For Tom Poti, it's always good to be home. The Worcester native dazzled in his schoolboy days, first as a seventh-grader at St. Peter-Marian High before transferring to Cushing Academy for his sophomore, junior and senior years. Poti then enjoyed a terrific career at Boston University, becoming the first defenseman in 18 years to win the Beanpot MVP when he did so in 1998 (no defenseman has won it since).
Since entering the National Hockey League with Edmonton in 1998, Poti has manned the blue line for several talented forwards, from Pavel Bure to Jaromir Jagr to Alexei Yashin. Since joining Washington before the 2007-08 season, he has watched Alex Ovechkin blossom into a superstar. The Caps were in town for a game with the Bruins last week, and Poti sat down with ESPNBoston.com for a few minutes following a morning skate to discuss life in Worcester, his idol Ray Bourque and his days as a "rink rat."
Q: First things first. You get a lot of grief for being a Yankees fan growing up?
A: "Oh yeah. (laughs) My buddies usually gave me a lot of [expletive] about it. It's all right because they usually win."
Q: You grew up near Lake Avenue and Buffone Rink. How did that proximity influence your attraction to hockey?
A: "I spent a lot of hours at that rink, skating around. Got to know the rink managers there pretty good. I was pretty much there any free time I had, skating, trying to find some ice."
Q: So are you comfortable with the term 'rink rat'?
A: "Definitely. Public skating, public hockey, whatever it was I was down there trying to squeeze on with somebody."
Q: You grew up in an era watching offensive defensemen like Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, Chris Chelios, et cetera, in their prime. How much did they influence your style?
A: "Oh yeah, hugely. I think Ray Bourque being the Boston guy, and watching the Bruins all the time, just watching him and being like him, emulate him, it was huge for me to be able to watch a guy like him play night in, night out. It obviously worked out pretty well."
Q: Tell us about your first Bruins game.
A: "I think I was 10 or 11 years old, my dad took me to the old Garden, saw a few games over my time. If we were able to go to one game a year, that was a pretty big treat."
Q: For this generation that never got to experience the old Garden, what was the experience like?
A: "It was awesome. You almost felt like you were a part of the game. You're right on top of the ice surface, the way the rafters kind of hung over, and I wish there were more rinks like that. It makes it more interactive for the fans."
Q: You first made the varsity as a seventh-grader at St. Peter-Marian. What kind of goals did you set for yourself then?
A: "I didn't really have any goals, I just kind of had fun playing the game. It was a lot of fun, I think I pretty much played all the varsity games, and a lot of the JV games too. It worked out good, I got to play quite a few games that year."
Q: What do you miss about those days, playing the MIAA schools?
A: "I guess it was different. All your friends get to come to the games and watch you play, you get to play with your friends, but it's a lot different now where there's a little bit more of a business aspect, whereas then it was just purely for fun, pleasure, just being with your buddies."
Q: How did your food allergies affect your development growing up? (Poti suffers allergies to chocolate, peanuts and sodium glutamate.)
A: "It hasn't affected me too much. The only thing I had a big struggle with was gaining weight. That's always been the hardest thing for me, to put on weight. I know people who are trying to lose weight will get mad at me for saying that (laughs). But my biggest battle has always been trying to gain weight, I've always been on the skinnier side, so it's always been kind of tough for me to gain weight and to keep it on."
Q: You played for two legendary local coaches, and I want to know what lessons from them you still hold with you. First, Steve Jacobs at Cushing Academy?
A: "A lot of good things. I'm still really close with him to this day, he's living down in Atlanta now, and he comes to the games when I'm down there. We go to dinner, hang out and stuff. Biggest thing I learned from him is just have fun doing what you do, you've got to love the game every day, just go out and give 100 percent. You know, he always had so much fun with us, he treated us like men. I think that was important for us at that age, to have that first coach who treated us like a man, and taught me a lot of life lessons -- not just, you know, on the rink, but off the rink as well."
Q: And how about Jack Parker at Boston University?
A: (laughs) "Little bit of a different animal than Coach Jacobs. Coach Parker taught me a lot of on-ice stuff, and that was one of the reasons I did end up going to BU was, you know, you've seen the track record of guys he's put in the pros, and I thought it would be really good for me to go and learn under him, I was always an offensive guy so to learn the game under him was really important to me. He taught me pretty much what I know today about playing defense, and he said my offense is going to get me there but my defense is going to keep me there. That was a good lesson learned by him, and I learned a lot about playing defense under him."
Q: What was your first professional game at the FleetCenter like?
A: "It was pretty cool. My rookie year [with Edmonton], we didn't come here, so I was pretty bummed about that. My second year, we came here once, I had a pinched nerve in my neck and I was questionable if I was going to play or not. But you know, there was no way I was missing that game. To play in front of my friends and family from home, and also the chance to play against Ray Bourque, was pretty special to me."
Q: How nervous were you when you saw Bourque across the ice?
A: "It was a little easier because we had played them earlier in the year at Edmonton, that was the first taste I got to play against him. It was pretty special to be able to ... a kid growing up watching every Bruins game for 10 years, to be able to go out there and play against your hockey idol, it was pretty cool."
Q: Was that a 'welcome to the NHL' moment for you?
A: "I think so, it definitely was, playing against him that first time and then playing him here. It was the FleetCenter at the time, or whatever it was called, pretty special."
Q: Coming back here every time now, is there still something special here?
A: "Oh yeah, definitely. It's always nice to play in your hometown, you get to see your buddies, see your friends, it breaks it up a little bit. You don't get to see your friends too often, my parents will come to the game, my sister, my nieces and nephews, it's pretty special to play at home. You get all of your buddies to come to the game and check you out, so it's always a fun event."
Q: What advice would you have for kids who would someday like to be in your shoes?
A: "It's possible. Anything's possible with enough hard work, determination and dedication, you can do anything."
Q: When you come back to Worcester, where do you hang out?
A: "My parents' house. They have a house two streets off Lake Ave. I live in Cape Cod now (in Sandwich), so I kind of hang out down there and everyone comes down to visit and hang out with us."
Q: What were the places to be seen growing up in Worcester?
A: "In Worcester? For me, it was the rink. Any free second I had, I was down at the Lake Ave. rink. I probably drove the rink managers crazy down there (laughs). I was pretty much always down there."