From rivals to roommates to Rangers, Vinni Lettieri and Neal Pionk have had a most interesting hockey relationship.
“I’ve been rivals with him for a long time growing up. Playing against him, he wasn’t really my favorite player out there,” Lettieri told NYRangers.com Thursday. “Me and him got into it.”
The rivalry between the two dates back more than a decade when they’d face off for rival youth hockey teams back home in Minnesota. They’d meet in the United States Hockey League before rekindling that rivalry in college when Lettieri’s University of Minnesota would battle Pionk’s University of Minnesota Duluth.
“I feel like I’ve known him my whole life, but I haven’t,” Pionk said with a laugh. “I just played against him. It’s been good.”
As fate would have it, these two Minnesota boys eventually wound up under the same roof – literally – after both signed with the Rangers last spring as college free agents, eventually fostering a friendship and becoming roommates as both embarked on their pro careers with Hartford in the American Hockey League.
Was there ever a friendship there as opponents in Minnesota?
“No,” Lettieri deadpanned before laughing. “He was one of those guys where you just play against him your whole life. The teams are rivals so you don’t really have friends on the other team unless you personally know someone. I’ve never been on the same side with him until this year. He’s a great guy and I’m happy to be with him.”
Lettieri signed in New York first, with Pionk inking his deal a few months later in May. When Lettieri heard Pionk was coming to the organization, he was unsure how to extend the olive branch and call a spade a spade, but it was the right decision. After all, they were now teammates.
“When I heard the news that he was possibly signing with the Rangers a little bit after me, I was just thinking that this could be kind of awkward to reach out to him for the first time,” he said with a smile. “After that, I was happy with the way things have been going with him. It’s fun being his roommate.”
“It’s awesome. I’ll be honest, he’s taught me to cook a lot of good things,” Pionk said. “He’s a good cook who has a lot of good ideas. I’ve learned a few things that I’ve picked up myself.”
The relationship certainly has its positives on the ice as well. Lettieri raved about Pionk’s game, which he said is balanced in both ends. Lettieri said Pionk, who stands 6-foot and weighs 190 pounds, is great at using his smaller frame against players often bigger than him in the defense zone.
“For his size, he’s a really aggressive player,” Lettieri said of Pionk. “A great stick on puck guy. When you’re that size in pro hockey, you’ve got to be really good with your stick and your skates because there’s really big players out there that can just blow by you if you’re not in the right position.”
Pionk said it took him a little while to get adjusted to the pro game, both on and off the ice. After playing games on the weekend and practicing during the week in college, he’s had to adjust to a longer schedule and more of a grind in terms of travel in the AHL.
But now midway through the season, the 22-year-old said he’s finding his groove and feeling more comfortable in his own skates.
“What’s been progressing for me is my defensive play first and foremost, and then once I get confidence with the puck halfway through the year, I got a little more confidence and I’ve felt I’ve been playing my game lately.”
General Manager Jeff Gorton’s public desire of getting the Rangers younger has opened opportunities up for many players in the organization to show management they can be part of the foundation that builds towards a Stanley Cup. Pionk knows the importance of the opportunity he’s being given starting Friday night.
“Any time you come up it’s a chance to prove yourself, a chance to prove that you belong and a chance to prove you belong here for a long time,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
He’s an unbelievable player and even better person. I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s a good enough player [to play in the NHL]. Just like any player around the League, you just have to give him a chance. I’m confident that he’s going to run with it and I’m just really excited for him.”
He’ll have his former rival and current friend there to help him in the move from the AHL to the NHL. A relationship that started on different sides of the red line is now one benefitting both as they look to establish themselves at the highest level of the sport.
“He’s an unbelievable player and even better person,” Lettieri said of Pionk. “I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s a good enough player [to play in the NHL]. Just like any player around the League, you just have to give him a chance. I’m confident that he’s going to run with it and I’m just really excited for him.”