By Mike Meiler
Niagara Gazette — It's always been Vinny Merante's dream to play college hockey.
He just never imagined it'd turn out the way it has.
Merante, a Niagara Falls native who graduated from Niagara-Wheatfield, committed in June to Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, to play goaltender for the Golden Eagles in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport conference, Canada's version of Division I.
"It's very competitive," the 21-year-old said. "Teams in CIS will play D-1 teams in exhibitions before the seasons starts. Guys (who play there) get looked at to go pro or go to AHL and NHL camps."
"The quickest way to go pro is to play in the U.S., D-1, or Canadian (universities)," said Merante's father, Tom. "The Canadian teams are loaded with CHL (the Canadian Hockey League, Canada's top junior circuit) kids."
Merante started playing with Western New York's youth teams as a child, including Grand Niagara, the Hamburg Hawks, West Seneca Wings and Buffalo Regals. He also played on to the junior B Buffalo Stars, a year at Niagara Falls High School and two years at N-W.
Out of high school, Merante tried out for a number of junior teams. After being cut from multiple camps, he made the junior B Fort Erie Meteors in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League. After a season, he tried out for and made the Huntsville Otters, a team the junior A Ontario Junior Hockey League — the same league as the Buffalo Jr. Sabres.
Huntsville folded after his first season, but Merante caught on again in the GOJHL with the Thorold Blackhawks, where he was voted a unanimous All-Star.
"It was a big learning experience," Merante said. "You go, you try out, bounce around and try to find the right fit. It's a journey, that's for sure. The whole process is a journey, you just got to try to enjoy all of it."
His junior eligibility up, Merante started talking to colleges to continue his career and education.
"He got some looks in the U.S.," Tom Merante said. "Some D-3 schools, Potsdam, Fredonia. He made the All-Star team, and (D-1) Mercyhurst looked. They liked him, but they were sort of filled up at goalie."
It was then that Vinny Merante stumbled across Wilfrid Laurier.
"I was looking for a place to play college hockey, looked at their roster and saw they needed a few goalies," he said. "I saw they had a few guys from Thorold, so I assumed my owner might know the coach."
Merante went to Thorold's owner, Dave Marrone, who proceeded to call his contacts at the school. Merante got a call from Wilfred Laurier coach Greg Puhalski, who offered him a spot on the team.
"They gave me an opportunity to play, and that's all I could ask for," Merante said.
Merante said he hopes to study business management in college, and is currently taking advanced economics while trying to break into Wilfred Laurier's business program.Follow Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on your local teams.