Griffins forward John Vigilante was raised in the Detroit area, growing up in Dearborn and playing hockey in Ann Arbor and Plymouth before turning pro.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
John Vigilante was born to play hockey.
Raised in the shadows of Hockeytown and blessed with a name that was ranked as the ninth best moniker in the sport by The Hockey News, Vigilante was destined to lace up a pair of skates and play the game.
Or so it would seem.
In truth, Vigilante might never have made his way onto the ice if his mother had not been a frugal shopper.
“My grandpa had played hockey, but none of us had been on the ice until my mom was at a garage sale and saw a full set of hockey equipment for $2,” said Vigilante, 24.
“She ended up buying the equipment, thinking it was a steal, and they threw it on my oldest brother. It just seemed like our family took to the ice after that.”
His father, Jerry, was the longtime Dearborn fire marshal before he retired a few years ago; his mother, Debbie, worked various office jobs. Both supported their four children’s interest in skating and hockey.
Bill, the oldest and now a firefighter himself, won a state championship with the Westland Stingers as a 15-year-old. Laurie, now a teacher in the Dearborn area, became a figure skating coach. Mike, who played four years at Lake Superior State University, spent several seasons in the ECHL and AHL.
John, the youngest of the four, wasn’t exactly a natural when it came to the ice, however.
“I almost didn’t play,” he said flatly. “I used to watch my brothers and sister skate and they could just fly, so I thought that’s what I would be able to do.
“But my first time on the ice, I fell right on my face and just sat there crying for probably a half hour. I was only three years old but for some reason, I remember sitting on the net and crying and not wanting to move. My parents left me out there but my brothers soon helped get me going.
“Eventually I just fell in love with the game.”
Vigilante attended Edsel Ford High School in Dearborn while he continued to develop his hockey skills. In his teens, Vigilante started to exhibit signs of being a special player.
He won an individual shooting skills competition in Barrie, Ontario, while playing for the AAA Little Caesars team. Later, he played in the finals of the Under-17 international tournament in Winnipeg, where his squad, Team USA, defeated Team Canada 4-3 in overtime to win a world championship.
“It was my first eye opener to what the next level was going to be like,” Vigilante said of his experience playing for the U-17 team based in Ann Arbor. “It was practice and workouts every day, and I learned and developed a lot.”
Vigilante played junior hockey practically in his backyard, performing for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League.
“I loved every minute of Plymouth – it was awesome,” he said. “It was probably my best four years of hockey, with all of the friendships that I made. I still keep in touch with the coach and some of the players.”
Sticking close to home, Vigilante was watched by his family and friends, an experience he will be able to repeat as a member of the Grand Rapids Griffins this season.
“I always like playing in front of people I know,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who go to Grand Valley State, along with friends and family who will make the trip, so it’ll be a good thing for me.”
Undrafted out of junior hockey, Vigilante began his professional career in 2006 after signing a pro contract with the Nashville Predators. He played two seasons with Nashville’s AHL affiliate in Milwaukee.
“I learned a ton my first year, probably more than I’ve ever learned in my life,” Vigilante said. He played for head coach Claude Noel, who has his own Michigan ties as a former player and coach for the Kalamazoo Wings.
“Any league is an adjustment, especially coming in your first year, and that’s what it was for me,” Vigilante said. “Claude Noel and (assistant coach) Lane Lambert taught me so much as a rookie that it helped me come back and have a really good (second) year.”
Vigilante posted 46 points (15 goals and 31 assists) in 73 games during the 2007-08 season. He signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets before last season, but was assigned to the team’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse.
Confined to being a third-line checker and penalty killer in Syracuse, he struggled for much of the season until he was finally sent to the Quad City Flames on loan from the Blue Jackets on Feb. 21.
Given a fresh start, Vigilante ended up scoring as many points (seven goals and eight assists) in 24 games with the Flames as he did in 52 games in Syracuse.
Caught offguard by the move initially, Vigilante saw the change of scenery as a blessing in disguise.
“I didn’t even know it was possible,” he said. “My first question was, ‘Was I traded?’ You don’t know what to think when you’re first told the news. A thousand thoughts come (into your head) but when you leave, you look at it as a new opportunity someplace else.
“To tell you the truth, I thought it was the best thing that happened to me last year. I enjoyed every minute of it. I got the opportunity to play my style of game again.”
Generally a positive guy, Vigilante looks back at his Syracuse experience as time well spent.
“I never really fit in with Columbus or Syracuse, but I learned to play more of a defensive role. I learned to be more aggressive on the forecheck, to become harder to play against. I just felt like my overall game was starting to come together.”
Going to training camp with the Detroit Red Wings this fall was a big thrill for Vigilante, who grew up watching Steve Yzerman and the rest of the Wings.
“It was almost like a dream to tell you the truth,” he said. “Going to other NHL camps like Columbus and Nashville were good opportunities because it’s what you’ve wanted your whole life, but to be able to put on the Red Wings jersey and play in a preseason game was a great moment for me.”
Vigilante figures he had close to 200 friends and family at Joe Louis Arena for the Red Wings’ preseason game against Buffalo on Sept. 19. He played on a line with fellow Griffins Francis Lemieux and Jeremy Williams.
“It was actually my first NHL preseason game ever, so it was definitely a highlight,” he said. “On the first shift, it seemed like everything was moving fast around me but then you catch up with the pace. I thought I ended up having a pretty good game.
“It was a great experience, especially being from the Detroit area. Playing in Detroit and having all those friends and family who’ve provided support be able to see me put on the Red Wings jersey was pretty cool.”
Vigilante is looking forward to making his mark on this year’s Griffins squad, hoping to fill his primary role as a good skater who brings a lot of energy to the ice.
“I’m a guy who’s always trying to skate hard, always wanting to be the first on the forecheck, trying to create turnovers and then hopefully making the right decision with the puck,” he said.
“I’m not a huge checker, but I try to finish my checks and be solid in the defensive zone. Mostly I just try to use my speed and create some offense.”
His primary goal is to make sure the Griffins are playoff-ready.
“I think last year was the first year that I didn’t make the playoffs and it’s definitely disappointing getting home in mid-April. It makes for a long summer and you can only spend so much time in the weight room.
“Making the playoffs is something you almost expect when you come into the pros, but you realize you can’t take any nights off. Any team in this league can beat anyone on any given night. You have to be consistent and that starts with your practicing habits and the weight room and hopefully everything will carry over onto the ice.
“So the goal is obviously to make the playoffs and go from there. I’d rather be playing as long as I can.”
When The Hockey News chose Vigilante as the ninth best name in hockey, the publication quipped “You now what kind of justice this cowboy is after.”
What name did the paper choose as the best? Bobby Bolt, an ECHL player who is – believe it or not – from Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Vigilante is an avowed Detroit sports fan. Naturally, the Red Wings were his favorite team, but he also followed the Lions and the Pistons, although not the Tigers.
“It seems like the Tigers were the odd team out for me. I actually root for the Yankees. My dad was a big fan of a lot of their players growing up, so it just seemed that I liked them as well.”
Vigilante runs summer hockey camps with his brothers Bill, 36, and Mike, 30. The latter also serves as the head coach for the Belle Tire 19-and-under girls hockey team.
“We’ve been running the camps for five or six years and we’ve come a long way from our first year,” he said. “We’ve been very successful, especially given the local economy.
“It’s a good thing to give back to hockey players in the area and show them what we know.”
Vigilante gets tired of hearing all of the negative stereotypes of his hometown.
“People throw out that it’s the most dangerous city in the country, but I just try to find a way to give it back to them,” he said.
“I think the city has come a long way. I was down there for a Kenny Chesney concert this summer and there were people all over the place. It just seemed like a fun place to be. Then again, I probably wouldn’t want to walk down the streets in the middle of the night or anything like that.
“But I think the city is trying to take a turn in the right direction.”
Vigilante went to elementary school, middle school and high school in Dearborn with his wife, Kayla, who is a hairdresser and has a non-identical twin named Kara.
“I went to school with her from kindergarten to high school,” he said. “I never really had classes with her until senior year and that’s when we started dating. We ended up getting married five or six years after that.”
Frankfort, Michigan is Vigilante’s favorite vacation destination.
“My wife’s family actually has a place there and we’ve been going there for a week or so every Fourth of July ever since we started dating,” he said. “It’s a place to get away, go to the beach, enjoy bonfires and those sort of things. It’s just relaxing. You come back recuperated and ready to go again.”
Vigilante got to meet both Lance Armstrong and President George W. Bush when he was a member of the U-17 national team.
“We went to Washington, D.C., as one of our team events and we got to see a presentation where Lance Armstrong gave a bike and a yellow jersey to President Bush. I got to shake hands with both of them. It’s a moment you won’t forget.”