TEWKSBURY – It's pretty difficult to find a person like Derek Petti. Incredibly grounded and humbled, he has and is always so appreciative of his family and friends, and in athletics, his teams, coaches, teammates and the opportunities given to him, especially in the sport of hockey.
As an athlete, it's also very difficult to come across someone like Petti. On the ice, he has the size, the strength, the skating and shooting ability, which has taken him from the youth level here in town, all the way to four games at the professional level in the ECHL.
In a span of this decade, in hockey, Petti was a key figure in the Tewksbury Memorial High School team's Division 2 state championship title in 2011. When he finished out his career, his 130 points still ranks him in the top five all-time in program history.
He left TMHS and went to play junior hockey, compiling 187 points in two seasons, before taking a full athletic scholarship to play in the toughest and best collegiate conference in the entire country, Hockey East as a member of the Merrimack College Warriors. He played four years, served as an alternate captain this past season and had a sensational career.
It's believed that in the past 25 years, he is one of three Tewksbury residents to play in Hockey East joining goalie Mike Correia, who played at Boston College in the mid 1990s, and then Patrick Cullity, who played at University of Vermont, before a long minor league career in both the ECHL and several stops at the AHL.
Petti also had a respectable career with the TMHS Golf team, playing as the team's No. 4 player during his junior and senior years.
When the Town Crier compiled its list for Athlete of the Decade possibilities, it was extremely long with so many multi-sport athletes, who had truly amazing high school and collegiate careers. Petti finished with five first place votes and scored 87 out of a possible 100 points from our ten-person panel.
Back in 2012, Petti was chosen as the Town Crier's Male Athlete of the Year. Ron Drouin at the time was the co-coach of the golf program and had this to say about Petti.
"I had Derek when he was a sixth grade student (in physical education class) and he was advanced athletically then. He never ‘big-timed’ anyone and he hasn't changed. He has been a pleasure to have in the golf program. He works hard, he competes and is a tremendous teammate. He was a very consistent scorer for us his last the last three years and he has made a difference in our program. He comes from a solid family. There’s no doubt in my mind that he will be successful at wherever he decides to go to school."
TEEING OFF WITH SOME FUN
Back in his high school days, Petti was a member of the TMHS Golf team. During his senior year, the Redmen had their best season in 20 years at the time finishing at 12-5-1 overall with a 9-3-1 mark in the Merrimack Valley Conference. The team finished second in the small school, but had some big wins over Andover, North Andover, Chelmsford and Lowell. He was named a league all-star that senior season and qualified and played in the Division 2 North Sectionals, having a disappointing score of 97.
Now seven years later, he was asked about his golf game and what he remembers from those high school teams.
"I still get out on the course whenever I can," he said. "And everytime I hit the ball, I think I'm Tiger Woods but I never hit it straight like he does. During the summer, I try to get out with my friends and have a good time. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how you do, as long as you are having fun with it."
If you ask Petti, it's hard to come up with two better people and coaches than Drouin and Jim Sullivan.
"Those guys were great and I'm really hoping to see them and catch up with them soon," he said. "Those are two guys who just really made the fall season so much fun. Normally, those fall teams are very serious, but those guys allowed you to have fun, relax and play some golf. They are both just great guys, who I really enjoyed playing for and can't wait to catch up with them."
Sullivan said that he like everyone else knew at the time that golf was not Petti's top sport, but his commitment and demeanor was the same as it was on the ice.
"It was not a secret that Derek was a hockey player first and foremost," said Sullivan. "Our teams those years consisted of several hockey players and had a really tight bond with one another. Derek was a tremendous competitor on the golf course where he teamed up with Pat Doherty for two years for Coach Drouin and I and they were dubbed Batman and Robin as they played so well together and we’re very successful for us.
"Derek was well aware of what his strengths were on the golf team. Along with his partner, he went out every day, both in practice and matches and gave us a chance to win in the four spot, along with working alongside Patrick to pull out some big four-ball team victories as well. Derek showed the same commitment to our golf team as he did the hockey team and was a fantastic person to be around and root for both on the golf course and ice rink."
Petti made the TMHS Varsity Hockey team as a sophomore during the 2010-'11 season. One member of the team was his oldest brother Mark, who was a senior at the time. During that season, Derek finished with 33 points, an impressive stat, but the most impressive stat or accomplishment, was the fact that he was a part of the TMHS Division 2 state championship team. The Redmen finished 19-5-1 on the season, the 19th win coming in as dramatic of a moment as you'll ever find, an overtime goal by Mark Petti, which lifted Tewksbury past Franklin, 2-1, at the TD Garden Ice.
"I remember that moment as if it was yesterday," said Derek. "I'm not sure that we were supposed to win that game. Being at the Garden, playing in front of the entire town and playing against a very good Franklin team, it was just such a good outing all-around. We were fortunate enough to win it on the same ice as the Bruins play and that's so special and not everyone can say that.
"I was fortunate to have the opportunity to play with two (of my three) brothers and not everyone can say that either. Mark scored the game winner in the North Final, so it was fitting that he got the game winner in the state championship game. He was in the right place at the right time. That goal, that win, that season, we still talk about to this day. It was such a cool experience, and that group of players we had were just so connected and that's why we won."
While Mark ended up graduating, Derek was then able to play his next two years with Ryan. During the 2011-'12 season, Derek finished with 28 goals and Ryan, as a freshman, finished with 14 points. Tewksbury qualified for the state tournament but lost in the first round to Winthrop, a game in which Derek broke his wrist.
Derek and Ryan would play one more season together before Derek graduated and went on to play two years with the Middlesex Black Bears, and Ryan went on to break Coach Derek Doherty's scoring record at TMHS. Ryan is now in his senior year playing at Connecticut College. Their youngest brother Justin just finished out his career at TMHS this past winter.
"It was pretty special to be able to play with Ryan as well," said Derek. "As I'm talking to (the Town Crier) now, I'm watching him play for Connecticut and I have another TV on the Merrimack game. Hockey's been such a big part of my life and our family's life. For me, the game will always be a part of my life."
During his career at TMHS, Derek was named a three-time MVC/DCL All-Conference selection, was named the MVC/DCL Player of the Year as a senior, was named a two-time Lowell Sun Player of the Year and was named a two-time Boston Globe and Boston Herald All-Scholastic.
In his three years, the team finished with a combined record of 45-14-6, won two conference championship titles and one state title.
“Skill-wise Derek has it all,” said Derek Doherty, when he was interviewed for Petti's Athlete of the Year story in 2012. “He’s 6-feet-2 inches and he has a good shot from the left side. He can shoot the puck hard. After high school, he’s going to have a career. We’ve been talking to some teams already. He’ll probably have to go and play a year of prep school but we’ll see what happens. Talent wise, he’s right up there.”
Petti said that he remains very close with Coach Doherty and said that he's been a major influence in his life as a person, friend and coach. He added that he's extremely proud to have played in such an elite high school program.
"Playing at Tewksbury was such an amazing experience," said Petti. "I was able to play with two of my brothers Mark and Ryan, I was able to play with some of my best friends from my days at the youth level and once we got up to the high school team, they all wanted to continue to play at that (championship caliber) level. I'm forever grateful and so lucky to have that experience at Tewksbury. That ride helped me get to my path even further, and that will always, always stay with me.
"Coach Doherty is such a great coach. I have stayed in touch with him ever since I left the program and he has done so much for me. To play for him, to win a state championship with my older brother, all of it was just such an unbelievable experience. I'm so grateful to all of the people who were a part of my career at Tewksbury."
LIVING OUT A DREAM
After graduating from TMHS, Petti decided to play junior hockey, suiting up for the Middlesex Black Bears. In two years, he scored 97 goals and added 89 assists for 187 points, and those totals broke program records. His ability to find the back of the net was one of the reasons why then Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy came knocking on Petti's door.
“We're excited that (Petti's) a part of this program and he's a great story,” said Dennehy to this reporter after Petti combined for five points in a win over Arizona State during his freshman season of 2015-'16. “Think about it, he's a public school kid, who goes to play for the Middlesex Black Bears and whoever heard of the Middlesex Black Bears? I know I didn't until I saw the video (on him) and I'm happy for him. But he can't be satisfied. He can't be satisfied just to be here and he can't be satisfied with a good night. He knows that he has to keep working to get better. He's a super kid and I'm glad that he's a part of our program.”
That game over Arizona State, Petti scored his first collegiate goal.
“To be honest, I'm surprised it has taken him this long (to score) because he's been excellent in practice,” said Dennehy in the same interview. “He might score more goals in practice than anyone else on our team. That's why he keeps getting in the line-up every night because he does some pretty special things and does things that are very tough to teach.”
Petti played for Dennehy the following two years before the coach was let go, but soon found another job but this time in professional hockey.
"I played the two years with the Black Bears and it wasn't the best hockey or league, but playing there grabbed the attention of Coach Dennehy, who I'm forever grateful for allowing me to live out my lifetime dream of playing Division 1 college hockey," said Petti. "It also wouldn't have happened without my other coaches along the way, (Assistants at Merrimack) Coach (Curtis) Carr and Coach (Bill) Gilligan and then Coach Scott Borek, who took over my senior year, and all of my teammates.
"During my four years there, I met so many great people and I experienced so much that I'll never forget. I was able to play the sport I love throughout the entire decade and play at a great Division 1 program and then go on to play four games as a pro. Not too many people can say they did that and I'm so grateful to have had that opportunity. My player agent Chris O'Donnell has also been a great supporter."
For his career, at Merrimack, Petti appeared in 127 games, logging 49 points on the strength of 20 goals and 29 assists. As a senior, he led the team with a 52.3 percentage rate on draws. He also factored in playing on the team's power play and at even strength, finishing the season with seven goals and eleven assists in just 28 games.
A DEVIL OF A TIME
Immediately after his career at Merrimack ended, Petti signed a contract to play for the New Jersey Devils Double-A team, if you will, the Adironack Thunder. He played four games at the professional level. During the summer, he resigned with the team on a one-year contract for this current season, but was let go, which as of now, puts an end to his illustrious career.
"I'll just being playing in the men's leagues and stuff like that," said Petti with a laugh. "It was a really hard decision. I did have a real good training camp with (the Thunder), they liked me and liked how I played, but it became a numbers problem. A number of guys from the AHL were sent down, so a bunch of guys were released. It was unfortunate to get released, but that experience is something that I'll be grateful for the rest of my life. I'm happy to have been able to play those four games, sign a pro contract and go back to the training camp."
Petti didn't score any goals or get any assists in his four professional games, but he certainly grabbed a lot of life points.
"I played in four games last year and then two pre-season games this year and had the time of my life," he said. "The guys on the team, the coaches were all incredible. Playing at Glen Falls was the best. If I could give any advice to any young player, it would be to play before the Glen Falls fans. Their fan base is so dedicated and it's just such a cool experience.
"The hockey in that league is really good and I don't think people realize that the ECHL is really a strong league. You have guys who start there and work their way up to the AHL with their main goal of playing in the NHL. The competition is very, very good, it's a real good league and just an experience I'll never forget."
While Derek joked that his playing days will consume now of adult hockey leagues, he pointed out that he will never forget where it started – at the youth level and in his own backyard. His father Mark would build a rink for his four boys every winter in his backyard, which then turned into countless number of practices, games, tournaments, etc., for Mark and his wife Donna to take Derek, as well as his three brothers.
"I honestly don't know how my parents did it," he said. "They have four boys and hockey is such a demanding sport and to put all four of us through it, the money, getting up at 5:30 am on a weekend to take us to practice or a game and all the support they have given each one of us, just says so much about them. They have always been there for us, watching us, supporting us and hockey is just a big part of our family. My mom says that we all got our skill from her, and we all know that's true. The two of them have just done so much for all of us."