|Joe Cecconi (right) took part in the ceremonial faceoff against Jeremy Bracco; head coaches Mike Grier and Ed Olczyk dropped the pucks (Photo by Bill Wippert)
It may have been hard for Joe Cecconi not to notice the clusters of neon green speckled throughout First Niagara Center on Thursday night.
One bunch sat in section 113, a group of 16- and 17-year-olds who have known Cecconi his whole life. Across the arena, in section 102, sat his parents and grandparents, and in 105 were his aunt, uncle and cousins. All were a part of a group of roughly 30 that wore bright green t-shirts with large blue print reading “Team Joe Cecconi.”
Thursday was a homecoming for Cecconi, as the Youngstown native participated in the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game, pitting him against the top American-born prospects eligible for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
For Cecconi’s friends and family, the opportunity to watch him play was a special one.
“It’s absolutely incredible seeing my best friend out here playing on this team,” said 18-year-old Austin Regis. “I’ve been there by his side basically all his hockey games growing up. I’ll remember the days sitting there shooting hockey pucks at his garage door. It’s just an incredible feeling.”
Regis sat in section 113 with four other boys, all of whom attended Lewiston-Porter with Cecconi from kindergarten through his junior year of high school. As incredible a feeling it was to watch their friend make it to a national stage (the game was aired across the US on NHL Network), the signs had always been there.
They always knew he was strong, for example. Growing up, Cecconi and his friends would swim in the Niagara River in Lewiston. One day, they had a competition to swim to the bottom and see who could come up with the biggest rock. Cecconi came up with an entire tree on his shoulders. From that day on, he was known as “Big Joe.”
They always knew he was talented. Cecconi’s Aunt Dawn fondly remembers recognizing her nephew’s skill when the family would play hockey in the driveway growing up. Cecconi would allow the other team a 20-goal handicap to make the game fair.
“We still couldn’t catch up to him,” she said with a laugh. “He was too fast.”
Most importantly, they always knew how hard he was willing to work. Cecconi’s grandfather, with whom he shares a name, noticed at an early age how competitive his grandson was, both on the ice and in the classroom. He spent countless hours on his hockey, and the elder Cecconi says that evidence can be found outside the family home.
“The garage door is about destroyed along with the trim around it,” he said.
Cecconi’s grandfather is a strong influence in his life. On Cecconi’s bio page on the website for the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks, his favorite quote reads: “’Play with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind’ – my Grandpa.”
“Before every game, he always gives me quotes to get my mind ready,” Cecconi said of his grandfather after the game. “Lately, the past year or two, since my mom and dad have been working a lot, he would take me to practice and tournaments. He’d spend his own money and time on me and I think he hopes it pays off one day.”
It seems to be paying off now. Cecconi will play for the Lumberjacks again this season and has already committed to play Division I hockey at the University of Michigan. At only 17-years-old, he’s projected to go in the first three rounds of next year’s NHL draft.
When that time comes, all of his neon green supporters seemed to be in agreement: they could get used to seeing him play in Buffalo.
“To play for the Buffalo Sabres?” his grandfather asked. “It’d probably be a dream come true.”