Rookie Kyle Criscuolo is looking to differentiate himself not only as a player but also as a person.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Kyle Criscuolo is not your typical hockey player. At 5-foot-9, he is a less-than-imposing figure on the ice, but he is able to stand tall for what he has accomplished thus far.
At Harvard, he was the first junior to serve as captain since 1945 then became the school’s first two-time captain in 92 years as a senior. His Crimson teammates honored him every single year of his collegiate career with the coveted Ralph “Cooney” Weiland Award for his devotion to the game, aggressive and spirited play, and selfless contribution to the total team effort.
Criscuolo was also one of five finalists for the 2016 Hockey Humanitarian Award, presented to college hockey’s finest citizen, the student-athlete “who makes significant contributions not only to his team but also to the community-at-large through leadership in volunteerism.”
When the New Jersey native was signed to a Griffins contract for the 2016-17 season, there was little question that the Detroit Red Wings organization was getting a person of high caliber.
“Sometimes people focus on what he didn’t have and maybe he didn’t have the greatest size, but his compete level, his heart, his speed and skill allowed him to be an impact guy from the day he set foot on campus,” Harvard head coach Ted Donato told USA Today. “His character, his commitment to the team, and his ability to really work has literally been the recipe for his success.”
Criscuolo’s love of the game comes from his father, Bob, who coached him during his formative years. “Work hard, be a good leader and play for the team” was his mantra.
“I liked doing the work and I was a bit of a perfectionist,” Criscuolo said. “I think my mom is the one who helped push me that way. She’s very organized and she was always on top of everything. Running around, taking us places, she was always doing a million different things. I wanted to do things right, and if I didn’t get something right, I was hard on myself.”
Criscuolo excelled in school. He was a three-time member of the principal’s list at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia, then a two-time member of the dean’s list at Choate Rosemary Hall prep school in Connecticut.
He really came into his own at Choate, the prestigious, private boarding school whose alumni include President John F. Kennedy, two-time presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, playwright Edward Albee, philanthropist Paul Mellon, and actors Glenn Close, Michael Douglas, Jamie Lee Curtis and Paul Giamatti, among others.
“Obviously, it was hard to leave all my friends at St. Joe,” he said. “But I knew I wanted to go to a school that would challenge me even further while allowing me the opportunity to play hockey at the highest level. The decision to attend boarding school definitely prepared me for college.”
The high academic ideals at Choate were bolstered by a student-faculty ratio of 6:1. “With only six or seven students in a class, you couldn’t just sit in the back,” Criscuolo said. “You had to engage with your teacher and your classmates, so the education was more conversationally based.”
English literature classes had him reading 30-40 pages every night. At Choate, classroom discussions were compulsory. Math classes could be especially tough. Not every course, however, was so taxing.
“Woodshop was one of my more memorable but less intense courses,” he said. “We made props for plays in the theatre. At the end of the course, we could build whatever we wanted, so a bunch of us made a Stanley Cup out of wood. It was pretty good, actually. One of the guys still has it.”
Before enrolling at Harvard, Criscuolo played a year of hockey in the USHL with the Sioux City Musketeers. “I thought I needed an extra year, and it was a great experience,” he said. “I felt the hockey would be better and the overall experience would be more worldly than if I just stayed on the East Coast.”
As a freshman at Harvard, he quickly established himself as a key contributor. He scored his first collegiate points with a goal and an assist against Brown. He scored Harvard’s lone goal against Yale. He tied the game in the third period of an eventual upset of No. 1 Quinnipiac and assisted on the game-winning goal in the first game of a playoff series against Dartmouth.
Even so, he felt he could do more.
“As a freshman, I didn’t know what to expect and we didn’t have a great season,” he said. “Halfway through the year, guys were demoralized. Going to the rink wasn’t fun. The next season was another down year. But that’s when guys started to come together.”
The team brought in an ex-Navy SEAL to rally the troops. Criscuolo and his teammates read Legacy, best-selling author James Kerr’s book on the All Blacks, the legendary rugby team of New Zealand. They jotted down their impressions in personal diaries.
“We took a lot of the lessons in the book to heart,” he said. “Be humble. Whether you win or lose, you ‘sweep the sheds.’ Everyone is equal. Cohesion is one of the most important characteristics of a championship team.”
There were also themes of sacrifice, staying grounded and a desire to “leave the jersey in a better place.” Being a role model, the book suggests, requires a sense of higher purpose. In essence, “better people make better All Blacks.”
“We decided that better people would make better Harvard hockey players,” he said. “As the team captain, I helped lead the charge in terms of making sure we had a number of community service events.”
Whether it was volunteering with Special Olympics, doing work at a local homeless shelter or teaching hockey to children through the local Boys & Girls Club, Criscuolo and his Crimson teammates embraced the challenge of making a difference.
He credits his family, specifically his paternal grandmother, with teaching him the value of doing good for others. “She’s very religious and she’s always volunteering her time, whether it’s at church or soup kitchens. She’s always writing checks to different charitable organizations.”
Criscuolo, who majored in psychology while minoring in economics at Harvard, approached every opportunity with the same gusto. While he was building character, he was improving as a hockey player. Harvard made two straight NCAA tournament appearances under his leadership.
“The ECAC is a very low-scoring league and any mistake you make ends up in the back of your net. It pushed me to work the whole 200 feet,” he said. “College helped prepare me to play more defensively, so I learned to play both ends of the ice.”
After the “best four years of my life,” Criscuolo signed with the Griffins and was able to see action in four games at the end of last season. “That experience was invaluable, because it allowed me to see how the game is played at this level and showed me what I needed to work on during the summer,” he said.
Criscuolo made a good impression during the Red Wings’ summer development camp then played on a line with Tyler Bertuzzi and Evgeny Svechnikov during the NHL prospects tournament in September. Attending the Red Wings’ fall training camp was another positive.
“Playing with some of the best players in the world is something you dream about,” he said. “Being able to bond with the other younger guys and develop some chemistry with them before coming here was a huge help.”
Criscuolo tallied six points (2 goals, 4 assists) in his first 12 games this season, and while he has displayed flashes of his speed and hockey IQ, he knows that he must be more consistent. “It’s a process,” he said. “It’s a long season and you need to improve a little bit every day.”
So it’s no surprise when he is the last one off the ice after practice. “You have to prove yourself and try to differentiate yourself from the guys who have been around,” he said. “You do it by working harder and you do it every game and every shift.”
And that’s one lesson that Criscuolo believes bears repeating.