From 'The Kitchen' to the NHL
Three Charlestown best friends got drafted after growing up playing together
BOSTON -- When Charlestown resident Paul Myers won The Kitchen Cup hockey title last summer with teammates Matt Grzelcyk, Jimmy Vesey and Brendan Collier, he knew he was a witness to history.
The Kitchen Cup might not have the panache of its Canadian brethren (Lord Stanley, or the Grey for that matter), but in the 1-square-mile patch of earth that constitutes Charlestown, it's a point of pride -- as are Myers' three teammates from the summertime roller hockey tournament.
All three players were selected in last weekend's NHL entry draft. All three grew up Townies. All three sharpened their skills at The Kitchen.
"There's so much pride in the fact that from one square mile, three people were drafted," Myers said. "That's unheard of. And we're all each other's best friends."
Turn the corner from Main Street onto Eden and there it is. The Kitchen floor is black asphalt with four faceoff dots painted on. It's enclosed by 3-foot-high boards and a black chain-link fence.
As soon as the winter ice melts, The Kitchen is open for business. It's busiest every August, when The Kitchen Cup is contested. The teams skate four-on-four, no pads, and the play can turn physical at times. The participants range in age from school children to adults, but most are Townies.
Charlestown has a lengthy history in hockey. There's been talent in the past, but not quite like this group. From the time they could stand on skates, Collier, Grzelcyk and Vesey shared a friendship forged in the game. Along the way, they've pushed one another, made one another better.
It all started on that patch of blacktop on Eden Street, a theater of dreams tucked between the rows of tenement houses.
Bruins draft hometown hero GrzelcykThis week, Matt Grzelcyk skated for the first time with the spoked B on his chest. He joined the Boston Bruins' top prospects for development camp at Wilmington's Ristuccia Arena. The Thursday practice was open to the public, so Grzelcyk had family members in attendance.
It was tough for the 18-year-old lifelong Bruins fan to keep his composure.
"I saw my little nephew [in the stands] when I was on the ice," Grzelcyk said after his first practice session with the team. "He's a huge Bruins fan. Being able to see him through the glass, that was awesome. I have to pay attention to what I'm doing here, but it was hard not to look over. It was unreal."
A few days before camp started, Grzelcyk heard his name called by the hometown team at the NHL entry draft in Pittsburgh. It came somewhat as a surprise to the fleet-footed defenseman.
Grzelcyk, who spent the last two seasons playing with the United States National Team Development Program in Michigan, was ranked 177th among North American skaters. That ranking was more a commentary on Grzelcyk's stature (5-foot-9, 171 pounds) than his skill. Before the draft, one Northeast regional scout of a Western Conference team, which was said to be considering Grzelcyk, commented that the blueliner's hockey IQ was "what you'd expect to find in the top 10, 15 picks in the draft."
The Bruins saw the upside of the puck-moving defenseman, taking Grzelcyk with their third-round selection (85th overall).
One of the first people to congratulate Grzelcyk at the Consol Energy Center was Vesey. Likewise, Grzelcyk had been among the first to congratulate Vesey when he was taken by the Nashville Predators earlier in the third round with the 66th pick.
"We talked about enjoying it," Grzelcyk said of his pre-draft conversations with Vesey. "We both weren't really sure where we were going to go, so we were trying to enjoy it as much as we could. Getting to hear each other's name called was a great experience."
Grzelcyk will spend the rest of the summer preparing for his freshman season at Boston University. Since returning to Boston, he has been working out with Collier (also a BU recruit) under the watchful eye of Terriers and Boston Red Sox strength and conditioning guru Mike Boyle.
Maybe sometime in the coming months, once the excitement of the last week has dissipated, it all will catch up with him.
In many ways, Grzelcyk seemed destined to be a Bruin. He grew up in the shadow of the Garden, where Matt's father, John, has worked on the "bull gang," which is responsible for the changeover between Bruins and Celtics games, for more than 40 years. Matt's first time on the Bruins' home ice came when he was about 2 years old.
"You always think about it as a kid," Grzelcyk said of being drafted by the Bruins. "I haven't really gotten the chance to soak it in, but I'm having so much fun with this."
Predators pick up VeseyJimmy Vesey hasn't lived in Charlestown most of his life, but his story is intrinsically intertwined with the Town.
Vesey was born in Charlestown and resided there until the age of 6, when the family moved to North Reading. Yet Vesey continued playing hockey with Collier and Grzelcyk until recent years, when their careers diverged.
The Vesey name is a common thread throughout Charlestown's hockey lore. Jimmy's father, Jimmy Sr., was a torchbearer for Charlestown's hockey talent. A two-time All-American at Merrimack College, Jimmy Vesey Sr. was drafted by the St. Louis Blues and went on to have a cup of coffee with the Blues and Bruins in several seasons during the late '80s and early '90s before retiring due to injury in 1995.
Soon thereafter, Jimmy Vesey Sr. began coaching his son's hockey teams.
"We had a great coach in Jimmy's dad, we all got to play on the same team, so he instilled that hard work and passion into us early on," Grzelcyk said.
While the Veseys lived outside the Town, they spent most of their day-to-day life there. Both sides of Jimmy Vesey Jr.'s family were raised in Charlestown. His mother and father knew each other since elementary school and were high school sweethearts. From the time Vesey knew how to skate, he can remember playing at The Kitchen. He was enthusiastic to get his driver's license two years ago if not solely for the fact that he'd be able to skate more often with the clan in the summertime.
"They're both awesome people and some of my best friends," Vesey said of Collier and Grzelcyk. "Their style of play hasn't really changed at all. Matt's always been the offensive defenseman, playing on the power play, and he can shoot. Brendan's always been a smart player and very skilled. He plays a very heady game. He knows where to be."
Vesey will play at Harvard next season after finishing his high school career at Belmont Hill and skating with the South Shore Kings of the Eastern Junior Hockey League last season.
After being passed over in the 2011 NHL draft, Vesey's name was called by the Predators after a breakout season with the Kings in which he produced 99 points in 51 games.
Even as the 6-1, 191-pound Vesey took off for Nashville and development camp this week, he'll never forget where he came from.
"I think that's just how I was raised, everyone has that blue-collar work ethic," Vesey said in a phone interview earlier this week. "[Charlestown] instilled that toughness in me. It's part of who you are."
Hurricanes scoop CollierWhile a bunch of his Charlestown friends were playing in a roller hockey tournament in South Boston, Collier sat in the basement of his parents' house, tuned to the NHL draft coverage, waiting to see his name flicker across the screen. Time was starting to run out.
"It was the longest day of my life," Collier said with a laugh. "It's tough because you hear so many different opinions from different people leading up to it. It's completely out of your control."
Waiting for something to happen, Collier received a text from a draft follower in Pittsburgh, wishing him congratulations. The recent Malden Catholic graduate didn't know what to make of the message as commercials rolled on the TV.
"I didn't want to get my hopes up until I actually saw it," Collier said.
That's when he saw his name next to the Carolina Hurricanes' logo, as the eighth pick of the seventh round, No. 189 overall.
Charlestown was 3-for-3 on draft day.
Collier had joked with Myers, who's also his cousin, and fellow childhood friend Colin Murphy that he wanted a champagne shower on the occasion of getting drafted. He didn't think they'd go through with it.
Collier drove to South Boston to pick up with the roller hockey action.
"We walked up to him, really casual, and then we started pouring champagne on him," Myers said. "We absolutely soaked him."
Collier, much like Grzelcyk, was a bit of an underdog in the draft as an "undersized" forward. But the 5-9, 168-pound Collier, the 2012 ESPN Boston Mr. Hockey award winner and two-time Super Eight champion with the Lancers, makes up in intelligence for what he lacks in height.
He will play with the Valley Junior Warriors of the EJHL next season before joining Grzelcyk at BU in 2013.
"We'll hardly ever go a day without seeing each other, we're usually just together all the time," Collier said of his support group. "We have fun no matter what we do. We went bowling the night before I left [for development camp] and we were talking about how for the last 12 years we've been best friends.
"We stuck together through the years and we enjoy each other. I can't tell you how much I appreciate all the boys and girls in town who have given such great support for me, Jimmy and Matt in the last couple years. We'll never forget that."
Back at The KitchenBirds chirp and mothers roll through the park with their strollers on a lovely early summer day at The Kitchen. Myers and Murphy stood at center ice on the outdoor roller rink. They shared stories of the games played there and the ones to come.
"We didn't even need to call Grizzy [Grzelcyk], he'd just listen for the sticks and he'd meet us there," Myers said.
The crew has now dispersed. All three Charlestown draftees were with their respective teams' camps when their longtime friends reminisced.
There was always something special about this group.
"Brendan, he's just never going to hear no, he's going to find a way to beat you," Myers said of his former Lancers teammate. "And Jimmy, Jimmy's just been talented his whole life. He's the whole package. He's got the size, the talent, he's got everything."
Murphy interjected, adding, "Grizzy's probably the most humble kid I've ever met in my life. For everything that he's accomplished so far, he doesn't think that he's done anything, which is great because he's always going to be working to get better. That's what stands out."
It's like the epilogue to "The Sandlot." You can hear the voiceover explaining where the protagonists ended up in their lives. Myers is headed to UNH next year, Murphy to Quinnipiac to study public relations. Change is coming, but that's not a bad thing.
There's the promise of summer and future Kitchen Cups.
They say you can never go home again, but when Charlestown's home, it never fades.
But unlike the portrayals of Hollywood, this is a Townie success story.
"They've been so focused on their goals for so long that they haven't allowed bad things to surround them," Murphy said.
Collier views it as a collaborative accomplishment.
"It shows how we've all stuck together through the years," he said during a late-night call from Raleigh, N.C. "All those days playing with the Middlesex Islanders, playing for Jimmy's father and Mark Fidler, now we have the young kids in town looking up to us.
"It's a revival. You would never think three kids from such a small place could have such a big impact."
As Murphy and Myers walked across The Kitchen's blacktop, a net was set up in one corner. Stashed inside of it was a set of street hockey goalie gear.
"There was a pack of little kids here a while ago," Myers said, pointing back.
The next generation's on the rise.
Scott Barboza is ESPNBoston.com's high schools editor.