Familiar name to join Gophers for 2003-2004 season

Incoming freshman Mike Vannelli is ranked as the 75th best American-born player heading into the NHL entry draft June 21-22. If the name sounds familiar it's because he is the son of 1976 Frozen Four MVP Tom Vannelli, who won titles with the Gophers in 1974 and 1976.

The Minnesota Gophers won their second consecutive NCAA title in 2003 thanks in part to the play of fabulous freshman Thomas Vanek, a native of Austria and a former USHL star for the Sioux Falls Stampede. Vanek could be a top-five pick in the upcoming NHL draft June 21-22, but is expected to return for his sophomore season with the Gophers.

If Vanek stays with the team, he will be joined by former Sioux Falls teammate and incoming Gophers freshman Mike Vannelli, a 6-2 defenseman from Mendota Heights, Minn., and a graduate of St. Paul's Cretin-Derham Hall High School. Like Vanek, Vannelli has caught the attention of NHL scouts. Heading into the draft Vannelli was ranked 75th among North American players, according to Central Scouting Service rankings. And like Vanek, Vannelli knows all about Minnesota winning national titles. That's because Vannelli is the son of former Golden Gopher Tom Vannelli, who was a member of Minnesota's 1974 and 1976 NCAA championship team.

Like father like son? Time will tell.

Vannelli is a rugged defender, but is a skilled offensive player. Last season he led all USHL defensemen in scoring and was a member of the All-USHL first team. The scouting report on Vannelli is that he prefers an up-tempo game but won't shy away from whatever it takes to get the puck or make the play.

"He's got the gift of making very good decisions with the puck," former Sioux Falls coach Tony Gasparini told USA Junior Hockey Magazine. "Throughout college he's going to add strength and physical presence."

Tom Vannelli was named the MVP of the Frozen Four when the Gophers won the NCAA title in 1976. Vanek was named MVP of the Frozen Four in 2003. Expectations will be high for Vannelli, but coach Don Lucia feels Vannelli and the rest of the incoming recruiting class will come in and make an immediate impact.

"We expect all to make immediate contributions to the program next season," said Lucia. Vannelli isn't the only Gophers recruit who is expected to be drafted. USHL Player of the Year Ryan Potulny of the Lincoln Stars is ranked No. 55 by Central Scouting Service. Potulny's teammate and fellow Gophers recruit Danny Irmen is ranked No. 76 by Central Scouting Service, but Vannelli, Potulny and Irmen are all expected to be in a Gophers uniform next season despite draft status.

David Backes, a 6-3 forward from the Lincoln Stars (Blaine, Minn.) and a Minnesota State University-Mankato recruit, is the Central Scouting Service's top-ranked American-born USHL player at No. 38.

The 2003 NHL Entry Draft will be hosted by the Nashville Predators.

Matt Krumrie covers Gophers hockey for GoldenSports.net. He can be reached at gopherhockeyinsider@yahoo.com

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