In many ways, Eric Ciccolini's coming of age story in hockey begins like a lot of others: a little kid puttering around in the driveway or down in the family basement, discovering how to stickhandle and shoot from as soon as he could hold a hockey stick. Since Ciccolini was close with his grandfather, it wasn't unusual for him to put a few dents in the walls working on that shot over at Sam Ciccolini's house, and he never missed a chance to go there when one close friend of his grandfather's in particular would come for a visit.
That's where Eric's story turns a bit unique. Sam Ciccolini was not just any hockey-loving Canadian grandpa; he was for many years an Ontario-based scout for the Rangers, going back to the days when Emile Francis was running the show on Broadway. The friend in question, a frequent guest at Sam's house, was Gordie Howe.
Eric Ciccolini was wise enough at a young age to soak up whatever Mr. Hockey was preaching. "Whenever Gordie would come to Toronto he would always stay at my grandfather's house, so whenever he was there I would go right over and just hang out with him, and he would just talk to me about hockey, show me how to shoot and different things, and tell some stories," Ciccolini recalled in an interview with NYRangers.com. "We celebrated one of his last birthdays with him at our house, before he got sick. It was pretty special to know him."
From those days at his grandad's house, Ciccolini's hockey story took him through the local youth teams in Vaughan, outside Toronto -- he often played with the Hughes brothers, and had Jack Hughes as a linemate for a time -- to the Toronto Jr. Canadiens, where last season he was named the Ontario Junior Hockey League's No. 1 prospect of 2018-19. Then last summer his story added a chapter in Vancouver, where by a stroke of fate the team his grandfather used to scout for looked around in the seventh round and found this college-bound speedster was still on the board. The Rangers scooped him up.
Today, Ciccolini pays tribute to an old family friend who played a part in getting him to where he is -- not only wearing No. 9 in honor of Howe, but doing so in the state of Michigan, where Ciccolini is thriving in his first season as a Wolverine.
He is the only Michigan freshman to have played in all 24 games this season for a Wolverines team that following a sputtering start finds itself unbeaten in its last four games, 6-2-1 in its last nine and hitting its stride right as the season starts turning for home.
"I've been able to play in every game, which is something I'm really happy about -- I think as a freshman it's hard to do that, to stay in the lineup," Ciccolini said. "I think I'm just improving every game and trying to take on a different role, and my coaches have confidence in me.
"Everyone's bigger and everyone's older, and everyone's fast. Everyone's good," Ciccolini said in describing the jump to the NCAA. "Every team you play against is good and they have someone that can beat you -- especially playing against Michigan, I think everyone tries to bring out their best game whenever they face us, from what I've seen."
Lately, opponents have been seeing Michigan's best game -- the Wolverines have put together back-to-back unblemished road weekends at 14th-ranked Notre Dame, then at No. 6 Penn State, in which they outscored the Irish and the Nittany Lions by a combined 16-5. In the second game in Happy Valley, Ciccolini assisted on the winning goal in the 3-on-3 overtime that is part of the Big Ten's rules, and which a speedy player like Ciccolini loves.
The Wolverines -- under Mel Pearson, whose father played for the Rangers in the 1960s -- now turn their attention to two home games with No. 11 Ohio State this weekend, but if you're tracing Michigan's 2019-20 turnaround, you'd look to the back end of their weekend in Madison, back on Dec. 1. Fellow Blueshirts prospect K'Andre Miller had scored the game-winner for 19th-ranked Wisconsin late in the Saturday opener, leaving Michigan with just one win in a 10-game stretch. But the Wolverines responded with a season-changer the next night, and it was Ciccolini who got everything pointed in the right direction -- scoring on his first shift of the game, 2:23 into what became a 3-1 victory.
It was Ciccolini's first goal in the NCAA, and one of the most unforgettable moments of his nascent hockey career.
"I didn't even know it went in at first -- I was trying to look for the puck, and then I realized it went in, and I just screamed," Ciccolini said. "It was a really good moment, and great because we went on to win. And I think ever since then we've been playing really good, too.
"After we won that game, the next weekend we beat Penn State (in Ann Arbor), and we were playing really good going into the break. And we've been playing really good after it, too."
The moment was a burst of emotion from a then-18-year-old who is acclimating himself to the NCAA's level of hockey, and focusing on using his speed for a well-rounded game after being the offensive focal point on his junior team, for whom he scored 27 goals and 62 points in 48 games last season. Ciccolini was the second straight member of the Jr. Canadiens to be named the top prospect in the OJHL, following his teammate Jack McBain -- a 2018 Minnesota Wild pick who is now a sophomore at Boston College, and who made an impression on the younger Ciccolini during their time together.
"I saw what I had to do to try to get on his level, or to play the same way, with the same intensity," Ciccolini said. "After he left I was able to go into a bigger role the next year, and I think I used it to my advantage and tried to do as best I could with it. I think I grabbed the opportunity."
In retrospect, it may have seemed inevitable that Ciccolini would end up at Michigan, where Quinn Hughes preceded him by one year and where another family friend and fellow Vaughan product, Mike Cammalleri, starred from 1999 to 2002 -- but Ciccolini had choices, and might have gone the Major Junior route after being selected by the Guelph Storm in 2017's OHL Draft. But Ciccolini took the long view of his career.
"Just more time to develop, and more time to grow," the 6-foot, 170-pound Ciccolini said of what the NCAA path offered. "I think I still need to get stronger and bigger. I think the speed is there and I've got the skill, but just getting stronger and trying to grow instead of maybe going to the OHL and playing more, but maybe not developing or working out as much. Here we work out a lot, and we have great training, and they really put a lot of time and work into developing. And getting a degree is something I want to do."
Ciccolini is on track to study sports management at Michigan; then again, he has only one semester in Ann Arbor under his belt, just turned 19 years old on Jan. 14, and is only starting out. He took in a couple football games at the Big House in the fall, has learned all the chants, and learned that nobody sits down in the student section.
"I'm really happy with the decision I made" to go to Michigan, Ciccolini said, adding: "To be here this year, to be drafted by a team like the Rangers with all the history that team has, and our family connection to that team - right now I'm just really happy where I am."