It’s hard to have a better year than Jeremy Bracco’s 2016-2017 season. It started with a record-setting 25-game point streak, it paused for a World Juniors gold and an entry level contract, and it finished with him standing at centre ice, with a ball cap on, as the first star of the game and a Memorial Cup champion.
“I don’t think anybody wouldn’t take this season,” Bracco said at ice level after his Windsor Spitfires defeated the OHL Champion Erie Otters for the second time in a week to finish undefeated in four games at the Memorial Cup.
On the ice, Bracco was magic.
“He’s just one of the best players I’ve played with,” said Mikhail Sergachev, Windsor’s top defencemen, of his teammate.
There was the streak down the left wing just three minutes in, and the ensuing shot off the outside of the near post.
There was the corral of his own rebound behind the net and the pass to the slot for an open Julius Nattinen.
There was the cross-crease setup on a 2-on-1 on the next shift, tape-to-tape for Graham Knott — who was robbed by Erie goaltender Troy Timpano.
There was the great first-period penalty kill and the shorthanded chance that came with it, also stopped by Timpano.
There was the drawn penalty his line created after a pair of high-low passes from the diminutive American kept the cycle alive.
Then: Bracco finishing off a play in the low slot. The goal. The 1-0 lead.
“I don’t think anybody will tell you they don’t like scoring and it was something I was able to bring to this team and luckily I was able to provide it,” Bracco said.
In the second period, there was the pass to Logan Stanley at the point to set up the game-tying 2-2 goal too.
Bracco’s best play didn’t come until the third though — a three-zone skate that ended in him going heel-to-heel twice off the rush around the same defender (T.J. Fergus) before sliding a pass to a wide open Aaron Luchuk in the slot for the 4-3 goal. He nearly set up Knott for the 5-3 lead with a neutral zone breakaway pass too.
It’s hard to miss #97, with his visor tilted to the sky, his shirt tucked, and his forward stance. It’s easy to miss the clean outlet passes and the little chip plays along the boards. But it’s the big plays that counted.
“Bracco’s a great kid. He’s great in the locker room,” said Spitfires head coach Rocky Thompson, pausing to hug friends and family. “The guys love him. He’s a glue guy and he’s a big-game player. We knew that when we were getting him when we were at the World Juniors and he had to come up big consistently.”
The Spitsfires weren’t even supposed to be in the game — the host team in the tournament of champions rarely is. That’s what makes their 4-0 run to the top of the CHL’s 60 teams that much more special.
But Bracco knew they could do it. He said as much before the game and he reaffirmed on the ice.
“You have to have confidence and I knew I’d come out here and have a big one for this team,” Bracco said. “We were a confident group and we knew we had something to prove and we proved a lot of people wrong.”
It wasn’t always easy though. Bracco cooled off after his trade from the Kitchener Rangers to the Spitfires at the OHL’s deadline.
“When we first acquired him, he was two points a game,” said Spitfires general manager Warren Rychel, who became Bracco’s billet father in Windsor. “We had to adjust him and he was cheating a bit. And Bracco was great on the boards tonight. Bracco has been great.”
“Warren took me into his home with his family and I’m grateful for that,” Bracco noted.
The players struggled to adjust to Bracco’s style too.
“To be honest with you, at first we couldn’t do anything,” Sergachev said. “We couldn’t connect with him on the ice because he was just so much different. He’s another level of player. And now he played his best and our team played its best.”
The game’s final few seconds were the hardest.
“I was looking up and it was 35 seconds and then 11 seconds and then the D went in and I couldn’t even watch, I started punching the glass — it was the first time I’d ever hit anything,” Bracco said, smiling and laughing and remembering.
Now he’s got work to do. Bracco will go home to see his family in New York — he didn’t see them much this year — for a couple of weeks before returning to Toronto for development camp and training.
But he’ll never forget this year. It was perfect.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling and to have this feeling and be able to win a World Junior in the same year is pretty special,” he said.