On Monday afternoon, when Jeremy Bracco took to the ice at the Air Canada Centre (ACC) for Team USA’s first game of the 2017 World Juniors against Team Latvia, it was about more than a single game.
It was Bracco’s first World Juniors game, in his third crack at the team after being the final cut on Christmas Eve ahead of the 2015 tournament. It was also his first time on the ACC ice.
He’d been in the building before, having attended a couple of Toronto Maple Leafs games to watch from above, but he’d never skated at the home of the Leafs — the team that drafted him 61st overall in 2015.
“Before the game, I just kind of walked out and looked around and realized the history of what it means to be a Toronto Maple Leaf,” he said. “It’s pretty special for me and hopefully I can be here for years to come. Watching some of my buddies play here now, it’s a historic franchise and it’s pretty exciting.”
With Team USA, Bracco has found a coach who believes in him.
“To have the coach have confidence in me, and to put me on the powerplay, it feels good,” Bracco said. He started the tournament as Team USA’s third line right-winger alongside Jets prospects Jack Roslovic and Erik Foley.
Late in the third period, after taking an elbow to the face to draw a penalty, Bracco rewarded his coach on the man-advantage, sliding a shot five-hole for his first goal of the tournament.
“It’s something you’re used to,” Bracco said of the elbow he took, remembering the times he took a puck to the face in Leafs camp and broke his nose in another game. “They’re going to play hard and we’re going to play harder. Stuff like that happens. The powerplay was 0-for-3 going into that so for us to get one makes us feel really good.”
And his coach noticed.
“He didn’t retaliate and he used his powerplay time there to score,” Team USA head coach Bob Motzko said.
But this isn’t success new. This year, Bracco made an impression from the start of Team USA’s development camp.
“He’s been, even in the summer, he’s been one of our bright surprises,” added Motzko. “Great energy, great puck mover, and he can shoot. He’s got the ability to play offence for us and we think he’s deadly on the powerplay and we saw that this summer and we’ve seen that so far in the short time we’ve been together.”
It isn’t Bracco’s first time in the red, white and blue though. In fact, he’s the national program’s all-time assists leader and twice won gold internationally at the under-17 and under-18 level. In both tournaments, he led the team in assists with eight and 10 respectively.
This year, Bracco made it impossible for Team USA to leave him at home, putting together a CHL-best 26-game point streak to start the year.
“It (the point streak, which culminated with an overtime winner against the Kingston Frontenacs) was a lot of fun,” Bracco said. “I think as it went, my teammates got more into it than I was. When I got the 26th in Kingston, the boys were coming down yelling about the streak.”
Through 27 games with the Kitchener Rangers, Bracco has 51 points (17 goals, 34 assists) in his second full season in the OHL. Last year, as a rookie, he posted 64 points in 49 games.
This year’s tournament is about vindication, proving he can continue to dominate at a diminutive 5-10 and 180 pounds, and a chance to show Leafs management he deserves an entry-level contract.
“If you can stick in there and you’re not afraid, and you can play hard you’ve got a chance,” Motzko said. “He’s got the brain and he's got the skills and he’s had a very good attitude with us. He has been outstanding.”
Bracco, wearing a Prove People Wrong bracelet, is confident this year’s World Juniors won’t be his last stint at the ACC.
“Anytime you’re a smaller guy, everybody’s going to have their doubts about you because you have to prove you can play unlike a guy who’s 6-5 who has to prove he can’t play,” Bracco said. “If you want to be a player, you can be 5-foot-5.”