NEW YORK -- There was much learning involved for Vinni Lettieri as he earned a communications degree in his four years at the University of Minnesota, all while helping the Gophers to a quartet of Big Ten titles and three trips to the NCAA playoffs.
But the shoot-first forward, descended from Minnesota sports royalty, learned a lesson that you won’t find in a book when he was called up to the NHL level by the New York Rangers. Lettieri went to a big suburban high school, played college hockey at one of the nation’s largest colleges, always had multiple roommates in college and is used to a full house with his close-knit family.
But in his stints with the Rangers, Lettieri has learned that even in the nation’s largest metro area, with 20 million people, and 18,000-plus showing up to watch you work, it’s possible to still feel alone.
“College was the experience of a lifetime. After that it’s different on your own,” Lettieri said after a recent morning practice at Madison Square Garden, when he skated in a pair of games for the Rangers. “Pro hockey is a very lonely life, traveling all the time. You just have your teammates, and a lot of them have families, so it’s not like you ask them to hang out after practice.”
So Vinni has developed a routine for game days -- 18 so far this season -- when he’s been on the ice with the Rangers. He gets out of his team-supplied apartment and talks a walk around Manhattan, grabs a coffee and soaks in the vibe of the city, to keep his legs moving and his brain engaged.
“I went to school with 52,000 people, so there’s always been a big crowd around me,” Lettieri said. “Wherever I went, there were a lot of other students around, so I like the big city. It brings a lot of passion to the arena every night and the fans are so passionate. It’s been awesome playing here.”
When former coach Don Lucia needed to find Lettieri during the four years he skated for the Gophers, Lucia would start his search in the weight room and, more often than not, would find him there.
“There were very few guys that put in more time in the weight room or on the ice, before and after practice, than Vinni,” Lucia said. “He just worked. First on, last off, always shooting pucks, getting really physically built and being hard to knock off the puck.”
Lettieri’s grandfather, Lou Nanne, was a legendary player for both the Gophers and the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars, and was the general manager for the state’s first pro hockey team for many years.
Lettieri’s father, Tino, was a fan favorite as a pro soccer goalkeeper for the Minnesota Kicks and Minnesota Strikers in the 1980s. Tino also represented Canada in both the Olympics and the World Cup.
Vinni’s cousin, Tyler Nanne, plays defense for the Gophers, so there are many sports connections. Vinni said it’s not uncommon to hear from all of them after his games.
“I get advice from everywhere. It’s a hockey family and there are tremendous role models wherever you look. After every game I’ve got two or three people texting me and always offering good advice,” he said. “I have a great family, and all the way through they’ve helped get me to this point. I can always turn to them for advice, because they’re continually watching me home or away.”
Lou Nanne says he watches every one of Vinni’s games, either on TV or streamed by computer.
“It’s a thrill to have him play at the University of Minnesota, and then to see him develop enough where he could play professionally has been amazing for me and the whole family,” Lou Nanne said. He also admitted that despite all those years calling players up and sending them down to the minors as a general manager, it’s different to see it happen to a family member.
Several members of the Nanne/Lettieri clan were in attendance at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Dec. 29, 2017, when Vinni scored a goal early in the third period in his NHL debut to give the Rangers a lead.
He hit the ice in 19 games with the Rangers last season, but the bulk of his time in pro hockey has been spent with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate, the Hartford (Conn.) Wolf Pack. Lettieri leads the Wolf Pack in goals, despite playing a dozen or so fewer games than most of his AHL teammates. His role on the team changes, depending on whether Vinni is in Hartford or Manhattan.
“In college, and when I’m down (in the AHL), I’m a top six (forwards) guy and try to put the puck in the net. It’s no different here, but sometimes when you’re a fourth-liner, you need to change up your role a little bit,” Lettieri said during one of his stints with the Rangers. “It’s always a treat being back up here. But, obviously, you can never be satisfied with where you are, be it at the top or the bottom, you’ve always got to work to get better. We’re all men here. We all know our jobs.”
And as he keeps putting pucks in the net and drawing the attention of the top brass for a young and ambitious Rangers team, it’s not likely that Lettieri will be lonely for long.