It was the night before the United States junior hockey team’s last exhibition game at the 2017 World Juniors tournament, and Joseph Cecconi wasn’t nervous at all. He probably should’ve been.
The Michigan captain — then a sophomore playing for his country at the World Juniors for the first time — knew that the final roster spot for a defenseman was coming down to two players. Thanks to his upbringing, Cecconi was ready to fight for that last spot.
In that final exhibition game, coach Bob Motzko and the rest of the staff would be looking for one of two players to assert themselves as the right choice.
Cecconi knew what he had to do to make sure the place went to him.
“They pretty much said that it was between two guys, and I was one of them,” Cecconi said. “I just went out there and played my game and didn’t hold back and hoped for the best.”
As soon as the team arrived in Toronto after playing its final game in Oshawa, a city 40 miles to the east, general manager Jim Johannson told Cecconi that he had made the team.
“I called my grandpa right away, because he was at the game in Oshawa and he was driving back home,” Cecconi said. “I immediately called him, it was like 1 or 2 in the morning. He answered, then I called my dad. It was just — I mean, I was expecting to make the team. That’s what I wanted to do. I wasn’t going in there just hoping for whatever, I was expecting to make the team.”
Motzko wanted to add a defenseman with size to his final team and Cecconi — then 6-foot-2 and 222 pounds — fit the bill.
It wasn’t the most glamorous reason to make a team, but Cecconi took his opportunity and ran with it.
He became an integral part of a team that went undefeated through the group stage and defeated host country Canada for the gold medal.
“Joe was quietly probably one of our most steady competitors as a defenseman and just played a huge role for us on that team to win a gold medal,” Motzko said. “I remember after the tournament, he was one of the guys me and the staff members talked about like, ‘What a great surprise,’ because he was such a calming force for us.”
The 2017 team boasted talent up and down the roster, which made Cecconi’s selection to the team a bit of a surprise. At that point in his sophomore season, he had only one assist and no goals.
Motzko told Cecconi that people were talking about him, and Cecconi responded by playing his traditional, steady defense. By the end of the tournament, there was no more conversation about why he was chosen.
Aside from winning the gold medal, a moment Cecconi will never forget, he took something else home from Canada after the tournament.
That changed his approach to the game when he came back to Michigan. Two and a half years later, at the end of his senior season, he now stands as the Wolverines’ captain, looking toward an NHL career — the Dallas Stars drafted him in the fifth round of the 2015 draft — when his time in college comes to a close.
When Cecconi first picked up a hockey stick at age three, no one ever would’ve guessed he’d come this far.
Youngstown, N.Y., is not a big place — in fact, it’s considered a village rather than a city or town. It sits a few miles north of Niagara Falls and mere feet from the shores of Lake Ontario. The best restaurant, according to Cecconi, is a former gas station that now serves pizza. The population is barely 2,000 and there isn’t a lot going on.
But what is going on is hockey.
“There’s like three restaurants, a Rite Aid,” Cecconi said. “That’s the type of town it is.”
Buffalo, home of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, is just over half an hour away. There are countless minor and midget teams in the area, which is where Cecconi got his start.
“His dad played hockey, and he was on his sister’s little inline skates, so he started skating around,” said Regina Cecconi, Joseph’s mother. “Hockey’s big in our area, so why not throw him on the ice, see what happens. He’s just been in love with it ever since.”
Even before his first organized hockey experience, Cecconi gravitated toward the game. He always picked the hockey stick over the basketball as a child and could always be found on skates in the winter and rollerblades in the summer — when he wasn’t playing soccer.
“Outside, inside, always had a group of kids in the driveway playing hockey,” Regina said. “Even the real little kids, he would let them play, too, with them. One of our neighbors’ dads used to dress up in the goalie uniform and bring his little kids over. Joseph would love skating with them.”
In middle school, Cecconi’s years of balancing hockey and soccer came to an end. Hockey was Cecconi’s first love and his first priority, and an Achilles injury that left him unable to run made the decision even easier.
He couldn’t run, but he could skate. The ice skate held his foot in place and didn’t aggravate the injury, allowing him to continue skating during his recovery. It was the only sign he needed to switch his full attention to hockey.
From there, the kid who used to spend his winter on the ice and his summer on the soccer field spent the entire year on skates. If Cecconi wasn’t playing for his regular season local team, he was playing on an elite summer travel team.
It was all hockey, all the time. Just how Cecconi wanted it.
But as he rose through the levels, it soon became clear that his talents may take him farther away than his small town or even nearby Buffalo.
After spending his whole life in Youngstown — where he knew everyone, played street hockey with his neighbors and was a few minutes’ walk from the lake — Cecconi had a decision to make.
“I didn’t want to leave home, but I was excited to move on from playing U16 hockey and to probably the best junior hockey league in America,” Cecconi said. “It was sad to leave my friends and family, but I knew if I wanted to take hockey seriously, I would have to leave. Once I left, I didn’t really look back.”
In early 2014, Cecconi moved to Muskegon and made his debut for the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks.
“That was difficult,” Regina said. “That was — Joseph’s a momma’s boy and that was difficult to let him go, but it was something that had to be done. We always knew that if he had the chance to advance and to move up and play the game with a higher caliber of kids, that he was gonna have to leave the area. So, when that opportunity came around, it wasn’t a lot of discussion as far as not going, it was just making the arrangements to get him to where he needed to be.”
While Muskegon isn’t a huge city, it was quite a change from the small-town life surrounded by friends and family. Suddenly, Cecconi went from a town of 2,000 to a city of 40,000 and left behind everyone he knew.
Everything was different. But it was for his hockey career, so it was worth it. It was an important step for Cecconi’s maturity as a hockey player, just as leaving home to play juniors has been for decades of NHL players before him.
And it was in Muskegon that Cecconi first realized that a professional career might be a legitimate possibility.
“Growing up, ages like 10 to 15, I didn’t even know what (getting drafted) really was,” Cecconi said. “I didn’t know who was getting drafted or where they were getting drafted from, things like that. As I got older, I think it was when I went to Muskegon in the USHL I kinda figured like, ‘Oh, wow. Maybe I can do this. I love the game so much, why not take full advantage of what Muskegon has to offer and go from there?’
“Now that it happened and I was drafted, which, that was an awesome experience, but that was a long time ago. Now, I’m just looking forward to finishing the year and seeing what happens to me at the end of the season.”
Going away from home for hockey isn’t something that kids from Youngstown often do. And for most, the NHL is nothing but a distant dream.
But now, as his senior season draws to a close, Cecconi has a chance to take his career to the highest level.
Regina Cecconi always wanted her kids to be the best they could be at their chosen activity. Cecconi and his older sister Carissa were encouraged to be involved in extracurriculars, whether that meant playing a sport or taking up a musical instrument. Cecconi played the cello for a couple of years in middle school on top of hockey and soccer.
His own mother admits that he could’ve practiced more, but it was important to her that he honored his commitment.
Cecconi picked up the cello because he thought it looked interesting, and when he decided he wanted to quit after a couple of years, he knew he couldn’t tell his mother. Regina believes strongly in her kids sticking with their activities, so he brought the cello home and kept it in his room for months — without practicing. When Regina looked at the calendar and saw an upcoming orchestra concert, the jig was up. He had to fess up that he hadn’t played in months and no longer wanted to play.
“She wasn’t thrilled with that,” Cecconi said. “I don’t even know if I had to pay to return the cello for how long I was using it, but that was pretty funny.”
And whether it was in the orchestra or on the ice, Regina always made sure that Cecconi was set up to be the best that he could be.
Most parents want their kids to play sports so that they learn to get along with other people and be active, and Regina was no exception. But she also wanted more than that for her son, and she made it clear that success was a priority.
“My first priority was that he was having fun and that he was competing with the best kids,” Regina said. “He always tried out for — I always made him try out for the team that was the hardest to make. My thing was, if he can get a little college out of it, that’s a bonus, and the NHL, well, that’s always been Joseph’s dream.”
By having her son try out for the best team and always making sure he was heavily involved, Regina instilled a competitive drive in her son. As a competitive person herself, the atmosphere in the family was one of competition and success.
It’s hard for that not to rub off on a young hockey player.
“He’s always been competitive when it comes to hockey and whatever sport that he was playing in,” Regina said. “I’m very competitive, I’m very goal-oriented, so I’d love to say that he gets that from me. It’s taught in the family and Carissa’s the same way. I always tell him, if you want to do something, you’re just going to have to go after it. If that’s what you want to do, then just go for it.”
Nowhere has that lesson been more poignant for Cecconi than when he made the 2017 World Juniors team.
After attending the USA Hockey summer showcase after his freshman year, he knew there was a fairly good chance he’d be on the preliminary roster for the World Juniors. Cecconi wanted desperately to be on the team, and — just as his mom taught him — he went after what he wanted.
And it was there that his natural competitive drive began to blend with the inner confidence he’d always had. As Cecconi moved through the World Juniors tournament, his confidence continued to grow until it became external. His ability became more and more self-evident as his mental poise began to show itself in his play.
“The first couple games in the tournament, I wasn’t playing too much,” Cecconi said. “Then, in the final couple games, I logged a bit of ice time. It just gave me a lot more confidence when I came back here. I had more confidence in my defensive abilities, as well as carrying the puck and just my poise and control with the puck, too.
“I played much better my second half of my sophomore year and that — going into the summer, that just built on. And then junior year and now senior year, I feel like World Juniors really gave me a kickstart to being more confident on the ice.”
Confidence is incredibly important in sports, and it’s particularly important in hockey. One weak pass or tentative move to block a shot can change the outcome of a game.
If you’re confident, you compete harder. If you compete harder — and win those battles — it increases your confidence. As Cecconi’s confidence grew, his natural competitiveness increased even more.
It’s been a successful formula for the senior as he looks to the next step in his career.
“If you’re not wired (to compete), you kinda just get left behind,” Cecconi said. “Especially with — in hockey, you have to play at U16s and then (U18s) and then juniors and then maybe stay a couple more years and then college. All that.
“You have to be competitive or you’ll get left behind.”