UMass hockey player Branden Gracel is one person who took this week's frigid weather in stride. After all, the thermometer was at minus-9 degrees midweek outside Thickwood Heights Arena back in Fort McMurray, Alberta, where the junior center played before arriving at the Mullin Center in Amherst.
"That was the coldest place I've probably been in," Gracel said about the northern Canadian outpost. "I remember getting out of my warm truck to fill it up with gas and by the time I finished the truck was cold again."
During his final season in the AJHL with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, college recruiters began migrating north, especially after he scored 38 goals and added 56 assists in 58 games. Gracel was contacted by North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota-Duluth, Boston University, the two Division 1 universities in Alaska, Fairbanks and Anchorage, and he made his lone official visit to Nebraska-Omaha before he settled on attending UMass.
"I decided to come (to UMass) because the opportunity to play as a freshman was a big thing for me and having such a big freshman class the year I came in, I knew I was going to have opportunities to play, as well," said Gracel. "I had a really good offer here and they wanted me to come in that next year instead of playing another year of juniors."
These days, it is opposing Hockey East goaltenders who are feeling the big chill whenever the puck lands on the clever skater's stick. Twice this season, Gracel has been named Player of the Week by Hockey East. The most recent accolade, which he shared with Boston College senior Steve Whitney, came after he powered UMass to a 5-2 victory over second-ranked BC, the first win by the Minutemen at Kelley Rink in 13 tries dating back to Nov. 17, 2007. Gracel notched two goals and an assist. The goals and three points equaled his single-game best.