by Bob Crawford | AHL On The Beat
The best thing in hockey is scoring goals, right?
Wrong, according to Hartford Wolf Pack scoring leader Vinni Lettieri.
Make no mistake, Lettieri loves to put the puck in the net. For him, though, the hard work that goes into putting oneself in a position to score and be successful as an all-around player is just as big a part, if not a bigger part, of the enjoyment of the game than the actual scoring.
“I think, personally, going on after (practice), and before, and doing the extra stuff in the weight room, is the most fun thing,” Lettieri said recently, after having been by far the last player to come off the ice following the Wolf Pack’s first practice out of the All-Star break. “That even might be more fun than games to me. It’s the best thing about this career, just because you know that you’re doing something productive.
“And I honestly just want to keep beating the last season. So mentally, it’s just a thing that I need to outwork myself from the year before and try to beat those goals, just because it keeps me very competitive. And I don’t need to necessarily compete against anyone but myself. I think that’s, personally, the best part about hockey for me, is just to work, and doing the stuff by myself, or with someone like ‘Keaner’ (Wolf Pack defenseman, and fellow AHL All-Star, Joey Keane), who will always pass me a million pucks after practice and stuff.”
The Wolf Pack coaching staff greatly appreciates, and has significant respect for, Lettieri’s work ethic, although head coach Kris Knoblauch laughingly admits that he didn’t fully realize the depth of it at first.
“You want players to work on their skill and get better each day,” Knoblauch said. “And one of the things he feels comfortable with is shooting pucks a lot more and getting those repetitions in, and at the beginning of the year, as a coaching staff we were kind of taking it away. We were trying to organize, and getting everybody out to use the ice in the most productive way. While doing that, we were also taking away some of Vinni’s time, where he likes to shoot pucks. And as the season’s worn on, there’s been more opportunities for him to go out early and shoot pucks. A lot of him regaining his scoring touch has been on his own, going out early and shooting pucks. So on the season starting slow for him in goal-scoring, I would be at fault, taking away his opportunity to shoot pucks. As the season’s worn on, we’ve kind of managed when he can go out and get his repetitions in, and it’s shown with his confidence in shooting the puck.”
The amount of extra time Lettieri puts in honing his skills, and grinding in the gym, certainly doesn’t go unnoticed by his teammates either, which makes him an important part of the team’s leadership group.
“I don’t necessarily need to be a leader vocally,” Lettieri said. “We have other guys that do that, even though I am quite the communicator in the locker room. I think I show up more just on the ice and with my work habits, on and off the ice and in the gym. I think that’s personally just what I do best. And I don’t necessarily try to show it to people, but it’s just like, they’ll notice how to become a pro in this league if you’re coming in as a first-year guy. And I think everyone’s responded really well to being a pro, and I don’t look at anyone on this team as a first-year pro. If they are, I think they’ve been fitting in really well, and they’ve been handling the load the best they can.”
Lettieri’s hard work has again translated into team-leading scoring totals, after he topped Wolf Pack goal-scorers in both of his first two pro seasons. He went into the All-Star break on the cusp of hitting the 20-goal mark for a third time in three years, and, perhaps more importantly, had saved much of his scoring for the most important times in games. The former University of Minnesota Gopher had five game-winners among his first 19 goals of the season, and three times had scored within the last minute of games, either to win the contests or to force overtime.
Knoblauch said of those heroics, “That says a lot, just for the respect I have for him, whether the game’s tied or we need a goal, we have him on the ice. And he’s come up huge, scoring late goals to tie it or put us ahead, he’s come up clutch. When the pressure’s on, you want to see your players perform, and when the stakes are high, that’s when he’s been his best.”
For Lettieri, the mindset of never giving up on a game, no matter how late it gets, goes back to well before he ever sniffed the pro level, to his days in the USHL.
“Obviously you want to get one no matter what the time is in the game,” he said, “but I just learned, when I was with the Lincoln Stars, playing against Cedar Rapids one game, I was I having a really good game, but I just couldn’t score, and I was getting kind of mad during the game. But I ended up scoring with, literally, three seconds left, and that game just showed me that I have to stay patient because you don’t know if you’re going to score in the first shift of the game or the last shift of the game, or anywhere in between.
“I think from that point on, I’ve tried to make myself as patient as possible, even if I’ve got nine shots within two periods, I know something’s going to funnel. I just try to stay patient and, obviously, continue shooting as much as possible.”
Like most good goal-scorers, Lettieri is never hesitant to fire the puck, and his aptitude at doing so has impressed his coach.
“In this league it’s always tough to score goals, or any league, for that matter,” Knoblauch said. “You’re always trying to find ways to score goals. He is a goal-scorer, and he loves to shoot the puck, and he’s got a heck of a shot, especially on the power play, in that one-time, Ovechkin location. He’s scored a lot there for us. As the season’s gone on, I’ve been really impressed with his attention to detail and playing very well on the defensive side of the game.”
And even though he is well on pace to surpass the 23 goals he scored in both of his first two AHL campaigns, Lettieri is far from satisfied with his scoring pace.
“I think pucks went in a little easier the past couple of years,” he said. “I’ve been a little snakebit this year. I try to continue getting more shots every game, good shots, making sure I get them off at the right time.”
One thing that is decidedly different for Lettieri in year three of his tenure with the Wolf Pack is the team success that the club has enjoyed. He has not been able to taste of any playoff action as of yet in his pro career, but has helped the Wolf Pack to be in strong contention this season for not only a playoff spot, but for a division championship.
“It’s obviously better that we’re winning,” Lettieri said. “Winning helps everything. It’s nice to see this team, which has been in a bit of a rut for a handful of years, be at the top right now. Obviously the All-Star break was big for everyone to get some rest and come back, and it’s the second-half push to playoffs. We want to continue where we left off and just keep improving.”
Of course, not everyone among the Wolf Pack personnel got a chance to shut it down during the All-Star hiatus, as Lettieri, Keane and Knoblauch all winged it out to Ontario, Calif., to represent the Wolf Pack in the 2020 AHL All-Star Classic. While that cost the three some down time, the fact that their Atlantic Division squad, with Knoblauch as head coach, won the All-Star Challenge made it an extremely positive experience.
“It was really fun,” Lettieri said. “I was able to share it, obviously, with ‘Keaner’ and ‘Knobber’. It was fun to have them on the same team and win a championship. Always like bringing home some hardware. Even though it was the All-Star Game, it’s always fun winning. It was a good experience, always fun to see guys that you don’t get to see on the West Coast. It was definitely good to connect, and there’s a lot of great talent out there.”
Another difference in Lettieri’s season this year has been that, while he played a total of 46 NHL games with the parent New York Rangers in his first two pro campaigns, he has to receive a summons from the big club this season. That is something he would have been obsessing about last year and the year before, but he is stressing to himself this season to “stay in the moment” and focus on those things he can control.
“It’s gotten better,” the Excelsior, Minn., native mused. “Obviously, the first year was a little difficult, since it was just my first year pro. And the second year, I tried to stay even-keeled when there were sometimes that I was kind of anxious to get back up. And this year I kind of just let that all go, and just try to be here and continue getting better.”
That quest for consistent improvement is fueled by some great hockey, and sports, bloodlines in Lettieri’s family. The patriarch is Lettieri’s grandfather, Lou Nanne, who was one of the early pioneers of NHL hockey in the Twin Cities, spending 10 years on the Minnesota North Stars’ blue line and later serving as the Stars’ long-time general manager. Lettieri’s father, Tino Lettieri, was a soccer goaltender who enjoyed great success both professionally and internationally; his sister Bianca was also a standout soccer player; his uncle, Marty Nanne, played pro hockey, and Nanne cousins Tyler (University of Minnesota) and Louie (RPI) are both Division I college players and NHL draftees (Tyler a fifth-round Ranger pick in 2014).
Lettieri makes no bones about the fact that carrying on that family tradition of athletic excellence is of great importance to him, and serves as strong positive motivation.
“It’s very important for my family and I,” he said. “I think it’s expected, too, in our family, whatever you do, just be the best at it. Whether we’re playing sports in my family, or just have a hard-working job, I think everyone in my family works as hard as the next person. We obviously have a good leader, with my grandfather starting everything off, and then just trickling down to my parents, and then obviously my sister and myself. I think we have a really hard-working family, throughout the whole Nanne and Lettieri family, and I just try to become the best person, the best player, each and every single day.”