2012 NHL Draft Flashback: Matt Grzelcyk

A knee injury and surgery in May will likely prevent Boston University Terriers captain and Bruins prospect Matt Grzelcyk from beginning the 2015-16 season on time, but the Townie is still expected to be a major contributor to BU’s fortunes when he returns.

I spoke briefly to Terriers coach David Quinn in passing at the NHL draft a few months ago shortly after A.J. Greer was selected, and I brought up Grzelcyk. The surgery didn’t come up, but Quinn was more than happy to heap praise on his defenseman. Many of us didn’t know it at the time, but when BU played in the Hockey East and NCAA tournament, “Grizzy” had already suffered his ACL injury, and was not 100 percent. That’s why some observers may have noticed he wasn’t playing his best hockey in those final games, but he was there for his team and if not for a 3rd period comeback by Providence College in the championship match…woulda, coulda, shoulda.

I first saw Grzelcyk when he skated for Belmont Hill in 2009, before he left for the U.S. National Team Development Program for the 2010-11 campaign. He was such a high-end offensive defenseman at the prep level, but I wondered how he would fare with his lack of size out in Ann Arbor. Well, he certainly made the most of it, even overcoming a pretty lackluster ranking by Central Scouting and other public lists to be a third-round selection of his home town Bruins.

Here’s a profile I wrote on him for New England Hockey Journal about a month before the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. It tells his story as a “little engine that could” defenseman. At the time, the B’s had just signed Torey Krug, but he had yet to make his mark. The two have a lot in common in terms of style and substance- both are undersized, but play with a lot of offensive flair and passion. Grzelcyk is the better skater between the two, but Krug’s shot has allowed him to score 26 goals in his first two full NHL campaigns in Boston.

Some will say you can’t have two smaller defenders on the same blue line, but I contend that when it comes to these two, don’t dismiss the notion out of hand. Grzelcyk will turn pro after this season and likely spend at least one or more years in the AHL. By then, who knows what the makeup of the Bruins defense will look like, but with his speed, vision and offensive upside- I wouldn’t count him out.

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Matt Grzelcyk profile

New England Hockey Journal; May, 2012

Matt Grzelcyk is one of the best 2012 NHL Entry Draft prospects no one is talking about.

The 5-foot-9, 171-pound speedy, offensive defenseman from Charlestown, Mass. recently returned home to the Bay State after two years in Ann Arbor, Mich. with the U.S. National Team Development Program. Grzelcyk admitted that it was tough to leave the comfort zone of home surrounded by friends and family, but looking back on it, there is no question that he made the right choice.

“My whole mindset has changed with everything from the training to all the roadies we went on,” Grzelcyk told New England Hockey Journal recently. “I’ve become more mature as a person and the program not only developed us as hockey players, but also developed us as men. I never really thought I’d be the person I am today, but I couldn’t be happier in terms of the confidence I’ve gained and all the great experiences I had.

“It’s sad that it’s all come to an end, but I’m excited about being back home and getting ready for my next big challenge.”

The luggage that brought him back to Boston was a little heavier, as he carried numerous awards and accolades from his myriad international experiences, including the gold medal he won as a member of Team USA’s fourth consecutive championship squad at the World Under-18 Championship.

“The first year (in the NTDP) was a grind, but the second year brought us all together and was just amazing,” he said of his time in the program, capped by achieving the team’s ultimate goal of an U18 title. “I think—it’s just we obviously knew people kind of doubted us. We had an attitude that it was us against the world—everyone wanted us to lose. It felt so satisfying to play those games and come out on top in the end. I can’t even begin to describe it.”

Yet, even though he has that winning pedigree, a blazing set of wheels and is one of the smartest two-way defenders available in the 2012 draft class, he’s only rated the 177th-best North American skater by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service and is almost an afterthought when it comes to discussing a defense-rich group of prospects.

“I guess it is motivation,” Grzelcyk said. “I’ve heard it ever since a young age and people telling you that you’re too small to play. I like it, actually. I have nothing to lose and I just take the attitude that if I work as hard as I can, I can block the doubters out.”

The player more commonly known to his friends and hockey observers as “Grizzy” is one of three former players with the Middlesex Islanders minor program available in the 2012 NHL draft.

The team was coached by former Merrimack College star and NHL forward with the Blues and Bruins, Jim Vesey (Charlestown, Mass.). Grzelcyk, along with Vesey’s own son, Harvard-bound Jimmy and close friend and fellow Townie Brendan Collier formed a trio that proved to be inseparable in those early hockey years when the boys were aged 7 to 12. All three later skated with the New England Nordiques AAA summer hockey program as well, helping to form a lasting bond between them.

“Hockey helped us stay out of trouble,” Grzelcyk said. “Coach Vesey—we never really noticed at the time what he was doing for us—we just thought they (Vesey and the assistant coaches) were old guys yelling at us, but he built a strong foundation for us early on. We all realize now how important it was for us to stick together and to apply the fundamentals and skills we learned from them.”

At least one hockey parent with those Islanders teams recently recalled how Grzelcyk and Collier would play roller hockey for a large portion of the day, then skate to the rink on their rollerblades for ice hockey practice. Even then, the duo displayed a passion for the game that was palpable.

“Yeah, we couldn’t get enough of it,” Grzelcyk said with a laugh. “I think Brendo’s probably my first friend and he was really my only friend for awhile. We’re still very close. Growing up, it was nice playing with someone from the same town with the same passion for the game. We’re both not the biggest guys, but when you look at what we’ve been able to do, I think it’s something we’re both proud of—that even when we were told that we could play at certain levels because of our size—we were able to rise above that.”

Collier, who will join his buddy Grizzy at Boston Unversity in 2013, is coming off a second-consecutive Massachusetts high school championship. In 2011, he scored the winning goal in overtime. This past spring, with his team dedicating the season to cancer-stricken coach Chris Serino (Saugus, Mass.), he tallied an important goal in the title match against BC High.

“He was my first friend and when we we’re together we’re inseparable,” Collier said after a recent workout. “You won’t find any pictures of one of us when we were little without the other. Whenever I would go anywhere, I would always ask my mother if Grizzy could come too, and vice versa.

“In all the time we played together he was the best defenseman I ever skated with.”

The two remain close to this day as workout partners in renowned strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle’s local program. With smaller frames under 6-feet, both players understand that they must maximize their core strength to be able to better handle the bigger, stronger and more physical players at the higher levels.

Working in Grzelcyk’s favor, however, is the fact that he skates extremely well, with an explosive first few steps and smooth footwork. If he lacks natural size and strength, he offsets those shortcomings with a brilliant mind for the game, a deft passing touch and the heart and character to bring his best effort to the ice on every shift.

“The first thing is that I try to establish myself as a two-way ‘D’,” Grzelcyk said. “When you look at my size, it has to be about offense., Hockey IQ and smarts. I’m not going to be a physical guy, so I have to be able to move the puck out of my end smartly and help my team transition to offense smoothly.”

The future BU Terrier added that the biggest improvement to his game this season had to do with his timing in terms of jumping up on the rush and pinching in from the point. He’s also worked on adding power and accuracy to his shot.

Having grown up in the shadow of the TD Garden, where his father, John, has been a member of the bull gang for more than 40 years dating back to the historic Boston Garden, it isn’t difficult to see where he got his passion for hockey. John and Kathleen Grzelcyk raised their family of hockey players and Bruins fans in Charlestown, with two older brothers in John and Andrew, plus older sister Julie, who all embraced the game.

Skill. Passion. Character. They are all hallmarks of Grzelcyk’s game, and the NHL is rife with examples of other undersized skaters who have overcome doubts to thrive in the league.

“Grzelcyk is a good player, and it’s so important in today’s game to get the puck out of the zone—he does that quickly and moves the puck well. He’s smart, and smarts can outweigh size,” said an NHL scout for an Eastern Conference team. “You’d never ask him to go up against an Evgeni Malkin or Jordan Staal, but there’s a place in the NHL for a player like him.”

After years of being told he is too small to effectively play defense, Grzelcyk has an international gold medal on display at home to symbolically thumb his nose at the critics. As he embarks on an NCAA career and hopes to one day achieve his dream of playing in the NHL, don’t count against him adding more hardware to the family trophy case.

Matt Grzelcyk was Boston's third-round selection at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He enters his final season at Boston University in 2015. (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Matt Grzelcyk was Boston’s third-round selection at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He enters his final season at Boston University in 2015. (Kirk Luedeke photo)

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Postscript: I was riding a cab into Pittsburgh from the airport just before the 2012 NHL draft and my cellphone buzzed…it was Grzelcyk calling me to say he was headed to the Steel City.

We had talked a few weeks before, and he had told me he planned on staying home for the draft as he was an “at risk for selection” player- no kid wants to go to the NHL draft and sit in the stands for a night and entire day and not hear their name called.

“What changed?” I asked him.

“My family adviser got some information and said we should come,” he replied.

After the first round concluded on Friday, I was walking into the Consol Energy Center for Saturday’s rounds 2-7 and there was Grzelcyk, so we chatted a bit. He admitted to being nervous…I remember saying something like- “Well, who knows Grizzy- maybe you won’t ever have to leave Charlestown and Boston?” He laughed and said what a dream it would be if the Bruins picked him.

A couple of hours later, that dream came true in the third round- 85th overall- some 90 selections before Central projected him.

Grizzy has come a long way since, but he knows the biggest task lies ahead- cracking that NHL roster he grew up bleeding black and gold for.

No sweat.

Summer cooler interview series 2: Torey Krug pt. 2

I’m back with the second half of the interview conducted with Bruins defenseman Torey Krug this week. Here, he answers some of those who question whether he can play his way into the top-4 rotation and stay there, expands on his relationship with Adam McQuaid, talks the 2016 Winter Classic and reveals the secret of the Krug family’s overall success: competitive spirit and a survival of the fittest mentality.

Torey Krug and a fan participate in the Bruins game show event (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Torey Krug and a fan participate in the Bruins game show event (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

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Scouting Post: You talked about earning your way into a bigger role with the Bruins- that’s something you’ve done on past teams, and you earned your way to an NHL contract with Boston, eventually earning a chance to become a regular with the big club. What do you say to those critics out there who say you’re too small or you played sheltered minutes and you haven’t gone up against top offensive players or are “only” really going to be an effective specialist going forward?

Torey Krug: I like to say- keep it coming because that’s the stuff that fuels my motivation and I put that in the back of my mind and use it. At the same time, if people want to talk about sheltering me and the minutes- put yourself in the coach’s situation- I want to play against the best players, but if my forte or what I am best at is in the offensive zone, wouldn’t you want to put me out there when there’s a better opportunity to score a goal and help the team win? The same thing being said- if you want to throw Zdeno Chara out against Alex Ovechkin or Rick Nash, why wouldn’t you do that because that’s simple physics?

So when people say the team is sheltering me, I don’t believe it for one second because I know that the coaching staff trusts me to play defensively and I’ve earned that trust and I will continue to earn that. Now that I’ve done what I’ve done it doesn’t just sit there- it will go away if I don’t continue to earn it. For me, I take care of my defensive zone (responsibilities) first and that’s my pride and joy. I make sure I get back and move the puck out.

People can talk about my defensive game…well, I don’t have to play as much defense as some of the other players because I go back and I break the puck out successfully and I spend the least amount of time in our zone because of that. The best defensemen don’t have to play defense as much as others. Some are put in different situations more often than others and I just try to make the best of whatever situation I’m given.

SP: You’ve had an opportunity to play with Adam McQuaid in the NHL- can you talk to the fans a bit about your thoughts on his extension and your experiences with him both on the ice and as a teammate in general?

TK: Adam is a one of a kind individual. When I first came to Boston he was one of those guys I could ask anything and say anything to him and I know he’s going to give me an honest answer- he’s the definition of a Boston Bruin. He has earned everything he’s been given to this point and that includes the contract and his playing time and that’s improving as well.

He’s my favorite player to play with- we have a great chemistry. He knows where I’m going to be on the ice and I know where he’s going to be and also I can go around and punch anybody in the face and I know Adam’s going to have my back (laughter). I always joke around that I’m going to get him his personal record in penalty minutes each year if we’re playing together which is funny, but he’s one of the most honest hockey players I’ve ever seen. He knows what he does well and he’s always trying to improve. In practice, he’s one of the hardest working guys and is always working on the little things to get better and is one of the last guys off the ice every single day. Like I said- one thing to drive home about him is just how honest he is and how hard he works, and that’s a testament to him and how he carries himself, and that’s what the Boston Bruins are about.

SP: The 2016 Winter Classic- you are no stranger to big outdoor games having played one in Ann Arbor (Michigan Stadium) vs. Michigan in late 2010. How excited are you to get the opportunity to do it again and do it on the big stage- January 1st with millions of people watching in the Patriots’ stadium- current Super Bowl champs- and knowing what you’re in for, which hasn’t been done since the Fenway game in 2010?

TK: It really is an amazing experience. Looking back on when Michigan State played the other guys at the Big House in front of 105,000 people…I remember making sure that I took a second to really take it in and absorb everything. I think that’s a valuable piece of advice to anybody that’s playing in their first outdoor game or whatever. Because it is important to realize how special a moment it is- the Winter Classic has grown into a great tradition.

I don’t watch much hockey during the season as far as other teams go- I watch a lot of film, but not of other teams. The Winter Classic is something I always turn on- it’s an event. I have family that comes in for New Year’s and no matter what we’re doing, we take time out of the day to turn on the hockey game and we enjoy ourselves. So, to finally be on the TV when that’s going on and just to be a part of it is going to be a hell of an experience and that doesn’t even begin to touch on how special it’s going to be playing against Montreal and the history with them, the rivalry and how that game’s going to be a little bit faster than other games.

There’s a lot of things to take in when you’re getting ready for an outdoor game and it actually is a different hockey game. It’s a little bit different with the wind factor and you have to adjust to the cold and some guys wear too much outer gear and they end up getting too hot and there’s things with snow and the buildup of the ice, but when it comes down to it- it’s an old fashioned game- it’s a bunch of grown men that turn into kids again and they’re playing on the pond in front of thousands of people.

There are a lot of things and I could talk for days about that, especially playing in Gillette Stadium where the Patriots play- the Super Bowl champions and one of the best organizations in all of sports- to be welcomed into their home…it almost gives you that feeling like you’re on the NFL stage because all eyes on Sunday are on the NFL and it’s such a big market that they reach out to. It almost gives you that feeling that you’re on top of the world.

SP: Every time we speak, we tend to circle back on it, but I like to talk to you about it because it defines your success, and that is your family. Can you help the fans who maybe aren’t as familiar with the Krug family to learn something they don’t know about the Krug clan and what has helped drive you and make you into the player and person you’ve become?

TK: When I think about my family I go back to the mental strength that everybody has. That’s where I get everything within my mental capacity, my heart and driving force- it comes from my family. It comes from my mom and how she carries herself- she’s the only woman in the household with four sons. She’s had her share of ups and downs and she’s the most tough mentally of us all. Together as a family- that survival of the fittest mode that I know I’ve talked to you about before and a lot of people- it’s a common thing- the only way I can describe my brothers and my dad and mom is- you put the plate of burgers down in the middle of the table and it’s whoever grabs it the fastest. You’re fighting over the best one- that survival of the fittest mentality is instilled in all of us.

The only brother that didn’t play hockey is my youngest brother, Zak- he’s a volleyball player, and he’s the most competitive of us all to be honest. There’s times where guys don’t really know what’s going through his head but he’s just so driven and one of the toughest guys of us all. That comes from him challenging my oldest brothers- 10 years older than he is- and he’ll challenge me, who is two years older- and that’s a testament to how we’ve been raised and that competitive passion that’s been instilled in us.

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Krug is a bit of a polarizing player just because he receives such scrutiny at times over whether he has the ability to develop into a more all-around defender who can log the heavy minutes against the top competition. If past is prologue, then don’t count him out at doing just that because his pure hockey IQ and oversized heart has propelled him to much success thus far and the NHL has a track record of smaller, yet hungry players at that position, being able to compensate for whatever they lack in natural size and strength.

Every player- no matter how accomplished- will turn the puck over and make mistakes. The key for Krug to continue to build on the trust he’s earned to date will be for him to not repeat the miscues that are bound to happen and use his strengths to erase negative plays by turning them into positives.

This interview gives you a window into that heart and desire that has fueled him and will continue to drive Krug’s relentless desire to be at the top of his profession and life’s passion.

(Thanks to Alison Foley for her permission to use the images on this blog)

Torey Krug 12-13 Playoffs Away Back

Summer cooler interview series 2: Torey Krug pt. 1

The summer cooler interview series rolls on and Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug took time out on a Tuesday night to chat about a lot of different topics as the 2015-16 NHL season draws closer.

The former Michigan State Spartans captain signed with the Bruins as a free agent in the spring of 2012 and took the 2013 playoffs by storm when he found his way into the Boston lineup agains the New York Rangers in the second round, then never relinquished his spot in the NHL lineup.

He enters the new season on a mission to capture a top-4 spot in Boston’s rotation where he will have to play upwards of 20 minutes per night in an expanded role, but if anyone has paid attention to the way Krug has proven his critics wrong over the years, he’ll not only pull it off, but surprise a lot of people along the way.

Torey Krug, David Krejci and Tommy Cross at training camp. Photo by Alison Foley

Torey Krug, David Krejci and Tommy Cross at training camp. Photo by Alison M. Foley

Here is the transcript from my complete and unedited interview with Torey. Because it’s so long, I’m going to break it up into several posts, so I won’t lose people in the length. His answers are typical of what folks who have covered the Bruins and Krug know to be the case with him- he provides detailed, thoughtful answers to the questions you pose to him.

So, without further ado- here’s part 1 of the Torey Krug interview, where he talks about his off-season, his mindset after missing the NHL playoffs for the first time in his career, how the trades of his close friend Milan Lucic and fellow defenseman Dougie Hamilton have affected him, and how he expects to compete for…and earn…a spot in the top-4 come October.

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Scouting Post: We’re in August and before we know it- it’ll be time for Boston Bruins training camp and the veterans to report, so can you bring the fans up to speed on what you’ve been up to since the 2014-15 NHL season ended?

Torey Krug: Yeah- I’ve been gearing up for this season and it’s a slow process with how much time we’ve had this offseason- it’s a little bit more time than we’re used to after missing the playoffs last year. That obviously strikes up a hunger for me to get back on the ice surface and play with my teammates, but when the season ended I was able to continue playing for Team USA in the World Championships (held in Austria).

That was a great experience for me not only being on the ice playing against other teams’ top lines- the likes of Alex Ovechkin and others- but off the ice it was a great experience- my first time ever to Europe. Being a part of USA Hockey was an important experience for me because I had never represented my country and I was able to take a little vacation with my wife after that tournament wound down and it was overall just a great experience.

I took a little bit of time off after that tournament to enjoy myself, relax and recharge those competitive batteries because you’ve been in the competitive world for so long. Then, the training starts and there’s multiple phases throughout the summer where you make sure you start gearing up so that you make sure you don’t peak at training camp. I think that’s a common misconception- a lot of guys want to peak at training camp to make sure they give a good impression but the way I have been taught to train is to make sure I peak when the time is right later in the season. So, it’s just been a solid progression: lifting weights, starting to skate three, four times a week now in August, and I’ll make my way to Michigan State next week for a training camp that they invite all the alumni back for and put together, so it’s been a very long summer and I’m looking forward to getting back on the ice with my Bruins teammates.

SP: Let’s go back- because you made the team in earnest during the 2013 playoff run and it was a memorable debut for you. Then, your first full season in the NHL was a President’s Trophy campaign- disappointing outcome in the second round of the playoffs that year, but this is the first time as a pro where you didn’t make the playoffs. What was your mindset as you did the exit interviews to pack up and head home for the summer and what will be important for the Bruins as a team to get off on a better footing this year?

TK: To be honest, it’s extremely disappointing. The group that we had- we obviously lost a few key pieces from our President’s Trophy-winning campaign, but when you really look at it the core group of guys- we still have them to day even though we subtracted Dougie (Hamilton) or Looch (Milan Lucic)- we still have that core group here, so it’s really disappointing to miss the playoffs last year.

What it does do is it builds your appreciation for how hard it is to not only get into the playoffs but to win the Stanley Cup. I was very blessed and fortunate to play in the Stanley Cup finals my first run and you can take it for granted how hard it is to get there and how hard it is to compete in the playoffs, so I think no one wants to say at the time it happens, but it might be a good thing that this team- the core group of guys- goes through this together because it’s an emotional experience and you realize that you can’t take things for granted and you have to really work for what you earn.

I think heading into the offseason it was to mentally prepare yourself for what’s to come. You watch the playoff games and you realize how hard it is- how you have to earn every single inch of ice that you get out there- how hard it is to score goals…it’s a learning experience. Everything you do you try to learn from, so even if there’s bad situations like missing the playoffs and Peter Chiarelli gets fired and people are getting traded, guys are getting moved- you’re always learning and I think that’s an important thing for this group and I know we’re not taking it for granted anymore.

SP: You’re not a rookie anymore and are no stranger to trades and changes with your team in Boston, but the trades for Hamilton and Lucic happened within the span of a few hours, so can you take the fans through where you were at the time and how that played out? What were your initial reactions and where are you now that it’s sunk in that you have new teammates that you’re getting ready to play with for the first time?

TK: Well, it surprised me. I think anytime you hear teammates’ names in the media, you realize it’s a possibility that guys are going to get moved and nothing really sinks in until they are actually traded.

I was sitting in my living room watching draft day unfold and watching (Don Sweeney) do his thing and Milan Lucic is one of my best friends- I talk to him every single day and there’s literally not a day that goes by that we don’t reach out to each other and chat so it was a tough one. My wife and I spent every holiday at their house and a lot of Sunday football days at his house…it’s tough to see friends go. But that’s the nature of the business and I know that’s something that a lot of people say, and it’s tough for fans to understand how big of a change it is for these people and their families to pick up their kids. Milan and his wife have roots (in Boston) and have been here for eight years. It’s tough. At the same  time, it’s exciting for him to be able to go to a new situation. Being on the other side of that, it’s disappointing to watch your friends go, but it’s an opportunity for new people to come in; you get to meet new people, new teammates…you get to gain a new experience that way.

With Dougie leaving it opens up a hole for me within the team and obviously other players as well- there’s a lot of ice time that needs to be made up with his absence. With guys leaving and guys coming and going and everything else there’s a lot to take in, and it’s hard sometimes for the everyday fan to see that.

SP: That’s a great segue because I was going to ask you about the recent Boston Globe article kind of laying out what might be next for you in terms of your role on the Boston Bruins. As you said it- Dougie Hamilton is gone and there’s a spot in the top-4- you wouldn’t be who you are if you weren’t eyeing that. Can you talk about what it means to have that kind of a role in the NHL and based on your past teams where you played a lot of minutes for other clubs, what you bring to the table for the Boston Bruins?

TK: I can tell you that defensemen that play a lot of minutes are very well respected and highly appreciated on teams. With Johnny Boychuk moving and the valuable minutes he played and the valuable role on our team that he played and then you see that when he’s gone how it works out and you really appreciate the job that these guys do.

So, for me- as a hockey player that’s trying to move up and improve his role, you realize what a big deal it is. Dougie leaving…a friend is leaving the team…but I just see it as an opportunity and I hope that the other defensemen that are with the organization, whether they’re fighting to make the team or they’re trying to improve their role on the team- I hope everybody’s getting excited about that. It creates better competition within the group and it’s only going to make myself better so I hope guys’ eyes light up like mine do when I see that opportunity, and I’m really looking forward to going out and earning it.

I don’t think anything is given to anybody on our team. The guys that are coming in like myself trying to improve their roles in the organization, we earn those. So for me it’s about going out and earning this opportunity and making sure nobody takes it away from me. All of this comes as Sweens and Claude (Julien) are going to make those  decisions and I’m going to do everything I can make sure they are making a decision that best fits.

***

We’ll be back later this evening with the second part of the interview, as Krug will expand on how he’s had to earn it at every stop along the way before Boston, he’ll answer the critics who don’t think he has it in him to be a top-4 NHL defenseman, talks more about teammate and defense partner Adam McQuaid, the  2016 Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium and the influence his family has had on his success.

(H/T and thanks to Alison Foley for providing the above image and  some others from her collection to this blog)