the summer.’ Collier is the son of Bob and Karen Collier and was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes. Vesey is the son of Jim and Ann Vesey and was drafted by the Nashville Predators.
Grzelcyk is the son of John and Kathleen Grzelcyk and was drafted by the Boston Bruins.