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Northern Exposure

by Paul Hendrick / Toronto Maple Leafs

The last few NHL drafts have enabled the Toronto Maple Leafs to begin the process of stocking its shelves with talent.

Getting to Toronto is the ultimate goal for all these prospects and, in the case of a couple of teenagers, that has meant moving to the OHL in an effort to hasten that journey.

For J.J Piccinich and Jeremy Bracco, the bright lights of Toronto are now closer than ever. Both have left their college teams in the NCAA ranks to develop their careers in Canadian junior hockey.

Piccinich left Boston University after his freshman season and now stars with the London Knights.

Bracco exited Boston College after five games and has provided the already powerful Kitchener Rangers with yet another weapon.

The Leafs selected Bracco with the 61st pick in June from the USA Hockey National Team Development Program after the Manhasset, NY, native led the Americans to a World Under-18 title last May, assisting on the game winning goal.

The decision to come to Canada made for a difficult few weeks in October before the former Eagle finally landed in Kitchener.

"It wasn't easy to leave a program like Boston College, a tough decision in fact, but so far I feel like I made the right choice by coming to Kitchener," said Bracco. "The whole town's been real welcoming, it's been a lot of fun so far, and I'm really looking forward to the things to come."

Bracco is a playmaking specialist who led the U.S Development team in assists with 118 helpers in 118 games his two seasons at Ann Arbor, Mich. The move to Kitchener has provided greater opportunity and a chance to play for a former Leaf in head coach Mike Van Ryn.

"Coach Van Ryn has really put me in a position to succeed. I'm getting an opportunity to play on the first line, the first power play unit, it shows a lot of confidence from the coaching staff and I think that has really helped my confidence. And playing at a high level like the OHL, and playing a ton is second to none, so it's been a lot of fun so far."

Bracco attended his first ever Leaf game at the Air Canada Centre in late October with his father and it has given him a taste of where he would like to see his career in a few years time.

In the meantime, immediate goals include playing for Team U.S.A at the upcoming World Juniors. He's already won Gold at the Under-17 and Under-18 levels and another championship at the Under-20 tournament would complete the troika.

An imminent challenge, however, sees Kitchener visiting London on November 20th as the two OHL powerhouses meet with Bracco and best friend Mitch Marner going head to head.

The Leaf draft picks from last spring were roommates last summer at prospect camp in Collingwood, Ont. They'll be adversaries this season.

"I've been texting him the last little while and joking about dropping the gloves," said Bracco. "It's going to be a lot of fun, we're looking forward to it. Obviously there's the rivalry between Kitchener and London, and the matchup between Mitch and myself should be really exiting. "

And so too the opportunity for Leafs Nation to see these two rivals and friends as eventual teammates in Toronto in the not-so-distant future.

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