Mike Vellucci remembers his high school prom in his native Michigan for a lot more than just bad '80s fashions and awkward dancing.
It was held the night before the 1984 NHL draft in Montreal, for which he was eligible, meaning he’d have to cut the marquee dance of his teenage years short.
“’You’re going to miss prom!?’” Vellucci remembered his friends incredulously asking.
“They thought I was crazy. They had no idea (about the draft).”
Such was life for a young American hockey prospect in the early 1980s, where a trio of players from suburban Detroit – Vellucci, a late round pick of the Hartford Whalers, and former NHL all-stars Al Iafrate and Kevin Hatcher had to make the decision whether to play hockey in their native U.S. or move north to Canada to further their careers.
But unlike today, where the NCAA and Canadian Hockey League are fighting tooth and nail over each and every highly touted prospect, things at that time were different for many American players.
“Back then the American colleges, if people can remember, were only taking Canadians pretty much,” said Vellucci, the head coach and general manager of the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers.
“They didn’t think the American guy could play (hockey) and everybody is shortsighted and they forget those things. But Al Iafrate, Kevin Hatcher and myself, we weren’t even recruited by Michigan or Michigan State or those guys. They were taking way older guys, too, it wasn’t just guys right out of high school. So it was a pretty easy decision to go to (the OHL with) Belleville.
“Michigan, Michigan State, none of those local schools were taking many Americans.”
A cursory look at Michigan State’s roster on Hockeydb.com from the 1983-84 season – Vellucci’s first in the OHL – shows 13 Canadians, four players from Michigan and one from New York state.
Vellucci eventually ended up patrolling the blue line along with Iafrate for the Belleville Bulls, while Hatcher went to play for the now-defunct North Bay Centennials.
“It was a big adjustment,” said the 44-year-old native of Farmington Hills, Mich. "Especially taking Grade 13 Canadian History as an American – I had no clue what was going on – but it was very beneficial for me to learn.
"It was probably the best thing I’ve ever done because it made me more mature mentally and physically.”
Vellucci credited Hockey Hall of Famer, Pat Lafontaine, 45, a native of St. Louis, for showing his generation that players had options if they weren’t able to play NCAA.
Lafontaine played one season with the QMJHL’s Verdun Juniors – where he scored a staggering 104 goals with 234 points in 70 games.
“That was a huge stepping stone for everybody, really Pat Lafontaine opened the door,” said Vellucci. “The rest of us followed through the year after, but obviously that was a huge impact when Pat was tearing up the Quebec League. The second step was when (noted American hockey benefactor and Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter) Karmanos started a (junior) franchise, when he bought Windsor and had something like 10 Americans on that team.”
That Windsor team eventually became the Plymouth Whalers which, under Vellucci’s guidance last season, had 11 Americans on their roster including Ottawa Senators first round pick Stefan Noesen of Plano, Texas. And there’s no doubting the impact the NHL’s moving into non-traditional hockey markets has had on young American players haling from sunny climes such as California, Florida and Arizona.
“We drafted Charlie Pelnick from Raleigh, North Carolina, this year,” said Vellucci. “He grew up watching the Hurricanes so here’s a guy that’s one of the top defencemen in the States – from North Carolina, who would have thought? It’s pretty neat.”
That increased talent from the U.S. means that unlike when Vellucci played, the NCAA and CHL are now battling over top American talent, in some cases even more so than their Canadian counterparts. In the last month alone, the NCAA has had five top-tier Americans – Connor Murphy, J.T. Miller, Anthony DeAngelo, Reid Boucher and John Gibson – de-commit from their college programs to join the OHL.
Vellucci believes the current turmoil in the NCAA - with the addition of a new Big Ten conference along with some premier teams starting their own National Collegiate Hockey Conference - might have played a role.
“It seems like more,” said Vellucci of the jump to junior. “I know that college hockey is kind of in a transition right now of what league a team is going to play in, and there’s a little bit of uncertainty and I don’t know if that plays into it – I think it has to – but it’s also the opportunity we give those high-impact players to play a pro style.”
Vellucci said he had a good feeling Miller would end up with the Whalers – despite a commitment to North Dakota – because he knew the forward’s big frame and style of play would be best suited for the NHL. Those inklings were confirmed on Thursday, when the New York Rangers signed their first round pick (15th overall) to a three-year entry level contract.
“I thought he was the best American forward of his age group and that to me proved that he was going to be a first-round NHL pick,” said Vellucci. “I just figured with those two things going, that eventually he would make his way to the OHL.”
Miller played last season with the U.S. National Team Development Program, where he was among the top three scorers with 15 goals and 35 assists for 50 points in 56 games.
He said the decision was a difficult one.
“I’ve had to make a couple of tough decisions over the last few weeks, but I’m happy to get up there and am ready to play," said Miller. "Plymouth looks like a strong team with one of the best coaches in the league (Vellucci) – if not the best, in my opinion. I’ve seen Plymouth play a few times, especially when (Boston Bruin) Tyler Seguin was there, and it was great to watch.”
Having been drafted out of the USNTDP, however, means that Miller can be sent to the American Hockey League if the Rangers so wish because he isn’t beholden to the NHL agreement with the Canadian Hockey League. That deal between the two leagues only allows a player to spend a season in the AHL if they turn 20 before Dec. 31 or have played in the CHL for four seasons.
And while it’s highly unlikely the Rangers would have him start in the AHL this season, it’s quite possible he could make the jump after one junior season, much like former Kitchener Rangers forward Jeremy Morin did with the Chicago Blackhawks’ farm team.
“If he’s ready to play in the American league I fully support whatever the New York Rangers want to do with him,” said Vellucci. “We’re going to develop him – hopefully we develop him well enough that he goes to the NHL next year and we don’t even have to talk about the (AHL). Losing guys to a higher level has never bothered me… that’s my job, to get them to the next level.
“The faster I can do that, the better our program is going to be because players are going to want to play for me and for us if they know that I have their best interests moving forward.”