Vatrano realizes NHL dreams

Date: 11/24/2015

It’s a typical Friday afternoon lull between the lunch and dinner rushes at Antonio’s Grinders on State Street in Springfield.

Employees mill around behind the counter prepping and restocking. Three children walk in with a crumpled $5 bill and order a milkshake. In the empty dining area, a television tuned to NESN shows a replay of the Boston Bruins game played the night before.

It’s a welcome bit of respite from the “whirlwind” owners Greg and Clara Vatrano, have experienced the past couple of weeks. From the TV, NESN play-by-play announcer Jack Edwards explains why.

“Vatrano, skating with the puck …”

The night before, the Vatranos, with family and friends, watched their son Frank skate in his first home game with the Boston Bruins. Frank was called up from the Providence Bruins of the AHL to the NHL club on Nov. 6. Since then, there’s been little rest for his family 90 minutes to the west.

“I haven’t been home yet, but they said they’ve been getting a bunch of calls and to see that level of support from here has been pretty fun. From what I’ve heard, it’s been pretty crazy,” Frank told Reminder Publications.

 “Oh my God, it’s been totally crazy,” Clara said. “Between going to games, the phone calls, the media, it’s just been nonstop.”

While not expected to be a part of the NHL club this season, Frank forced the issue with outstanding play registering 10 goals in 10 games, a total that led the entire AHL at the time and as of Nov. 20 was still tied for the lead. Still, with a logjam at forward in Boston, there didn’t appear to be a clear path to the NHL for Frank.

Then circumstances arose and Frank got that unexpected phone call.

“I was actually getting ready to go on a road trip with Providence,” he said. “I was at the mall getting food when my coach called me.”

Frank’s first call home was answered by Clara.

“Of course, I was overexcited; but Frank, Frank’s always calm,” Clara said.

To call Frank’s rise to hockey’s top level rapid would be selling the story, and the family, short.

For a time, it appeared he was on the fast track to stardom. He attended Cathedral High School for two years and played for the Boston Junior Bruins from 2007 to 2010 before joining the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNT), where he earned silver and a gold medals in the IIHF 2011 World U-17 and 2012 World U-18 championships, respectively.

Then things came to a screeching halt. Frank committed to join Boston College, starting in the 2012-13 season, but due to what was reported by local media as an admissions problem, he never played, leaving the school in September 2012.

He planned to return to the Junior Bruins, when UMass head coach John Micheletto came calling. Frank enrolled at UMass in January 2013, but due to NCAA transfer regulations, he sat out the Minutemen’s 2012-13 season, playing with the Junior Bruins for one more season.

“It was so hard,” Clara said. “But we’re really thankful to the Junior Bruins and coach Micheletto for giving him that chance.”

With his career appearing to be back on track, Frank’s hockey aspirations were dealt another blow in September 2013. It was then that the NCAA determined Vatrano would be ineligible for the 2013-14 regular season as well. He participated in practice and team activities, but could not play in collegiate games. He played in a 5-2 exhibition win over the USNT U-18 team on Jan. 12, 2014, but did not play again until the first round of the Hockey East Tournament.

“It looked like the window might have been closing for him. It was basically two years not playing. That’s a long time,” Greg said. “But Frank is a resilient kid and looked at it as an opportunity. I think he learned a lot about himself through all of this.”

To his credit, Frank did exactly that and said the time off may have actually been a blessing in disguise.

“I learned to strive to be better in all aspects,” he said. “While practicing with the team but not playing in games, I was able to pay attention to the little things in my game and identify the stuff I had to work on. I took the whole experience as a positive.”

It wasn’t until Oct. 10, 2014 that Frank saw the ice in a regular season game for the Minutemen and he didn’t disappoint, leading the team in goals with 18. He was lauded as the Hockey East’s December Player of the Month and was included on the initial 59-player ballot for the Hobey Baker Award.

After that season, the Bruins came calling with a contract. There was no doubt what his decision would be.

“After everything he had gone through, especially with it being the Bruins, we knew this was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. I mean, it was the Boston Bruins,” Clara said. “He could always go back to college and finish up if he decided to do that, but this was a once in a lifetime chance for him.”

After his tear through the minors to start the 2015-16 season, on Nov. 7, Frank found himself in a dream scenario for every homegrown Boston Bruins fan – playing his first game against the rival Montreal Canadiens.

It didn’t take long to make an impact.

Less than 29 minutes into his first NHL game, Frank received a pass from the blue line at the side boards, skated it up top of the offensive zone and fired a wrist shot that made its way through three players and the goalie before hitting the twine for his first NHL goal.

“I was looking to make a pass, honestly,” Frank said. “I got the puck and walked up to the middle of the ice and just decided to put it on net. There was a screen in front and I wasn’t sure it would make it through, but it all ended up working out.”

Greg and his brother-in-law made the trip to Montreal to see the game and a video of their celebration went viral on social media almost immediately.

“I was out of my chair a little bit even before it happened because I was kind of anticipating it,” Greg said. “It was kind of like, ‘Is it going in?’”

The first to give Greg a high-five? A Canadiens fan.

“People in the section where we were sitting knew that was my son, so over the course of the game, they were all kind of keeping an eye on him,” Greg said.

“That guy’s now a follower of Frank on Twitter,” Clara added.

After the game, father and son met outside the locker room, Frank wearing a big smile on his face. While excitement was running high, Frank made sure it was tempered.

“He was mic’d up for something, so he kind of whispered to me, ‘Don’t say too much,’” Greg said with a laugh.

The two fulfilled what has become a tradition. Greg was handed the milestone puck, which now sits on his bureau next with two others, representing Frank’s first collegiate goal and first professional goal with Providence.

“The fact that they were able to be there to see that meant a lot to me,” Frank said. “It was awesome for [Greg] to make that five-hour trip to be there.”

The following night, Clara got the opportunity to see Frank play in Brooklyn against the New York Islanders.

“Someone had to stay here with the store, so I said, ‘You go [to Montreal], I’ll see him in Brooklyn,” Clara said.

While he didn’t score, Frank had another strong performance, firing five shots, tied with veteran leader Patrice Bergeron for first on the team that night. Greg said Bruins fans should expect a lot more performances like that.

“If he’s got a shot, he’s going to take it; he’s not shy about that and he never has been,” he said with a smile. “He’s never been one with a great shooting percentage, but he gets a ton of pucks on net.”

On Nov. 14, the dream reached fairytale status for Frank, playing in front of the home fans at the TD Garden, including a group of about 40 family members and friends. The day after witnessing her son experience another “dream come true,” Clara recalled years when seeing her son with the USNT was difficult. After years of that sacrifice, she’s making the most of her new opportunity to watch her son play.

“It’s great having him close to home again; now we can see all of his games,” she said.

“Well, some of them might be hard to get to; it is 90 miles away,” Greg retorted. “The TV is OK, too.”

Looking into her husband’s eyes, Clara smiled and said, “Fine, you can watch on TV; I’ll be at the game.”