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Three Charlestown friends in spotlight as Beanpot opponents

Friends (from left) Brendan Collier, Matt Grzelcyk, and Jimmy Vesey in 2011 while growing up in Charlestown. They’ll be wearing different uniforms in the Beanpot.Brendan Collier

Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey, Boston University’s Matt Grzelcyk, and Northeastern’s Brendan Collier all will suit up for the Beanpot Monday night at the Garden, each in their crisp hockey sweaters, all from just around the corner and over the bridge from where they first pulled on skates.

They are Charlestown kids through and through, three pals who began their hockey
odyssey in sneakers, playing gym hockey as 5- and 6-year-olds in the St. Mary’s Church basement on Warren Street. Now they’re NCAA Division 1 stalwarts, vying for the city’s prized collegiate pot of beans, each of them drafted in 2012 by NHL clubs.


“We were told along the way to stick to sports, stick with hockey,’’ said Grzelcyk, BU’s quick and clever junior defenseman who was drafted by the Bruins in the third round. “I think we have a really great group of friends and we stayed on the right path.’’

A lot may have changed around Bunker Hill over the last 30-plus years, Charlestown transforming from a gritty neighborhood of bricklayers, bakers, and bank robbers to the tony roost of lawyers, bankers, and a smattering of pro athletes. But many Townie kids remain linked to the game that produced 1980 Olympic gold medalist and Townie hero Jack O’Callahan, who grew up playing ball hockey on the same Eden Street Park hardtop where the likes of Vesey, Grzelcyk, and Collier shaped their games as kids.

Vesey’s younger brother, Nolan, is a freshman at the University of Maine, and Aaron Titcomb is a freshman at Merrimack, giving Charlestown five Division 1 players. In a time when Massachusetts has seen its number of Division 1 sons cut roughly in half, from highs of some 20 years ago to 114 this season, tiny Charlestown remains an incubator for top college talent.

“It’s a surprise to see the numbers diminish,’’ said Jim Vesey, who is not only the father of the aforementioned Harvard winger but also among the key reasons the Townie talent pool has remained rich. “There’s plenty of opportunity to play — more than ever, compared to when I was a kid growing up in Charlestown — and we have good coaches in the area. I just don’t understand how the numbers are falling.’’


The senior Vesey, 49, grew up on Ellwood Street, played his high school hockey (Christopher Columbus) “across the bridge’’ in the North End, and starred at Merrimack College before turning pro with the St. Louis Blues organization. His NHL time was brief, including four games with the Bruins in the early 1990s, his career cut short by injury.

“I already had three screws in my right shoulder,’’ recalled Vesey, who played his final pro game at age 29. “I was playing, got in another fight, pulled the shoulder back out . . . and it was never the same. I was done.’’

Done, but not finished with hockey or with Charlestown. Vesey returned home, back to the same six-unit apartment building his mother owned on Ellwood Street, and soon saw sons Jimmy and Nolan running up and down the St. Mary’s floor, plastic hockey sticks in hand. The puck was a Wiffle ball, stuffed with shoelaces, covered in tape. Collier and Grzelcyk were there, too.

“At St. Mary’s, they flipped over folding tables to make the boards, and everyone was running around out there, chasing the ball,’’ recalled the senior Vesey. “I remember Jimmy playing against Collier and Gryzy in the finals and I’m thinking, ‘We’re going to get killed . . . they’re loaded!’ We ended up beating ’em. It was crazy.


“So I guess you’d say the competition started early.’’

In fairly short order, the Veseys moved to North Reading, but they kept a home in Charlestown hockey. The senior Vesey, with two other former local hockey standouts, Mark Fidler (Charlestown) and Bryan Gustin (Somerville) soon began coaching all the boys nearly year-round, most of the time as members of the Middlesex Islanders, a travel team that took on top competition locally and sometimes in tournaments elsewhere in the United States and in Canada.

For the better part of 10 years, until they moved on to high school hockey, Collier, Grzelcyk, and the Vesey boys were under the watch of “Big Jim,’’ Fidler, and Gustin.

“We were doing a full power play when we were 6 or 7 years old,” recalled Collier, a winger at Northeastern. “Big Jim taught us the game early. He was hard on us, but he knew we had the potential. He’d tell us all the time, ‘You guys are going to get there . . . just keep your head on straight.’ ’’

Collier went on to play for Latin Academy before landing first at BU last season, rejoining Grzelcyk, then transferring to Northeastern last summer in hopes of gaining more playing time. Grzelcyk and Vesey attended Belmont Hill, where Vesey eventually graduated, but Grzelcyk finished high school in Michigan while playing two seasons with the US National Team Development Program.


They may be at their separate schools now, each trying to steal the beans on Monday, but they remain close. If, say, Collier’s Huskies are idle and Harvard is playing BU, he’ll make certain to scoot up Commonwealth Avenue or cross the river to see them play. They remain in constant contact via text, e-mail, and cellphone, tools that weren’t around in Big Jim’s era.

In 2012, all three were selected in the NHL draft, held that June in Pittsburgh. Vesey was the first to go, 66th overall to Nashville. The Bruins used the 85th pick to nab Grzelcyk, whose father, John, is a mainstay on the Garden bull gang. Collier, who spent draft day playing roller hockey in Southie, went 189th overall to Carolina.

Summer is when they see each other the most these days, with the annual Kitchen Cup often the center of their offseason connection through the years. Eden Street Park, about 1½ miles from the Garden, is known as the Kitchen. Of the three, Grzelcyk grew up closest to the hardtop court.

“I’d usually be the first one down there, taking shots,’’ recalled Collier, who typically arrived at the Kitchen with snacks in hand from the family-owned Collier’s Market, once a neighborhood staple. “Gryz could hear my shots from his house.’’

The Kitchen Cup, the Townie version of the Stanley Cup, is held the first weekend of August, with players meeting Friday night to choose sides, divvy up team jerseys. They compete in five-man units, three skaters and one goalie a side, with a spare skater rotating in as relief. It’s very much the same game that has been played through the decades at the Kitchen, except for the shift years ago from sneakers to in-line skates. Minimum age is 16, with no maximum imposed.


Collier, the most chatty and gregarious of the Townie Trio, remains a Kitchen Cup regular.

“We won it three times,’’ said Collier, recalling when he teamed with Grzelcyk and Vesey for the Kitchen Cup title. “It’s just a really good time. A different game, different instincts. I think it taught us a lot of instincts. We are all good defensively, I think, because roller hockey is three on three and you are against one man you have to cover. Get beat, and it’s pretty obvious.’’

Last year, for the first time, tournament organizers came up with a formal trophy. Charlestown’s Kitchen Cup, by Collier’s description, is an old milk jug topped with a metal salad bowl, a healthy layer of metallic silver spray paint added as the finishing touch.

“The milk jug’s heavy, so everyone says it’s heavier than the Stanley Cup,’’ said Collier. “Just like the Stanley Cup, the winning team gets to take it home.’’

But instead of the Cup journeying to faraway lands over the summer like the Stanley Cup, the Kitchen Cup never ventures more than a street or two. It is, quite literally, a Charlestown hockey thing.

“It’s really unique and special that, you know, the three of us have played together since we were just little kids,’’ said Vesey, whose Crimson will face Grzelcyk’s Terriers in the Beanpot’s first round. “We’ve stayed good friends, all from the same small area, played college hockey, all drafted the same year . . . it’s made everything all the more special.’’

Vesey’s dad will be in the stands at the Garden, proud of all his “kids,’’ knowing from memory their every move. A coach can’t forget. None of them, he promised, will pass up the chance during play to make their hometown presence known to one another. He would expect nothing less.

“They love each other in the summer,” said Big Jim Vesey from Charlestown. “But when they’re out there on the ice, they’re not huggin’ and stuff . . . they’re [ticked] off.’’

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.