Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Out of frying pan, into NHL fire

Vinny Ferraiuolo will be on the bench this afternoon, watching for broken sticks. That's an important job. These are the Stanley Cup playoffs, after all, and a broken stick could lead to some broken hearts in San Jose if Vinny doesn't send the right replacement over the boards fast.

Game day requires quick thinking, but much of Vinny's job centers around meticulous organization. Those uniforms the Sharks will be wearing today? At some point, Vinny's probably customized them. Or maybe he sharpened the skates of the left winger just so. He's cleaned the players' visors, laid out their socks and adjusted their pads to meet individual demands.

"There's tons of little things throughout the day that keep us busy," he says.

Vinny is the assistant equipment manager for the San Jose Sharks, who face Vancouver at 3 p.m. today in the Western Conference finals. This is his first season in the NHL. He's 33 years old, a 1997 William Bryd graduate, and there's nothing he'd rather be doing. Hockey is basically all Vinny's known since he was a little kid growing up in Vinton, following his father's passion.

Hockey fans in the Roanoke Valley surely remember his dad. George Ferraiuolo was one of the area's most ardent fans of the sport. Back in the old Lancerlot Days, he was the guy sitting in the third level banging a frying pan with a large spoon, trying to rally the crowd.

"He beat the tar out of that thing," Vinny said with a chuckle Friday, a few hours before his Sharks beat the Canucks in Game 3 to close the series deficit to 2-1. "I don't know how many frying pans he went through. He would bang it so hard that the inside would start to bend; he'd have to flip it around and hit it from the other way."

The frying pan was appropriate, because George ran the third-floor restaurant at the Lancerlot. He also owned Georjoe's Seafood and Sub Shop in Vinton for 15 years until it closed in 2001. Through his generosity, he developed a close relationship with many of the minor league players who came through town.

George died March 21 at age 75 after a long battle with Alzheimer's and dementia, but his hockey legacy lives on both in Vinny and in the memories of the former players.

"George took care of all of us," said Steve Doll, a defenseman for the Virginia Lancers in 1984-85. "If we didn't have enough money, he'd always do a tab. Next time we'd come in, the tabs would be gone. They'd disappear."

George grew tight with team owner Henry Brabham, and that created opportunities for Vinny, who began playing hockey at age 7. By 11, he was working for the team as a "stick boy," tending to many of the everyday needs of the players.

"Whatever he could do to be around us was what he did," Doll said. "He was always helping with the equipment, helping do laundry. I remember after games he'd always be skating around with the lights out. Him and a couple of the other little kids would be out there skating in the dark."

Vinny gravitated toward goaltending, so the players took advantage of that by using the boy as target practice.

"I loved being at the rink," Vinny said. "If I had a soccer game, I'd go straight from soccer to the rink and be there until the wee hours of the morning, waiting until the old man closed the restaurant down and was ready to go home. It just kind of started out with that."

His responsibilities grew each year until one day, when Vinny was 14, Roanoke Valley Rebels coach Roy Sommer fired the team's equipment manager right before a seven-day road trip -- and handed the job to Vinny.

"He was like, 'Well, you're already doing everything as it is. I've already warned the guy. He's done. You're going to do everything,' " Vinny said. "So I was 14 years old taking sutures out, taking stitches out of guys, taping wrists and sharpening skates."

Though he got a job with the East Coast Hockey League's Wheeling (W.Va.) Nailers right out of high school, Vinny's journey from Vinton to San Jose hasn't always been easy. He bounced around several minor league teams before landing a position with San Jose's American Hockey League affiliate, the Worcester (Mass.) Sharks.

He spent five seasons there. The coach was (and still is) none other than Sommer, the man who gave him his teenage trial by fire.

San Jose, which likes to hire from within, gave him his first NHL opportunity this season.

"It's a small world, a small industry," Vinny said. "Everybody knows everybody. So it's good to have connections, and for me, those connections went all the way back to when I was 14 years old.

"It was just really fortunate that we had that relationship with Henry. He almost let us do pretty much anything. We had free ice time. Any time we wanted to go out there and skate, it was available for us."

While Vinny will be watching for broken sticks today, he wasn't always behind the scenes. One day, while serving as the equipment manager for Wheeling early in his career, coach Peter Laviolette -- now the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers -- threw him in as a goalie for the final 3 12 minutes of a game against Richmond.

It's all right there in the official box score. Vinny saw two shots on goal. He saved them both.

That frying pan would have never known what hit it.

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