Bruins’ LoVecchio has head for the game

by Adam Kaufman || AHL On The Beat Archive 

 “I’m lucky I didn’t break my neck.”

Those were the words of Providence Bruins rookie forward Jeff LoVecchio, thinking back to a scary moment that could have ended his hockey career before it really even started. For that matter, it could have been much worse.

Any hockey player or fan remembers the story of Travis Roy, the 20-year-old Boston University Terrier who saw the beginning and end to not only his hockey career, but also his entire way of life on October 20, 1995. Roy, only 11 seconds into his first-ever shift for BU, slid head-first into the boards after University of North Dakota defenseman Mitch Vig avoided his check, cracking Roy’s fourth vertebra and leaving him a quadriplegic.

By comparison, LoVecchio was very fortunate. But that does not lessen the struggle he had lying ahead of him following a similar event one July afternoon in 2008.

After shining in 20 regular season and playoff games in his first pro experience with the P-Bruins late in the 2007-08 campaign, LoVecchio returned home to Chesterfield, Missouri to train for his first full season. The then 22-year-old had recently recovered from a broken wrist, an injury he sustained in Providence, and he was taking the ice for one of the first times since receiving a clean bill of health.

While practicing, LoVecchio was skating at full speed, hit a rut in the ice and went flying into the boards, where he struck his head and suffered a concussion. After signing a two-year free agent deal with the Boston Bruins just a few months prior, it appeared the rookie season LoVecchio had longed for may never take place.

“I never said it out-loud that I thought I’d never play again,” recalled LoVecchio. “But, in the back of my mind, it was always there.”

He had the support of family, friends, his girlfriend and the entire Bruins organization. Still, the uphill battle belonged to LoVecchio. Doctors told him that people come back from bad concussions all the time – the biggest unknown was how long the post-concussion syndrome would last.

“It was pretty frustrating,” LoVecchio said. “Right from the beginning, I couldn’t really go out, even to the grocery store or the mall, places where there was a lot of noise and your brain had to take in a lot of information. I couldn’t go because I would start to get dizzy and sick, and a little bit of a headache. I basically couldn’t leave the house.”

That lasted into January of the 2008-09 season, seven months after he sustained the concussion. The little LoVecchio did leave his apartment was to spend time in the locker room. He would get in a brief stretch, typically no longer than 10 minutes, watch practice from the stands, and then go home for the rest of the day.

“That was a pretty terrible way to live life,” said LoVecchio, “Especially for someone like me who likes to work out.”

After several frustrating months of sitting around and the incessant internal questions about how his life in hockey would progress, there was hope. In early February, with his teammates on the road, LoVecchio went to see the doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The head concussion specialists gave him some medicine and, roughly three weeks later, LoVecchio felt symptom-free.

“Once I started to work out, it was a weight lifted off my shoulders,” remembered LoVecchio.

The workouts weren’t “normal” for someone with a reputation for being “over-the-top” when it comes to working out and good nutrition, according to most teammates. In fact, his short rides on a stationary bike in the team’s weight room would probably have been considered a light workout for most anyone, even a non-athlete. Regardless, the workouts represented something more, something bigger. His road back to the ice had begun.

In March, with the regular season winding down, he took the ice for the first time since the previous July.

“I will never forget the first day I got to skate,” glowed LoVecchio. “The team had an off-day and I got to come in (to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center) and skate by myself for 10 minutes. It was the best feeling ever, just being out there alone on the ice for the first time in eight or nine months. It was unbelievable to finally get going and feel like I was making progress.”

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By the time Providence’s 2008-09 season ended with a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in late May, LoVecchio had joined his teammates for two full practices. He never had the opportunity to dress for a game but, by the time the season’s final buzzer sounded, the year had become about much more than hockey.

“You hate to see someone get hurt,” said second-year P-Bruin Matt Marquardt. “Myself, I had some injuries last year, and seeing Jeff around the room with a smile on his face was a little bit of motivation. You realize how much you miss (playing) when you’re out for a period of time.”

“To have somebody miss a full calendar year, not being able to skate or train, was tough to see,” Marquardt continued. “Knowing that a guy had trouble getting out of bed or would get dizzy, that’s pretty scary stuff. But he had such a positive attitude that it really spoke volumes in the dressing room.”

“You see how much (LoVecchio) wanted to play last year,” teammate Mikko Lehtonen remembered. “It’s hard to come to the rink and feel that you don’t want to practice when you see that guy so willing to practice and do everything, but he just couldn’t do it.”

It was the fact that he couldn’t that could have ended his journey before it began. LoVecchio could have sat back and blended in. But, despite having only 20 pro games under his belt, LoVecchio learned early that leading by example stretched far beyond the ice.

“I tried to be in (the room) to talk to the guys a lot when they came off the ice from practice,” he said. “I just told guys to play their hearts out because you never know when it could end. I didn’t know if I was going to come back or what was going to happen (last year). So, just play every game like it’s your last.”

Providence coach Rob Murray was an assistant when LoVecchio first burst onto the scene in Rhode Island after three years of college hockey at Western Michigan University, where the young winger captained the Broncos as a junior. LoVecchio joined the P-Bruins on an Amateur Tryout Agreement on March 14, 2008. The next night he made his professional debut against the San Antonio Rampage and, by the end, he had registered a goal, an assist and was named the game’s top star. A few days later, LoVecchio inked his entry-level contract with Boston. When the season ended, he had totaled three goals and six points to start a career that took more than a year to resume.

“I was very disappointed that Jeff missed last season because, knowing him from the prior year, I was excited to see him come in for a full season,” said Murray on the eve of the 2009-10 campaign. “As well as we did last year, I think that he would have been a main part of our team, but I’m thrilled for Jeff that he was able to get healthy. (To go through what he went through) last season and for him to have kept himself in physical shape with that hanging over his head was a real testament to him. He made sure that when he was ready to start training again that he had put himself in the best position in order to get back quicker.”

LoVecchio went on to have a successful development camp in July of 2009, turned heads at the team’s rookie tournament in Kitchener, Ontario, and impressed Bruins upper management with his strength, skating and overall conditioning during the big club’s training camp. But he still had yet to appear in a game that counted since May 9, 2008. Seventeen months later and poised for his return prior to Providence’s season-opening match-up with Springfield on October 4, 2009, LoVecchio acknowledged some minor nerves and substantial excitement while reflecting back upon where he had come from.

“(Last year) was the hardest year of my life. I don’t wish that type of injury upon anyone. Now, at 24, I’m probably the oldest rookie in the league but I prepare mentally as hard as anybody and I’m just going to work as hard as I can to not play like a rookie.”

Many around the locker room who were in Rhode Island last season speak of LoVecchio as a leader, the ideal role model for players young and old. For that leadership and dedication, the kind that may very well result in a Fred T. Hunt Memorial Award at season’s end, Murray started the season with an assistant captain’s “A” on LoVecchio’s home jersey. Rookie or not, he had earned it, and he earned what came next.

Just 16:25 into his first game in nearly a year and a half, in front of more than 8,800 fans, LoVecchio rebounded an Adam McQuaid shot passed Falcons goalie Devan Dubnyk for a goal that resulted in a thunderous on-ice celebration. He later added a third period goal to cap a 6-2 opening night win at The Dunk on the way to being named the first star of the game.

“I told some of the guys if I scored ever this year I was probably going to go nuts because I’d be so happy, and it happened in the first period of the first game,” LoVecchio said after the contest. “It was just a huge weight off my back and it was exciting to get my name on the stat sheet. Right when I came back to the bench, all the boys were coming up and saying ‘congrats’ and ‘good work.’ Coach Murray came up right away and said, ‘Congratulations, you deserved it.’”

“You know,” he continued, “It was an indescribable feeling sitting on the bench after, just thinking about where I was last year and even six months ago, not knowing still if I would be able to play hockey again. It was really nice to get it in and I definitely celebrated pretty hard there.”

No matter what the result on the ice for the Providence Bruins during the 2009-10 campaign, the season is already a success for forward Jeff LoVecchio. He leads the P-Bruins with eight goals to go along with five assists, and currently ranks among the AHL’s top rookie scorers. But, more importantly, LoVecchio is healthy and he hasn’t missed a game. .