Incoming freshman turns from draft to Gophers

Tommy Vannelli will join Minnesota next season after being drafted 47th.

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Minnetonka High School Hockey Boosters

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Dane Mizutani

Gophers incoming freshman Tommy Vannelli sat patiently with his family as name after name was called onstage at the 2013 NHL Draft.

Vannelli said his immediate frustration turned to worry, but he tried to stay positive. 

After four excruciating hours at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., last month, he heard four words that changed everything.

“I remember right when they started saying, ‘From Minnetonka High School,’” Vannelli said. “I got the chills, and then they said my name.”

The St. Louis Blues ended the Vannelli family’s wait by selecting Tommy with the 47th overall pick. He will delay his professional career to play for the Gophers next season — a common practice for amateur hockey players.

Vannelli walked to the St. Louis Blues table after his name was announced.

“I kind of blacked-out walking up there,” the defenseman said. “It’s so surreal, and it takes a little bit to sink in … but just to hear my name was something special.”

His mother, Theresa Vannelli, remembers the moment vividly in her mind as well.

“We had to hear so many different Canadian leagues get called, so I don’t think any of us really expected to hear the words Minnetonka High School,” she said. “It was an unbelievable, overwhelming happiness.”

Vannelli gravitated to the defenseman position after he started to skate at six years old. He always had the skills to dominate but didn’t develop a killer instinct until his senior season.

“He came to us as a quiet kid that never took on a leadership role,” said Brian Urick, former head coach at Minnetonka High School. “He kind of sat back and liked to follow, but as he’s grown up he’s really become a leader and become more confident in his abilities.”

Theresa Vannelli said she’s seen a shift in her son’s confidence in the last year, which has helped her  realize he had a legitimate shot at the next level.

“This last year has been crazy with the amount of opportunities he’s received,” she said.

Tommy Vannelli had his first contact with members of the Gophers coaching staff early last summer.

But that was only the beginning of his ascension up the draft boards.

Vannelli attended the prestigious USA Hockey Player Development Camp in Rochester, N.Y., late last summer and then earned a spot on the U.S. roster at the 2012 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

He performed well in that tournament and was invited to join the USA National Team Development Program for his senior season. He declined the offer and returned to Minnetonka High School.

Vannelli committed to the Gophers early in his senior year at Minnetonka. He led defensemen on the squad with 31 points in 25 games this season.

“It was a no-brainer,” Vannelli said of his commitment to the Gophers. “It was in my heart the whole time, so I couldn’t go against it.”

Vannelli joined the U.S. development program after the season at Minnetonka ended.

He competed for the U.S. in April at the World U18 Championship for minor players in Sochi, Russia,  where the team placed second.  Vannelli had two goals and one assist in the tournament.

That performance impressed many, including Gophers head coach Don Lucia.

“He’s an outstanding skater who has a very low panic point with the puck on his stick,” Lucia said in a Gophers release. “He has good size and will be able to continue to grow into his frame while he’s here.”

Urick said it’ll be impossible to replace a player like Vannelli. “He has the skills and now has the mentality to succeed at the next level,” he said.

Urick said he’s glad the draft process is over and Vannelli can go back to focusing on the game instead of chatter from scouts.

Vannelli said the entire process was a complete blur. He said it was surreal because less than 12 hours after being drafted, he was on a plane back to the Twin Cities to get to his summer classes on time.

“It’s not a typical summer in terms of a summer vacation,” he said, “but there’s no place I’d rather be than here right now.”