Freshman Vannelli following father's footsteps

Mike Vannelli will be a freshman on the Gophers hockey team this season. He is also the son of former Gopher hockey player Tom Vannelli, who won national championships in 1974 and 1976 with the Gophers under legendary coach Herb Brooks. The comparisons between father and son have already begun.

Mike Vannelli hasn't even played a game for the maroon and gold, and he is already being peppered with questions about what it is like to be Tom Vannelli's son.

And that's not a bad thing. Tom Vannelli was a key player on the Gophers' 1974 NCAA title team, and now, almost 30 years later his son is joining a team that is aiming for its third consecutive national title. Like father like son? Time will tell.

"It's fun because I have experienced more than the average dose of Gophers hockey growing up," said Vannelli, who is from Mendota Heights, Minn., and attended St. Paul's Cretin-Derham Hall High School. At 6-2, 190-pounds, Vannelli has the skills of a forward and the strength of a defenseman. He played with the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL last season and led the USHL in scoring for defenseman with 47 points (13 goals and 34 assists) in 60 games.

After his playing career, Tom Vannelli spent some time broadcasting Gophers hockey games on the radio.

"Being around my dad at all the games was a really neat experience, so now it is exciting to know I will be playing for the team I grew up around," Mike said.

Tom Vannelli, meanwhile, is still realizing that his son will play for the team he won a national title with.

"I'm not totally sure it's sunk in yet," Tom said. "It's one of those things where you knew there was a possibility that he could play Division I hockey, and when he started receiving interest from schools – and the Gophers were interested, that's when it became really exciting."

Tom Vannelli coached Mike at Cretin-Derham Hall and always new the potential was there to be a top-level player, but it was a growth spurt between Mike's freshman and sophomore season that moved him from forward to defenseman and sent him on the path to Division I hockey.

"When he was smaller he developed into a good skater, but he also developed puck control and a good hockey sense," said Tom. "When he grew he had the skills of a forward, but the size of a defenseman."

Mike Vannelli is looking forward to playing for the Gophers, and even though the defection of defenseman Paul Martin to the NHL will likely mean a chance for more minutes for Vannelli, he was disappointed Martin left.

"It's a great loss to our team because Paul is a great player," Mike said. "It would have been nice to have him on the team, I could have learned a lot from him. But at the same time, we as a defensive unit will need to pick up the slack and do the best we can."

That is a challenge Vannelli is looking forward to.

"Every year teams lose stars, and sometimes it gives the younger guys a chance to step up," he added. "I'm sure guys are working hard in the offseason and are ready to increase their role with the team."

Vannelli said he knows it will take time to adjust to the college game, but that the rugged schedule and high level of play in the USHL has prepared him for the collegiate level.

"Obviously things aren't going to come as easy right off the bat," he said. "Being a defenseman I am going to focus on stopping the puck, and then as I get more comfortable I will look to score more, but really I just want to contribute anyway possible."

As for following in his dad's footsteps, Mike Vannelli knows the comparisons have just begun. For Tom Vannelli, the adjustment he will have to make will be watching the game as a fan and father, not as Mike's coach, and not as a former Gopher player.

"I followed him through the junior leagues and watched 12-15 games and became acclimated to what it was like to not be with him every step of the game," said Tom. "It was hard not being able to talk to him between shifts, but Mike has a good idea of what is going on out there and we didn't have to talk a lot during the game. He's a competitor, a real smart player."

Father knows best. And that's not a bad thing.

"He won a national title at the U, and that's what I am shooting for," Mike said.

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

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