The Senior

I met with a bunch of teams at the NHL Scouting Combine in Toronto in 2012, but one interview particularly stands out.

For those who don’t know how combine interviews work, you basically sit there at a round table with all of a team’s scouts, staff and management and just get peppered with questions.

So I’m sitting there, 18 years old, nervously sweating in my suit, and some guy sitting at the table pipes up.

“Oh, so you’re going to Harvard. Do you want to be a student or a hockey player?”

I was completely taken aback. I’m pretty sure that I botched the rest of the interview because I was so rattled by that question. I probably should’ve brushed it off, but in that type of situation you start second-guessing yourself.

Is Harvard actually the right fit? Is it going to hurt my hockey career?

Looking back, I kind of wish I had told this guy to pound sand, because he definitely had no clue about who I was or how special playing at Harvard was.

I grew up in a hockey family. My dad played hockey. So did all of my cousins. My younger brother Nolan and I didn’t have a choice, really. From the time we could walk, we were on skates.

Everything growing up was hockey, hockey, hockey. My parents made every sacrifice possible so that Nolan and I could play, and my little sister Karlie got dragged to just about every rink in North America.

I can remember waking up for 5 a.m. mite hockey games with my dad when the sun wasn’t even up yet.  If I said I was tired, he’d say, “C’mon, Jimmy, someday this is all gonna be worth it.” Then on the way home we would pretend to announce my name as the first overall pick in my draft year.  Those days were the best; I still remember that stuff like it was yesterday.…

With the first pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft … the Boston Bruins are proud to select … from North Reading, Mass. … Jimmy Vesey.

In school, when teachers asked what we wanted to be when we got older, I used to be too embarrassed to say an NHL player. I thought they would laugh at that thought. I mean, in reality, how likely was it that I would actually play in the NHL? The percentages are extremely small. I used to make up some phony job — I don’t know, maybe an astronaut — but the truth is, I’ve never even considered pursuing anything else as a career; ever since I was a kid I knew that hockey was what I wanted to do.

Last spring, after my junior season at Harvard, I had the opportunity to realize my childhood dream of playing in the NHL. The Nashville Predators, the team that drafted me, were telling me I would step into their lineup on a line with Mike Fisher for the end of the season and the playoffs. It was crazy to think how my college season ended on a Saturday and I could’ve been in their lineup by Tuesday. Could’ve been rubbing elbows with guys like Shea Weber, Mike Ribeiro and James Neal. Could’ve been playing against Patrick Kane in the first round of the playoffs. No brainer, right?

I thought about how broke I was at college, how annoying it can get sharing a 2003 Toyota Camry with my brother in the summer, how my mom’s been saying for a few years now that she wants a new kitchen… I’d be able to fix all that, I thought.

It was the toughest decision I’ve ever made, but I turned the offer down and decided to go back to college for my senior year. I actually turned down my dream for another year of bus rides, dining hall food and homework. Pretty nuts, huh?

When I officially announced my decision, everyone — and I mean everyone — seemed to have a comment. Some people thought I must have been doing it to hold out for free agency this summer, while some people couldn’t fathom the fact that I was going back at all. How bad could I really want to be a hockey player if I was choosing to go back to school?

I waited three days after our season ended in the first round of the NCAA tournament before officially announcing my decision, but to be honest, I had made up my mind two weeks before. We had just beaten Yale, our biggest rival, in an absolute battle of an ECAC tournament quarterfinal playoff series. Going into that series, I was something like 0-9-1 in my career against Yale. In the third and deciding game one of my best friends, Pat McNally, tied the score with three minutes left, and we went on to win in double overtime. I always joke around with him and tell him that if he didn’t score that goal I might not still be at Harvard.

The postgame celebration after winning that series was hands-down one of the best moments of my life. One of the boys’ favorite words at school is electric, and I’ll tell you, that locker-room was definitely electric. Everyone screaming, jumping up and down … I must’ve hugged all thirty of my teammates five times each, almost on the verge of tears. Looking back now, it seems like it happened in slow motion, but it was in that locker-room that I fully realized, “All right, these guys are my best friends. All right, I’m not ready to leave this place. Nope. No way.”

Some people might not have understood my decision to come back, but maybe they don’t fully understand what the college hockey experience is truly like. For me, I’ve loved every second of my time at Harvard, both at the rink and away from it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still fully committed to becoming an NHL player and having as long a career as I can, but there are certain aspects of college that I just didn’t want to give up if I didn’t have to. Like the two things people always say, “College is the best time of your life,” and, “You can never get those four years back.” So I didn’t really see the rush.

First off, I would’ve had a hard time looking my coaches in the eyes and telling them I was leaving. I’ve come a long way as a hockey player in my time at college, and that’s definitely a result of the world-class coaching staff I’ve played for. When I came to school as a young, naïve freshman, all I cared about was scoring goals. Now, I’m more of a complete player … a “200-foot player,” as coach Donato always says. One of the things I’m most proud of at school is that I’ve been on our top penalty-kill unit the past two years. For sure, I still think scoring a goal is one of the best feelings in the world, but something about it is a little better when it’s done within the team.

Coach Donato, coach Pearl, coach Rassey, coach Eklund and coach Mullen — you guys have all helped me immensely on the ice as a hockey player, but to me it’s even more commendable how much you have helped me as a human being. Thank you for everything.

One of my favorite things about college hockey is how sick it is to play for your school. Each team has so much history and tradition. It’s a cool feeling to be playing for something so much bigger than yourself. At Harvard, you look around the rink … you can see the banners, the championships, the old pictures. A lot of people before us have invested so much into the program. Every single one of our home games, there are alumni there, and they’re some pretty big names. I’m talking Billy Cleary, the Fusco brothers, Lane MacDonald — all former Olympians. Talking to them, their passion for Harvard Hockey is palpable. You can tell that they put everything they had into the jersey and that the same is expected of you. You hold yourself to a higher standard as a result.

It feels good to wear your team gear around campus; everyone knows you’re on the team, and girls love hockey players (Ahhh, maybe not so much at Harvard, actually). But seriously, there’s just something special about seeing your friends, the other athletes and everybody else around campus. It’s a tight-knit community, everyone’s pulling for each other, and everyone shares the same hatred for our Ivy League competition. When you look in the stands during a game and see all your buddies there, it puts a little more jump in your step. You don’t want to let them down, either.

Last, but definitely not least, I came back this year to be with the boys for one more season.When I say, “the boys,” I’m not just talking about my teammates. I’m also referring to our equipment guy Odie, our athletic trainers Matt and Chad, our media guy Brock, the fellas at the rink (Joe, Scotty and Brendan) and our hockey ops manager Flem.

When I got a little bit older, my dad used to always tell me that I’d never be on a team closer than the ones in college. And, now that I’m a wise old senior and my college career is coming to a close, I can 100 percent see where he was coming from all those years ago.

College hockey is much different than pro. There aren’t any trades, there aren’t any performance bonuses and no one is playing for their next contract. Once everyone gets on campus in September, we come together as a team, united by the common goal of winning an NCAA championship.

And for the next seven months, you truly gain 29 brothers. At Harvard, we all live within a one-mile radius of each other. I mean, my linemate, Alex Kerfoot, has one of the biggest muffins in the league; we live in separate dorms at school, but he could probably stand in his room and hit my bedroom window with a wrister. We eat together, we walk to the rink together, take classes together, go out together and on Friday and Saturday nights, we battle together. College is an ultrastressful environment — we’re balancing school, hockey, internships, our social lives and so many other things. When you’re part of a group as close as a hockey team, being able to lean on your teammates and the feeling of, “We’re all in this together,” gives you a little bit more assurance going into each day.

Choosing to play at Harvard was one of the greatest decisions of my life, and I think a lot of that comes from how good a group of guys my teammates are. I know when I’m older and I look back at my college years, I’m going to wish I could jump back into the memories I made with these guys. I’ll pretty much miss it all — summer dogs, nights in Lamont, the Thon, the Ward, 9 Linden, football tailgates … I might even miss the Sunday morning bag-skates when we laid an egg on Saturday night (thanks, Coach). I’m proud to say that the guys I went through all of this with will be my friends for life.

Beyond hockey, staying for my senior year has given me the opportunity to graduate from Harvard. One of the things I’m most proud about is that I’m from Boston. I come from a long line of blue-collar Bostonians.… City people — that’s who we are. Not many people in my family have had the chance to go to college, so I like to think that when I get my Harvard degree this spring, it’ll be a testament to all of their hard work, because I definitely know I didn’t get here by myself.

I know going to college for all four years isn’t exactly the most conventional hockey path, but I can’t imagine having done it any other way.

Last time I checked, the NHL’s still right where it was last spring.