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On The Right Track

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Nico Sacchetti may have a little insider’s knowledge about just what it takes to reach the NHL, but he knows the onus is on him to apply that information and put in the hard work to make it happen for himself.

The highly-skilled 18-year-old center (he turns 19 before next season starts), who was in town last week at the Stars’ 2008 development camp at the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Frisco, has been close friends with Dallas defenseman Matt Niskanen since they were kids. 

Each hailing from the small town of Virginia, Minnesota in the northern part of the state, Niskanen and Sacchetti were teammates on the Virginia-Mountain Iron-Buhl High School squad when Niskanen was drafted in the first round (28th overall) in 2005. 

After Niskanen’s meteoric rise from college player in 2006-07 to outstanding NHL rookie last season in Dallas, Sacchetti has a very close role model to help guide him as he continues his evolution into an elite player. 

“We’ve stayed in touch this whole entire year, because we pretty much grew up together.  We’ve been pretty much best friends forever,” said Sacchetti, who begins his freshman year at the University of Minnesota in the fall after skating for Omaha of the USHL last season. “I’d always call him and ask him, ‘How’s it going?’ and ‘How’s the experience?’ And he’s just loving every minute of it. He’s always kind of taken me under his wing and been like an older brother to me, so I got a pretty good view of what was going on down here and what he was going through.”

On top of his personal connection to Niskanen, Sacchetti points out that the way Niskanen rose so quickly up the ranks has served as extra motivation for him, as well as every other Stars prospect.

“It’s inspiring for everyone, not just me, for a young guy to be able to just step right out of college,” Sacchetti noted. “He just took the league on by storm, just stepped right in and fit right in. I had a little better view of it because I heard it first-hand. I was with him our whole lives and seeing how hard he’s worked, so I know just what you have to do to get here. But for everyone, just looking at him and what he did, it’s just unbelievable. It lets you know how close you are but how much work you have to do to get there. So it’s really good. I’m so happy for him.”

If it sounds like Sacchetti is Niskanen’s biggest fan, then the feeling is mutual. Niskanen holds Sacchetti, the Stars’ first selection (second round, 50th overall) in the 2007 NHL Draft, in very high esteem as well.

“He came up when I was a senior in high school, he was a freshman, and he was probably the best forward on our team, even at that age,” Niskanen said. “That year was unbelievable, it was the first time we ever made it to the state high school tournament in Minnesota, which was a big deal for us. We had a pretty good team that year. I sure had a lot of fun, and we both grew quite a bit that year, got a lot better as players. He turned out to be a pretty good friend and hopefully, we’ll be friends for a long time.”

Sacchetti has certainly benefited from receiving advice from a buddy who’s already made it and who knows him and his on-ice skills well.

“The biggest thing that I’ve told Nico, from what I’ve learned, is I know that he has all the skill in the world, but it’s all about the drive and what you have in your chest,” Niskanen said. “It’s all about heart, and I’m pretty sure he has that - in fact, I know he does - and he’s just got to continue to work hard and push himself to get better each and every day. He’s on the right track, and I think he’s going to get there someday.”

He’s on his way. The first step for Sacchetti, who scored an incredible 38 goals and 90 points in just 25 games as a junior in high school in 2006-07, was deciding to leave home for his senior year to upgrade his competition level and prepare for college.

While his overall experience with Omaha of the USHL, the top junior league in the States, was beneficial to his development, the speedy 5-foot-11, 189-pound Sacchetti did face some difficult adjustments, on and off the ice. The length of schedule was one. After skating in 25 games in high school the year before, he finished the year with 10 goals and 23 points in 56 games for the Lancers. He also suited up for 14 playoff games, scoring one goal and three points as his squad captured the Clark Cup championship. 

“It was tough,” Sacchetti admitted. “It wasn’t just the hockey, it was the whole entire experience. It was the first time I’d ever left home. I’m from a pretty small town and the whole experience, I kind of struggled with it. But I feel that it was positive experience and, therefore, it was all worth it. I’m glad I went and I’m glad I left (high school).”

Despite the difficulties, Sacchetti believes he’s a better player because of his time in the USHL and feels ready to face even tougher competition in the NCAA this coming season.

“The only reason I went is so I’d be more prepared to go to Minnesota this year,” Sacchetti noted. “I feel like I am more prepared, because mid-season in juniors, I hit a little slump. I know that slump would have come if I’d gone from high school right to Minnesota and so hopefully going to juniors, I got that slump got out of the way and now I’ll be able to step in and be an impact player right from the start at Minnesota.”

“Nico played on a championship team, so that’s never a bad thing,” said Tim Bernhardt, the Stars’ Director of Amateur Scouting. “I think that next year is a real big year for Nico, his freshman year in college. He’s going to go to a good program, should have a good opportunity to jump in there and be a regular for the University of Minnesota.” 

The Stars are happy Sacchetti also opted to go that route, taking that extra step of playing in the USHL before heading to college. The same path has paid off for other Stars prospects, including goaltender Richard Bachman, who played for Cedar Rapids in 2006-07 and last year was a freshman at Colorado College. 

“I thought it was great, especially before college,” said Bachman, the Stars’ fourth round pick (120th overall) in the 2006 Entry Draft. “Playing the 60 games plus playoffs is nice and it’s a long season, it’s kind of a grind at times. I thought it helped me with my mental toughness a lot, riding on the bus for six, eight hours, stuff like that. I thought it was a great step and really prepared me confidence-wise, and mentally, for college. It’s such a great league right now, there’s a lot of guys going D1 and getting drafted, and it’s a small league, so you’re playing against great players every night.”

Now that he’s heading off to play for the Golden Gophers, Sacchetti is fulfilling a lifelong dream that just about every Minnesota kid dreams of.

“It’s kind of cliché, but yeah, it really is,” he admitted. “It’s an unbelievable atmosphere and I can’t wait to get out there. I just get chills. The first game is always at the Xcel (Energy Center, where the Wild play), it’s called the IceBreaker Tournament and that place just gets packed for when the Gophers play.”

In fact, while Sacchetti was just four when the North Stars relocated from Minnesota to Dallas, he pointed out that his family always cheered more for the Gophers than the North Stars anyway.

“I was pretty young when the North Stars were around and the North Stars were never really, in my house, the main focus,” he said. “We’ve been Gopher fans forever, so that’s what I grew up watching. It was on local television.”

Now his family will be able to watch him on local TV, as Sacchetti gradually improves and grows as a hockey player. And while it is likely still at least a couple of more years away, Sacchetti should one day be joining his old buddy Niskanen in Dallas, where they can watch him on the NHL Center Ice package.

“It’s a dream come true for two kids from the same high school to be drafted by the same team,” said Sacchetti. “So hopefully, we’ll be teammates again in the near future.”
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