When Frankie Simonelli first stepped foot in the University of Wisconsin's Kohl Center as a teenager, he promised himself he would play in front of that raucous crowd one day.
"It was my motivation to play college hockey, especially growing up in the United States and going to Badgers games growing up," Simonelli told NHL.com "I grew up dreaming of playing against North Dakota and Denver, and the next thing I knew, I was in the locker room (for Wisconsin), suiting up for those big games. It's a surreal experience for me."
Now, with his freshman season in Madison under his belt, the 18-year-old has emerged as one of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's most talented prospects entering the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
A 5-foot-11, 190-pound defenseman, Simonelli is No. 154 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the Draft, after scoring 2 goals and adding 9 assists in 39 games in 2010-11. Simonelli displayed natural on-ice vision and passing ability in his first collegiate season, helping him quickly earn the respect of Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves.
"By the end of the year, Frankie was playing his best hockey -- which is a real positive for him as a true freshman," Eaves told NHL.com. "He's got great character and he's a hard-working individual, and those are the cornerstones of what you need when assembling a team. If you have players like Frankie, there's a good chance you’re going to be successful."
Simonelli was able to make a smooth transition to the college level after spending the previous two seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Program. At age 15, Simonelli left his home in Bensenville, Ill., before his junior year of high school for the USNTDP, where he lived with a host family in Ann Arbor, Mich., and chased his dream.
While hockey was a big part of his decision, Simonelli viewed living away from home as an opportunity to grow as a person, as well.
"It seemed like I matured five years within two months," Simonelli said. "My host family was very welcoming and supportive, but it was almost as if I was living on my own because I was away from my real family. I felt that I adapted to it well. It was all in the process of getting better as a hockey player."
Having already committed to Wisconsin, Simonelli viewed the USNTDP as a prime opportunity to take his game to new heights against college-level competition.
A few months before his college career began, it's safe to say he got his wish.
Simonelli, along with future teammate Michael Mersch, got an early taste of the college level on Jan. 9, 2010, when their USNTDP Under-18 squad battled Wisconsin in an exhibition game at the Kohl Center.
"It was a pretty nerve-wracking game, but we were so hyped up," Simonelli said. "I felt I was physically ready to play at the college level, so it was just going to be a matter of my will to compete for a spot and show Coach Eaves that I was ready to play every night. It was great for me and Mike to experience the Kohl Center before heading to Madison that June."
Faced with a tough task of matching up against a prominent NCAA Division I program in mid-season form, the U-18 team dropped a 7-1 decision to the Badgers. But when Eaves looks back at Simonelli’s performance that day, he can’t help but reflect on the progression of his defenseman.
"Taking the next step always presents a challenge in terms of the pace and the skill level of your teammates and competition, but Frankie was able to make adjustments and compete on that day," said Eaves. "Ever since, Frankie’s game has come along by leaps and bounds."
Simonelli garnered valuable experience on the blue line in his two years with the USNTDP. With the U-17 team in 2008-09, he was the second-leading scorer among the team's defensemen with 31 points (9 goals, 22 assists) and had a plus-16 rating. In 2009-10, he had 15 points in 65 games with the U-18 team.
With each and every opportunity to perfect his craft, Simonelli approaches the task at hand with nothing but confidence. He credits his older brother, Jeremy, for that mentality.
Jeremy introduced Frankie to the game of hockey and played triple-A youth hockey during his high school years. However, Jeremy eventually decided to pursue a college degree, while Frankie continues to carry his role model’s love for the game with him.
"My brother is definitely an inspiration because he worked hard his whole life and always wanted to have a chance to play in the NHL," Frankie said. "Unfortunately, time sort of ran out on his hockey career, so it always gives me an extra boost to work extra hard and play for him."
While Simonelli may be a bit undersized as a defensive prospect at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, he prides himself on high intensity and strong puck movement.
Pete Rutili, who coached Simonelli for a season with the Chicago Mission youth hockey program, says his former blueliner has created a blueprint for a successful career.
"Frankie may lack a bit in the size and reach department, but he makes up for it with his hockey smarts, heart and determination," Rutili told NHL.com. "To see what he’s doing at Wisconsin and that he’s under consideration for the NHL Draft is certainly not a surprise. I can't say enough about Frankie’s will as a hockey player. To have all this at such a young age shows how mature of a kid he is."