Marc-Andre Gragnani has 11 points in 37 games this season for Buffalo. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
With Kevin Kennedy
I don’t have any memory of this, but my parents told me that when I was very little I used to love watching hockey on television. I would go really close to the screen and they figured out I obviously liked it and when I got old enough I asked if I could play and they signed me up.
My favourite player as a kid was Wayne Gretzky, no doubt about it. It was only Gretzky and Peter Forsberg for me. I was a forward back then and I used to think Forsberg was the perfect player. He was strong, he worked hard, he was smart and he competed more than anyone on the ice.
I didn’t actually switch to playing defense until midget AAA. Guy Boucher, the coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, was actually my coach at the time. I was a forward until the playoffs when I was in bantam and our team had a ton of injuries so I went back to defense. Guy was actually in the stands watching our game and my coach came up to me after and said the midget AAA coach was at the game and he said that if I wanted to try out for his team he’d like me to play defense. He must have liked how I moved the puck because it definitely wasn’t my defensive play - I didn’t know what “gap” was or how to play one-on-ones - I didn’t know what I was doing. Next thing I knew, I got drafted into the Q as a defenseman.
There was one tournament I remember very well when I was in atom AA. It was in Val D’or and I had seven points in one of the games. I had four goals and three assists and it’s probably still the best game I’ve played in my life. Most of the guys in the NHL were all-stars on their teams growing up, but I was just another guy and never really dominated so to have a game like that really stayed in my memory.
When the junior draft was approaching, Guy told me to go to it, which made me think I had a good chance of getting drafted. So I went with my family and got drafted by P.E.I. and somehow I made the team. I was lucky there as well because I had another coach who’s now in the NHL, Alain Vigneault. That was only my second year playing defense in my life and it was a challenge because our team already had three overage and one European defenseman, but Alain was not really a guy who cared about politics and that kind of stuff. He just looks at how good you are playing. Having Boucher and Vigneault as coaches was really a huge break for me and I owe them a lot.
I think playing forward for most of my life gave me different puck-handling and skating skills I can use on defense. At the same time, I still feel like I’m playing catch up on some of the fundamentals of playing defense.
After junior I didn’t have a draft to go to because it was the year of the lockout so I was just sitting at home watching on the Internet and Buffalo picked me up in the third round. I found out I was going to play my first NHL game during my first year in professional hockey. We had an AHL game on a Thursday night in Rochester and I showed up as usual at around 5:00 p.m. and the coach, Randy Cunneyworth, asked to speak to me in the his office and he said ‘you’re not playing tonight.’ At the time I was playing really well so I was so confused and upset. I was also back to playing forward and jumping back and forth from defense a bit. Finally I asked why and he said, ‘you’re just not playing, we’re going to rest you.’ I remember feeling so bad and my heart was pounding. Eventually, after what felt like a really long time, he finally told me that I’d been called up to the Sabres.
The next day I drove to Buffalo and played against the New York Rangers. Walking in the room wasn’t that nerve-wracking because I knew the guys from training camp, but once I got on the ice and looked over and saw Jaromir Jagr and Henrik Lundqvist, I got pretty nervous. I kept asking myself, ‘what am I doing here?’ I was really awe struck. My first two games in the NHL I played forward. I played with Paul Gaustad and Patrick Kaleta on the fourth line line. I didn’t play a lot, but I was just happy to be there.