Downstate Pride

Long Island hockey will be represented this week in Buffalo by two of their best.

  Steven Ruggiero (Photo Courtesy Youngtown Phantoms (USHL)

Steven Ruggiero (Photo Courtesy Youngtown Phantoms (USHL)

 Jeremy Bracco (Photo Courtesy USA Hockey)

Jeremy Bracco (Photo Courtesy USA Hockey)

Today, the hockey world will direct its collective focus to Buffalo, NY once again as top American talent will take the stage in the CCM/USA All American Prospects game.  The game will showcase the top 40 American born prospects eligible for the 2015 NHL entry draft. 

Thursday will mark the third annual game as the first was played in Buffalo in 2012, followed by Pittsburgh in 2013.  Jim Johannson, the executive director for USA hockey operations, is extremely excited about this year’s talent and the fact that it’s back in Buffalo.  “Input from the NHL scouting community is that this year’s game will feature the highest level of talent to date for this event. We greatly appreciate the support of the Buffalo Sabres organization, which has proven to be an outstanding partner in this event.”

Many experts have boasted about the American born 2015 draft eligible American talent for the past couple years and for good reason.  The game will showcase plenty of top round talent and will be headlined by the generational talent Jack Eichel.  Eichel will consume much of the media attention and for this reason I decided to look elsewhere for an interesting storyline. 

Hockey has been quickly growing in popularity downstate and this Thursday will be definitive proof of that as two of the four NYS players have downstate roots.  Steven Ruggiero, born 1/1/97, is a solid 6’3, 200 pound defensemen out of Kings Park, NY.  The Suffolk county native played 41 games for the Youngstown Phantoms in the USHL last season and has officially committed to play in Pegulaville next season (Penn State, not Buffalo).  In case you did not know, besides from being the savior of WNY sports, Pegula is a supporter of Penn State Hockey.  He has donated over $100 million to help get Penn State hockey to big-time college hockey (largest donation in school history).  With the donations, Penn State has built a beautiful new ice-arena that has capacity for over 5,700 fans.

Jeremy Bracco is another Long Island kid who is no long shot to be in the NHL in the next couple of years.  Although only 5’9, Bracco has tons of skill and will likely be a 1st round draft pick come next June.  The Nassau county native will join other top U.S prospects at Boston College next fall including Noah Hanifin and Colin White.  

With the attention Bracco is receiving about the possibility of being of 1st round selection in the 2015 draft, I asked him if the pressure and spotlight ever affects him. “I don't think it adds pressure to me at all to be honest.  I just try to be the best player I can be night in and night out and do my thing.”

Both Bracco and Ruggiero have played together ever since they can remember and Steven has fond memories of playing alongside Jeremy;

“Jeremy and I have been good friends since we were little kids. Growing up I played against Jeremy for quite some time until we ended up being teammates with the Long Island Gulls throughout bantam hockey. Our team that year made it to Nationals, which were in Buffalo, and we finished ranking fourth in the country. It was an awesome year. I think I can speak for both of us by saying it is a tremendous honor to be able to do what we are doing today. I take tremendous pride in the fact that I am a east coast kid traveling the country representing my area on the ice, it means a lot to me.”

Here is my Q & A with Steven and Jeremy.

 When did you begin playing hockey?  Was hockey a big part of your hometown?

 S.R- I started playing hockey when I was around 3 years old. At first I started by playing street hockey and then switched over to ice. In the beginning I wasn’t the greatest skater but I kept working at it and eventually I got better. Hockey isn’t big in my hometown Kings Park.  We have a rink in our town that provides service to one of the travel teams on Long Island but not many kids play.

 J.B-  I began to start to play hockey when I could really start walking and probably because my Dad and his two brothers played hockey they got me into it and I loved it from the beginning.

What influenced you to start playing and continue?

S.R -I was influenced to play hockey mainly by my dad. Growing up my dad used to watch hockey all the time and is a huge New York Rangers fan so that played into it as well. The more work that I put into this game makes me realize more and more how much I want to make hockey my career.  I love the sport and everything about it. I’m hungry to continue to have success.

J.B-The influences around me and the fact that I’ve loved it from the beginning.

What persuaded you to choose your respective colleges?

S.R- I chose Penn State because of the feeling I got when I left campus after my visits. It has so much to offer both academically and athletically I felt it was a great fit for me. The coaching staff is great and I am looking forward to helping them win championships in the future.  Mr. Pegula has done a ton for so many people including Penn State University. Terry built them a brand new arena and in my opinion it is arguably the nicest arena in college hockey. The facilities inside are state of the art and it will be a great place to call home.

J.B-  I chose BC because I felt that it was a great fit for me and my family on and off the rink. Obviously my linemate Colin White had a lot to do with my decision and just the winning track record there is amazing.

From an outsiders perspective, hockey is relatively minor compared to sports such as football, baseball, and lacrosse.  Is this true?  Is hockey growing in popularity on Long Island?

S.R- There is no question about it that hockey isn’t a major sport on Long Island. Most people would probably say lacrosse is the biggest. The more and more players that come off Long Island helps to promote the game and I like to think that I contribute to that. People like Chris and Peter Ferraro who are retired pros also have made tremendous strides in the growth of the game on Long Island and I think it is starting to become more popular.

 J.B-  Well since I've started the sport has been getting more well known on Long Island and players like myself and Steve try to show kids that players from Long Island can make it even though it isn't a hockey hotbed.

 Who are your favorite professional football and hockey teams to support?

S.R- I’m a huge football and hockey fan. Just like my father I am a New York Giants and Rangers fan.

 J.B- I do not have a favorite football team but in terms of hockey I like watching the Penguins.

Will this be your first time in Buffalo? 

S.R- I have been to Buffalo before and have a pretty good feel for the city. I think it is really cool how the people of Buffalo rally around their sports and take pride in their city. I’m looking forward to meeting the other players and trying to learn something from Coach Olycyzk while I am there. The food is always good in New York!

J.B- Actually I've been to Buffalo for the state championship a few years back and my time there was great and I enjoyed every minute of it.

 What are you most looking forward to for this Thursday?

 S.R- It is always great playing in events like the AAPG because you get to meet new players and gauge where your game is at in comparison to others. I am looking forward to meeting my teammates for the event and getting a chance to showcase my talents against some of the top players in the United States.

 J.B- It's always nice to see guys you have grown up with and played against to see at this game and it'll be fun playing against some of my teammates now (Boston College).