Many things go through Branden Gracel’s mind as he laces up his skates and pulls that maroon and white sweater over his head before each game. But one thing in particular drives him whenever he steps onto the ice: finishing what his brother Jason started.
Jason Gracel, 26, also played NCAA college hockey. He played for Utah Valley State College, which changed its name to Utah Valley University in July 2008 and dropped its hockey program in 2009. But his playing career was cut short due to injury problems. Now his career lives on through his brother, a junior forward for the Massachusetts hockey team.
Jason was the reason the younger Gracel started skating at two or three years old. He always wanted to be a hockey player just like his older brother, and, inevitably, he fell in love with the game in the process.
“Ever since (I started skating, I) just loved the game so much,” Gracel said. “I always wanted to be like my older brother … I tried to be like him.”
Gracel calls his brother before every game, gathering the wisdom and inspiration only an older brother can provide. After hanging up the phone, Jason and the oldest Gracel brother, Sean, 29, watch as their youngest sibling takes to the Mullins Center ice and continues to have his breakout season this year, which is his third year playing in Amherst.
The Calgary, Alberta, native has already matched his season-high in points (21) and set a new career-high in goals (10) through just 21 games so far this season. Gracel has consistently been on the top line for the Minutemen, has twice been named Hockey East Player of the Week and was recognized as the conference Player of the Month for December.
Gracel has proven to have a knack for coming through in big games, as well. On Jan. 18, at No. 2 Boston College, he scored two goals and registered an assist in UMass’ 5-2 comeback win at Conte Forum. He also scored the game-winning goal on Dec. 31 against No. 8 Dartmouth to clinch the Ledyard National Bank Classic championship, earning himself the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award. Gracel is currently third in Hockey East and 11th in the nation with three game-winning goals this season.
“Every player wants to step up in the big game,” Gracel said. “Fortunately I’ve been able to do that the last few games and help out the team.
“I love the opportunity of being out there at the end of the game if we’re down by a goal or up by a goal,” he continued. “I like being on the ice as much as I can.”
Gracel attributes his spike in production to growing stronger physically, as well as having a better understanding of his Hockey East opponents. He also credits the new offensively-oriented system installed this season by first-year UMass coach John Micheletto, which has afforded him more scoring chances and plenty of confidence on the ice.
“I think he’s a pretty versatile kid,” Micheletto said “You can put him with a variety of different players and his skill set allows him to be successful no matter what because he can set plays up, he’s good in the two-man game and he can break guys down and can be effective just by himself. He’s got a good shot and he’s good over the face-off dot, so all those things have allowed him to be successful so far.
“I think he’s been able to thrive based on the type system that we’re running. He’s a get-after-it kind of kid, and that’s the kind of game that we play.”
Being the team-leader in goals and points also brings greater responsibility both on and off the ice. Gracel feels as if he’s started to take on a leadership role, but he prefers to take a more humble, low key approach to the newly added weight on his shoulders.
“I like to think I lead by example,” he said. “I mean, if there’s a time in the dressing room where I feel I see something on the ice I’ll step up and say it, but I’m not the one to try to scream at the boys or anything like that. I’m more of a quiet guy, and step up and say something when necessary.”
Micheletto sees natural leadership qualities in Gracel based on his success as a player and his likeability. Although he doesn’t see him as a “true leader” yet, he does see Gracel as a potential candidate to wear the captain’s “C” on his chest next year.
Gracel was initially recruited while playing for Fort McMurray of the Alberta Junior Hockey League by UMass assistant coach Len Quesnelle while former coach Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon was still at the helm. He was offered a scholarship after Quesnelle watched a couple of his games, but Gracel delayed his visit until his team’s playoff run ended. After flying out and visiting the campus, he knew UMass was where he wanted to play.
Micheletto gladly inherited Gracel, and is convinced that as good as Gracel is right now, he still has plenty of room to grow. To Micheletto, this is the most exciting thing about Gracel.
“I don’t think that we’re seeing his ceiling right now,” Micheletto said. “I really think that this is only scratching the surface a little bit for Branden and what he can be.”
Gracel has made continuing to grow as a player one of his many goals for the last year and a half of his collegiate career, as well as the hope to lead the Minutemen to the Frozen Four in the next two seasons. He is also driven by his family, teammates and his own inner passion to be the best player that he can be.
And like many Canadian-born children who learn to skate shortly after learning to crawl, he is also driven by professional aspirations. This desire is most heavily influenced by his hopes to take advantage of the opportunity his older brother was never given. Because of that, Gracel doesn’t plan on his playing career coming to an end after next season.
“(Jason) likes to tell me that he lives through me,” Gracel said. “He likes to watch me play and he says just keep going so he can continue to live the dream with me.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.