As much as the stories pierced his heart, Mike Vecchione wanted to listen.
There he sat in the Schenectady YMCA, next to a war veteran a few days before Thanksgiving. After tours in Iraq, the gentleman had lost so much. His home gone due to foreclosure, his livelihood ripped out from underneath him, with the terror of war still fresh.
There wasn't much to be thankful for, but he had someone in Vecchione that night.
Not an NHL prospect or an NCAA national champion.
But just someone who cared.
"He went over there, back and forth, and next thing you know, he's out of his home and can't afford to pay for the necessities — and it's really sad," Vecchione said. "I feel like I've heard a couple of those stories where guys go over there and come back and kind of lost a lot of their lives. It's difficult to listen to and you can see he was kind of shaken up about the whole thing. He was talking about when he was over there, what he saw and it still kind of haunts him at night.
"I thought that was one of the tougher stories. He was only like in his mid-40s and seemed to be doing really well, and now he's just living day to day, trying to figure out a way to make a living. That was one story that stuck with me and I definitely hope he's doing OK."
This was one of four years, from 2013-17, in which Vecchione helped continue a growing tradition of the men's hockey program at Union College, a private liberal arts school in Schenectady, New York, located in the state's Capital District.
"It's one of the highlights of the year," Union head coach Rick Bennett said. "And you say that, you think highlights of the year, it revolves around hockey, but it's just the opposite."
This Tuesday marked the 13th consecutive year Union hockey has helped serve Thanksgiving meals to the less fortunate at the Schenectady branch of the Capital District YMCA, which houses war veterans, men with disabilities, mental illness and chemical addiction.
Vecchione, 24, now a Flyers prospect in his first season with the Phantoms after signing as a college free agent at the end of March, will always remember the people he met.
"Some guys can't handle those stories, other guys can, and I was one of the guys who were listening to them, talking to them," Vecchione said earlier this month in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. "Afterward, they just kind of say, 'We're very thankful for what you guys do here, to come here and talk to us, serve us and listen to us.' All the little things you don't really think about are biggest things for them, that they're most appreciated."
Rick Bennett and Mike Vecchione (Union College)
What has become a staple of the Union hockey season started before Vecchione's time and prior to Bennett becoming head coach.
It began with the teams of Nate Leaman, who is now in his seventh season at Providence. Bennett, who was an assistant under Leaman and has been Union's head man ever since his predecessor's departure, has pushed the annual event forward.
"First and foremost, we're just trying to help others. We're trying to help our community, and the lessons that we all learn — not just the players, our staff learns from it every time that we do it every year — of how fortunate that we are and how we can help others," Bennett said. "When you do things in your community, to really help others, it's a good feeling. We're fortunate enough to be on the coaching staff here at Union College and our players are lucky to be student athletes at Union College. Some of these people that we're serving actually have come to our hockey games. They actually know some about the program, which is really impressive."
But, as Bennett and Vecchione will tell you, the credit goes to the Schenectady YMCA.
Union hockey is happy to lend a hand and add to the night.
"There's really not much that goes into it," Vecchione said. "The YMCA does a great job setting everything up with the food services and that sort of thing."
Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere took part during his three years at Union (2011-14) and is proud of what the community outreach has become.
"It's Schenectady, it's not the biggest place, so it's definitely cool," he said. "A lot of people, even though they don't have the best in the world, they find a way to put a smile on every day.
"It's the holiday season, some people aren't fortunate enough to be with their friends and family and whatnot. For us to be together, spend it with some people that are less fortunate, I think it's awesome. Puts everything in perspective for your life, to realize how lucky you are."
Over time, Union and the Schenectady YMCA formed a special bond with one common goal around Thanksgiving. Lou Magliocca, the executive director of housing for the Capital District YMCA, is a leader in coordinating the event and deeply appreciates the realness of Union hockey. The men's and women's programs are the school's only Division I sports, while the rest compete at the Division III level.
The institution of 2,200 undergraduate students hit the national map in 2014 — Vecchione's freshman year — when the men's hockey team captured its first-ever NCAA championship.
Magliocca, however, was blown away the following season.
"I thought it would be over with when they won the title, I thought I wouldn't see them again, you know? Now they're real big," he said. "Matter of fact, Coach called us and he said, 'Do you know the date of your Thanksgiving?'
"It's amazing. It's absolutely amazing."
Union hockey at Schenectady YMCA (Union Athletics)
To make each year possible, Magliocca said the YMCA receives donations from various businesses within the community to help provide the food.
The dinner is then prepared in the YMCA's kitchen and served from 4-7 p.m., typically on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving Day. Magliocca has been with the YMCA for nearly 17 years and fondly looks back on how it started with Union.
"Their athletic programs do some great volunteer work in the community," he said. "They've made it a mainstay that they all give back to something in the community.
"So what the Union hockey team did, we started to put together a Thanksgiving dinner. And what we did during the Thanksgiving dinner is we gave thanks to the guys that live here, they can invite a family member over, they can invite a friend over, that type of thing.
"Of the 188 that live here, we usually serve around 220, 225. Some don't have families, some do."
Magliocca said Union hockey works all three hours in numerous roles. Some are stationed in the back preparing the plates and drinks, while others hustle out the food and provide the dinner conversation.
"All the guys, great attendance, all the guys come, they mingle with homeless veterans here in Schenectady County," Magliocca said. "It's turned out to be a great event, a great partnership between the YMCA and Union College, where it's kind of grown with steam every year.
"It's just been a really good relationship, real good time and a real purposeful event serving the individuals here at our program."
And a person like Vecchione brightened the days of those individuals.
"What Union hockey adds to it, it adds a smile to their face," Magliocca said. "The conversation that they don't normally have."
Union hockey this year at Schenectady YMCA (Ross LaDue, Union Athletics)
It's no surprise such an effort and setting is right up Vecchione's alley.
The Saugus, Massachusetts, native comes from a family of work ethic and respect, values that have shaped him on and off the ice. His father, Joe, is a correctional officer and his mother, Diane, works as a billing assistant for a fence company.
Growing up, Vecchione learned the importance of hard work — nothing being given to you.
During his college summers, instead of focusing only on hockey — a sport that has earned him all sorts of accolades and now a professional career — Vecchione worked manual-labor type of jobs, from construction to building fences, to landscaping and roofing.
His daily routine consisted of waking up at 7:30 a.m., working out for two hours, skating for another two, before heading off to the day's job from 2-6 p.m.
Then doing it all over again.
"I did all those blue-collar jobs while I was home for the summer," Vecchione said. "It was something that's been instilled in my family — you've got to work to make a living. So I had to find a way to make some money and have a job. It definitely taught me some good lessons."
The drive and grind turned the 5-foot-10 Vecchione into a four-year college standout at Union, where he put up a program record 176 points, won the national championship in 2014 and was named a 2017 Hobey Baker Award (top college player) finalist.
The accomplishments weren't a product of pure talent.
"Family sacrifices growing up are a huge part of it," Bennett said. "It always starts at home; as we say, it starts at the kitchen table.
"[His parents] did it the right way."
The right way is a major reason why Vecchione took Thanksgiving at the YMCA to heart.
"Talking to some of the people, and there were some of them that sounded like they didn't really celebrate Thanksgiving because they couldn't afford it or they were alone on Thanksgiving," Vecchione said. "It's kind of a time to be around friends and family, whoever, but in this case, we were their family. Stand and kneel with them, hanging out, having some laughs, telling stories.
"You wouldn't think they would care too much about those little things that we take for granted, but at the same time, it can be a lonely world, a tough world, and these people have to go through with it every day. And we don't even think about those things. For us just to be there, have fun, listen to them and just kind of share this holiday, it was something they really appreciated and we didn't even think it was a big deal. It was very rewarding and I definitely always love to do that for those people."
Mike Vecchione (Union Athletics)
It was more than about simply showing up.
As a team captain his junior and senior years, Vecchione, humble and unassuming, wanted things done right when representing Union at the YMCA.
Just like it was for the war veterans, this meant something to Vecchione.
"They absolutely love it," Vecchione said. "The people that we serve are very generous and just very thankful that we go out there and support them and help them."
Bennett knew his team was in good hands with Vecchione. In this instance, the coach was not there to bark orders. He was there to listen to his leader.
"He was a two-year captain here, so let's just say we never had an issue at the YMCA with our team when Mike was running the show," Bennett said.
"I'm usually with our staff in the back with a couple players getting the plates ready. I think that's where Mike said that I belong, so I was just following his orders.
"He said, 'You know what Rick, you just get the back, keep it quiet and just make sure the food is out here so I can serve it.'"
Vecchione deflected the attention away from the importance of his role.
"My job really was to make sure everybody's there, dressed appropriately and we're on time. And just delegate jobs to guys, need people to refill the water and the juice, guys in the kitchen, putting things together, servers, that sort of thing. We have the easy part," Vecchione said. "For me, I just delegated jobs, figure out what guys like to do. Some guys are more comfortable in the kitchen, where other guys are more social and can listen to those stories. So you kind of get a feel for what guys are willing to do and give them the job that best suits them."
Vecchione knew he wanted to listen.
"Just give them an ear to lean on," he said. "I definitely don't forget about those people when Thanksgiving comes around."
They were thankful for Vecchione.
But a guy like him was thankful for the opportunity.