Chris Gragnano trains professionals at Darien Ice Rink
Published 2:24 pm, Wednesday, August 23, 2017
DARIEN-- Nuzzled into the quiet northeast corner of the country, Connecticut isn’t exactly known as a hotbed for professional hockey.
But, on the modest ice of the Darien Ice Rink, a group of college athletes, budding professionals and established NHL stars train for the impending season.
Standing in the middle of those skaters, quietly giving direction and setting up drills is Chris Gragnano. Of average build, wearing a baseball cap and sporting a thick beard, Gragnano—who the players refer to as Grags—looks on, having established himself as one of the premier talent developers in the country.
“It’s a great hockey environment,” said Gragnano, who credited Ben Prentiss and his academy in Stamford with creating interest in the area. “...(the youth team sharing the ice) today are on the same sheet as big time NHLers. The kids can come to the different rinks and watch these guys play. A lot of us weren’t afforded that growing up, this isn’t Toronto or Minnesota where there’s dozens of these guys, these guys come from all over the place to train and we’re very fortunate.”
The biggest name on the ice Monday afternoon was the two-time Stanley Cup champion and Vezina Trophy finalist squatting in net.
Jonathan Quick, who grew up in Connecticut, hooked on with Gragnano when he was looking for a place near home to face live shots in the offseason.
“It’s good to come back every year and see family and friends,” Quick said. “Being in L.A. during the year, it’s tough to see everybody, so it’s good to get back. I always am looking for shots, a lot of guys skate with him and they’re always looking for goalies, I need the shots, so wherever there’s ice I try to take advantage…Chris runs some good drills for these guys and I’m lucky enough to be a part of it.”
Gragnano grew up in New Jersey and played collegiately for Rhode Island. While in college, he opted to leave the program to pursue hockey at the junior level, but returned to URI to finish his degree.
Once graduated, Gragnano moved to Stamford to work for the NFL Network and started coaching part-time. That part-time gig turned into a full-time job coaching youth hockey, before moving on to the higher levels.
“I just felt like it was a carousel I couldn’t get off,” Gragnano said of his time focusing on the youth level. “And when I started focusing on just skill-training and small groups and lessons it started to balloon into something different.”
Now, Gragnano instructs all ages, which can be tricky in terms of varying his level of involvement from age group to age group, but he seems to have found the sweet-spot.
“On some days there’s the same amount of instruction and on some days it’s a vastly different amount for kids and pros alike,” Gragnano said. “Sometimes you have to let them go and make their own mistakes and find their way through whatever the drill and the situation is. By the time they’re professionals, they have their own way of doing things, you don’t want to over-coach them; with kids you can be more nit-picky, but there’s a fine line of over-talking and over-coaching versus letting them get the reps and get the feel of it for themselves.”
Monday’s group featured professionals like Quick and All-Star James Neal, but also minor-league players hoping to one day make the jump, like Craig Wyszomirski, who is going into his second year with the Manchester Monarchs of the ECHL.
“It’s a lot of competition, it pushes you to be your best self and shows you that you’re not too far away from the big leagues,” Wyszomirski said. “Even the guys at the NHL level are still working on the little things, and you see the work and the effort you put in, so it’s motivation to keep working hard.”
Those little things are what Gragnano has made a career off of. The two magic words used by Gragnano and the skaters are “skill development.’
His focus on developing and finetuning players’ techniques is what has made him so sought-after as a trainer.
“There’s a ton of things I’ve brought to him that I want to work on and he’s always got a drill or exercise for it,” Wyszomirski said. “He’s been really flexible and has been a great coach.”
Gragnano and others around the Darien Ice Rink have lovingly started referring to the facility as “The Loft.”
It’s fitting, given its quant, cozy, off-the-beaten-path confines, and, for Christopher Brown, it’s home.
Brown, a rising junior at Boston College has been going to the Darien Ice Rink since he was a kid, either watching his father in the men’s league or training with his older brother Pat. Now, his home ice is a way to train in a way few college athletes have the luxury of.
“It’s a great learning curve,” Brown said. “You really have to step up your game out there. Obviously, Jonathan Quick is an All-World goalie, so shooting on him, it’s rare that you score.”
While it may be deflating now watching Quick harmlessly snag shots out of the air, Brown expects to reap the benefits in his next step.
“I’m hoping it helps my adjustment period, if-and-when I turn pro,” Brown said. “I definitely think it’s big for the long run.”
Gragnano also runs his sessions out of Terry Conners Rink and Chelsea Piers in Stamford, and professionals like Cam Atkinson and Max Pacioretty, amongst others, have participated this summer.
Kevin Shattenkirk, a defenseman who hails from New Rochelle and played at Brunswick High School in Greenwich, made a splash this offseason when he opted to return home—signing a four year, $26.6 million contract to play with the New York Rangers.
“Obviously, coming home to play is extremely special to me,” Shattenkirk said. “I dreamed it as a kid, and to have that come to reality is something I never thought would happen.”
In preparation for that homecoming, Shattenkirk has trained locally with Gragnano, building a rapport with teammates like Chris Kreider—another Gragnano client.
“The best part about it, is being able to skate and train close to home all summer with old friends from the area and even some new teammates,” Shattenkirk said. “Chris Kreider and I skate with Grags during the summer and love having him as another tool to get us ready for the season.”