It’s easy to fall for the sport of hockey with its orchestra of grace, fluidity, physicality, passion and beauty.
That’s what happened with Sean Romeo, a soccer-playing kid from Cary.
“When I was younger, I saw kids playing hockey down the street, and I just stopped and watched,” he said. “I kind of fell in love with it there.”
Romeo, now 18, has committed to play collegiate hockey at the University of Maine beginning in the fall of 2014.
Just three years removed from the Jr. Hurricanes program, Romeo is the starting goaltender for the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League (USHL), the only Tier 1 junior hockey league in the U.S.
Romeo’s foray into the sport of hockey began with street hockey before he graduated to roller hockey, where he became a goaltender.
“I always kind of wanted to play (goalie), but I never got a chance,” he said. “When I was playing roller hockey, the goalie was sick one day, and the coach just asked if anyone wanted to play. I was so excited, so I raised my hand and said I could do it. From the first game, I knew I liked goaltender more than skater.”
From there, he progressed to ice hockey and played his first travel hockey with the East Coast Eagles. The Jr. Hurricanes program followed thereafter.
“I loved every second of it,” Romeo said of playing with the Jr. Canes. “It shows how much hockey is growing [in the Triangle]. The Jr. Hurricanes program is growing a lot, and in another 10-15 years, Raleigh could be a big hockey city. I’m excited to see where it can get.”
In 2010, Romeo's midget year with the Jr. Hurricanes, the team went to nationals. Shane Clifford, the goaltending coach for the Youngstown Phantoms, was in attendance. Clifford requested Romeo’s mom to let her son attend tryouts just so the team could get a look at him. Even if it was nothing serious, they figured, it was worth the opportunity alone.
“I stayed to work with him (Clifford) for a little while, and then halfway through the season, they said they needed a goalie, and they called me up,” said Romeo, whose goaltending idols include Carey Price, Marc-Andre Fleury and, of course, Cam Ward. “I just jumped at the opportunity.”
As a 16-year-old, Romeo played his first game in the USHL on April 9, 2011 against the Chicago Steel. The following season, Romeo played in 16 games, and in mid-November of his third season with the Phantoms, he was named their starting goaltender. This season, he has logged 38 games, a 21-15 record, a 2.81 goals-against average, a .907 save percentage and four shutouts. He earned USHL goaltender of the week honors after posting back-to-back shutouts against Team USA in late November.
Romeo credits his relationship with Clifford in fostering his development, noting his poise in net as his biggest improvement since arriving in Youngstown, Ohio.
“Growing up, I might have looked rattled or not confident at times,” he said. “But all my players say now, we could be down 6-0, and I still look like I’m in control of the game. They say they feed off that a lot.”
College hockey programs took notice of Romeo’s play in net. He said he was talking to a couple of other Hockey East schools and a number of ECAC schools, all unnamed, but settling on Maine was an easy choice.
“Looking at Maine’s resume, it’s second to none. They produce goalies like no one else can,” he said. “I just thought it was a great opportunity, and my parents agreed.”
Youngstown teammates Cam Brown and Dan Renouf will join Romeo at Maine, winners of two national titles in 1993 and 1999.
“Going into a big school can be scary, not knowing anyone,” Romeo said. “But having them, two kids I’m really close to, will help a lot for sure.”
Garth Snow, Mike Dunham, Jimmy Howard and Ben Bishop, among others, are all University of Maine goaltending products. Romeo hopes to add his name to the list. On the NHL’s Central Scouting’s preliminary list of North American prospects to watch, Romeo was a noted “C” goaltender from the USHL, and he ranks No. 30 on the midterm rankings for North American goalies in advance of the 2013 NHL Draft.
As Romeo, whose goaltending idols include Carey Price, Marc-Andre Fleury and, of course, Cam Ward, chases his NHL dreams, he won’t forget his humble beginnings as a soccer-playing kid from Cary who discovered a new love right when the sport of hockey, the Hurricanes and the NHL were blossoming in the Triangle.
“With the success the Hurricanes are having, that’s helping a lot for sure,” he said. “Going to the rink, seeing guys like (Rod) Brind’Amour and (Glen) Wesley around and getting to talk to guys that have been there and done it and gone through what you’re going through, it makes your dreams seem so much more real.”