Joseph Cecconi doesn’t remember much of what happened after the final goal. What the sophomore defenseman does remember is skating from his team’s bench to its goal faster than he ever has before.
After Cecconi and the rest of the United States national junior team notched a 5-4 shootout victory over Canada in the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship, the post-game celebration could have been best described as raucous, and rightfully so — four long years had passed since the Americans last captured gold.
“(United States) hockey is getting better,” Cecconi said. “It’s always been good, but I think there’s more and more players who are getting better in this country and want to represent (the country).”
For Cecconi, the opportunity was the realization of a long-time dream. He had made it his personal goal to play for the team since learning about it a few years ago.
The process of making the team was a long one. Cecconi first attended a camp with nearly 40 other players last summer, before he was invited back before the tournament. Then, he made it past a final round of cuts to join the team.
Cecconi called the overall experience “fantastic”, and also said that the tournament gave him a chance to enter the second half of the season with some momentum.
In Canada, he also had the opportunity to play with some of the United States’ most talented players such as Luke Kunin, Kieffer Bellows and Charlie McAvoy. After playing alongside such elite players, Cecconi learned lessons from their different playing styles. The higher level of talent helped him improve his hockey IQ as well, among other aspects of his game.
“I think coming into the second half, I have a lot more confidence than I did in the first,” Cecconi said. “I did have confidence the first half of the season, but after playing in this, I feel like I’ll be an even better player for the team.”
Cecconi wouldn’t be the first Michigan player to heat up after returning from the tournament. Dylan Larkin and Zach Werenski each finished the season on a tear after playing for the United States in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Larkin had just three goals and 16 points before leaving for the World Juniors. After the tournament, he erupted for 12 goals and 31 points — perhaps one of the reasons why his career at Michigan lasted only one season.
“(Larkin) was okay in the first half,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “Second half, he came back from that tournament and he played really well. He just took off. Put him right in Detroit.”
Werenski’s sabbatical from the Wolverines had a similar effect. The former defenseman wasn’t having the impact that Michigan had expected of him entering the season, but turned things around upon his return. After tallying just four goals and 12 points before the tournament, Werenski posted seven goals and 24 points after the break.
While Cecconi may not have the offensive ability of Werenski — he has posted just eight points in 54 career games — defensemen don’t need to put up points to be difference-makers, and Berenson believes Cecconi will still make an impact in his return to the team.
“When you play on a gold-medal winning team and you realize what it’s like to sit in that locker room with guys that win and what it takes — and not that our team is far off the mark — but I think he’ll come back with an added confidence,” Berenson said. “Confidence in himself, confidence in how to play, and so on. And maybe he can add that to our defense corps — pride in defense, and how important it is to play good on defense. I’m hoping he’ll add that to our team.”