Brett Pesce models his game after the New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh. (Photo courtesy the University of New Hampshire)
Growing up in the suburbs outside New York City, Brett Pesce admits the Big Apple didn’t hit him with the same sense of awe that it does outsiders.
“Honestly, I didn’t appreciate it as much,” he said. “I feel like I took it for granted until I moved for college.”
And while he misses the shopping in NYC, Pesce has found a new home in Durham, where he has become an impact freshman at the University of New Hampshire. A 6-foot-3 defenseman for the Wildcats, Pesce came in at No. 36 on Central Scouting’s mid-term ranking of North American skaters. But ask scouts for NHL teams and they have even higher praise.
“He’s the real deal,” said one talent hawk. “Tremendous poise with the puck, ice water in his veins. A good skater and he’s getting a lot of time for a freshman.”
That’s because the Wildcats returned only five blueliners to a lineup that had a subpar 2011-12 campaign. New Hampshire has bounced back this season and is currently in a dogfight with Boston College for top spot in the Hockey East conference (the teams split a pair of games last weekend). It’s all thanks to stellar goaltending from sophomore Casey DeSmith and a renewed commitment to team defense, with Pesce playing a large role.
“Brett stepped in and really solidified the ‘D’ corps,” said coach Dick Umile. “For a young kid coming in as a freshman, he brought a great physical presence and he’s strong defensively. When he gets on the ice, he’s one of the toughest out there.”
Pesce, who only turned 18 in November, is having an even more impressive first run with UNH when you consider he barely played last season. An awkward fall on the ice with the Eastern Jr. League’s Jersey Hitmen caused the big blueliner to tear his labrum, resulting in shoulder surgery. He was only cleared for play in June, but still wanted to jump straight into the college game, when no one would have faulted him for staying back in the EJHL or playing a season in the United States League first.
“I thought about it,” Pesce said. “But I knew I would work out hard in the summer and that was my goal.”
The youngster did get in some summer play with Team USA at the under-18 Ivan Hlinka tournament, hosted each year in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. He also played with the National Team Development Program during the previous Christmas break, where he impressed both scouts and Umile. One scout said Pesce was the “best of the lot,” at the time, other than Jacob Trouba, the Winnipeg Jets first-rounder.
But it’s another young blueliner who has really caught Pesce’s eye and it’s someone closer to home: New York Rangers rising star Ryan McDonagh. The New Hampshire freshman is a Blueshirts fan and loves that the team has a young blueline he can relate to. Like those workaholic Rangers, Pesce believes his best attributes are winning battles and being aggressive. He’d still like to work on his shot.
If the Wildcats are going to make noise on the national stage this season, the road will go through the same Boston College squad they just split with and that victory went a long way in convincing Pesce that his crew could hang with the defending national champs.
“That was a big game for us,” he said. “The key is to work together; it’s our chemistry. We don’t have one crazy stud on the team.”
Though Durham is a little less frantic than New York, Pesce has found a new essential destination outside the rink. That would be Aroma Joe’s Coffee, where the brew is unlike any cup the defenseman could find back home.
“Honestly,” Pesce said, “I think I go there every day.”
If that means he stays on campus and playing for the Wildcats for three more years, you’ll find very few UNH fans complaining.
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