Jeremy Bracco’s journey from healthy scratch to Marlies mainstay

Toronto-Maple-Leafs;-Jeremy-Bracco

Toronto Maple Leafs forward prospect Jeremy Bracco (59) controls the puck while looking towards his left during a game against the Montreal Canadiens. (David Kirouac/Getty)

TORONTO — The AHL’s leading point-getter is sitting on top of the Toronto Marlies bench, his sock feet are dangling in the air, and he’s trying to dissuade his Siberian Husky from biting and digging in the ice he just practised on at Coca-Cola Coliseum.

"Don’t do that, honey!" Jeremy Bracco pleads. He tosses a puck for Mila to fetch instead, and she goes to retrieve it and then hustles back and drops it in front of him. Mila doesn’t slip even a little bit on the ice while she’s running. It’s impressive.

"She thinks she’s at home," Bracco explains, of the digging. Mila likes tunnelling into blankets and pillows in the downtown apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Ashley.

Bracco, the Marlies’ prolific right winger, has referred to himself as "daddy" at least twice since Mila showed up here. He’s been walking Mila around so she can hang with teammates, and for head coach Sheldon Keefe, this is a first-ever meeting. "I hear about this dog a lot," Keefe says, as Bracco runs by later, led by Mila, who’s pulling him toward her icy dog park.

As fellow Marlies can attest, Bracco has really come out of his shell this year. In a lot of ways.

One season after he was a healthy scratch for much of Toronto’s championship run, the insanely good play-making 22-year-old from Freeport, N.Y., is driving the offence for a team that just secured an eighth-straight playoff berth. Bracco has put up 77 points in 72 games in his second year as a pro, and the right winger is a big reason the Marlies will soon be playing beyond the regular season.

Watch Bracco play and it’s immediately clear why teammates and coaches say he thinks the game faster than most, why Keefe calls Bracco’s brain for hockey "pretty rare." The puck is on Bracco’s stick and it’s as though someone hit fast-forward in the decision-making department, because it’s immediately fired cross-ice through a couple defenders to an awaiting teammate.

That puck is often getting passed, because the player named after Jeremy Roenick is of the rare breed who prefers apples to grapes. "Guys always makes fun of me because I celebrate more on assists than I do when I score goals," Bracco says, grinning. "I just like distributing the puck. I always have."

The Leafs’ second-round pick in 2015 (61st overall) has found incredible success this season when distributing to his veteran linemate, Chris Mueller. "I’ve scored a lot of goals this year," Mueller points out (a career-high 33 in 58 games.) "I’d say 75 per cent of them have been fairly easy. I say that not in a conceited way, but because of the passes he’s made. His vision is unbelievable."

So much so that Marlies winger Rich Clune, who considers Bracco a brother, is most impressed when his buddy’s passes don’t turn into assists. "You sit there and you can’t blame the guy — I didn’t see that coming either," Clune says. "It wasn’t a goal, but it’s almost more impressive. It’s the creativity and the artistry of it."

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That covers the first thing Bracco is known for. The second hallmark of his game is "unorthodox," Clune says, "very unique," if you ask Keefe, and "different," according to Mueller. That’s Bracco’s skating style. Often, you’ll see him ripping around in the offensive zone with his skates at 10 and 2 (picture a clock), and his hips turned out.

"I did figure skating a little bit when I was a kid," Bracco explains. "It’s been something that’s been in my repertoire a while now, and something that kind of messes with people’s heads a little bit. I could always just open the hips up a dance a little bit." This style of skating buys Bracco time and space, key for a guy who’s five-foot-eleven and 171 pounds. "It makes him hard to read, because it’s not commonplace to move like that," Clune says.

"A lot of players can do it, but they stop moving," Keefe ads. "He does it and he builds speed. That’s what makes it so unique."

Despite the fact it’s unique and valuable, one knock on Bracco has been his skating. He’ll admit he’s "not the fastest player," and he’s been working with skating guru Barb Underhill to improve that. "I think she’d like to see my crossovers a little bit more," he says. Bracco even calls himself "an acquired taste," because of the way he plays, since he’s not the fastest or biggest guy. "I like to think I bring my own flare to a team and to a game," he says.

Bracco does, and certainly the Marlies have seen more of that flare than ever this season. Clune gets emotional thinking about his friend’s growth over the last year or two. "I love him, I truly do," the 31-year-old says. "The biggest thing I’ve seen with Jeremy is he’s become, I don’t want to use the word ‘mature,’ but he’s become more sure of himself, which is hard to do, especially coming in as a rookie into professional leagues.

"He’s allowed his personality to show, because Jeremy’s the type of person who can brighten up a room. That’s invaluable, especially during a long season where there’s ups and downs. But he’s grateful to be here and you can see that: He loves to play hockey, and that shines through. And now he’s in that zone where he’s doing what he does best and he’s offensive and he’s getting points and he’s feeling it. I couldn’t be more proud of him."

Bracco worked hard on off-ice training this off-season, and he’s eating and sleeping and behaving more like a professional. Keefe uses the word "poor" to describe Bracco’s conditioning ahead of his first pro season, and last year, the team focused on improvements off-ice. "It was about thinking big picture and trying to get ahead of some of the things we felt would hold him back from being an NHL player," Keefe says. "Always felt the offensive production was going to be there, it comes natural to him and he’s elite at it. But when your brain is your No. 1 skill, you can get away with a lot of other things.

"What’s important is to not lose sight of the other areas he needs to continue to work at, whether that’s his play away from the puck, or off the ice working on getting stronger, conditioning, strength. Those are things he has to work at to pair with the fact he has a lot of elite skills that’ll open a lot of doors for him. When those doors open, he’ll be able to take full advantage of it."

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Last season, Bracco had to watch all but four games as the Marlies went on their championship run. He was a healthy scratch once Andreas Johnsson returned to the lineup. It was tough, he admits.

"Obviously we win, you’re happy, you’re on cloud nine, but you want to be more involved, of course," Bracco says. "I’ve never been a healthy scratch that way and just kind of sat there and watched, but like I said you give what you can and you hang out. Everybody makes you feel part of the squad. It was nice that way."

He’s no longer just part of the squad. "He’s probably the most important offensive piece on our team," Mueller says. "I think he relishes that and he wants the team to go around him."

Mueller has 53 games of NHL experience on his résumé, and doesn’t doubt that Bracco will be there someday soon. "Honestly, the player he is, he thinks the game so quick and so fast. I just think he thinks the game faster or as fast as anybody at that level," the centreman says. "When you do that, you play fast. The way he thinks the game is top notch and it’s NHL, for sure."

But first things first: Bracco can’t wait for this post-season to get going. "I don’t think a lot of people expect us to do much," he says. "But we’ve got good goaltending, good D, good forwards and if we get hot at the right time, there’s no reason we can’t push for the repeat."

Does he figure he’ll be a healthy scratch this time around? "I hope not!" Bracco says, laughing. "I gotta keep ‘er going, and hopefully Keefer will keep me on the ice."

It’s a safe bet that he will.

Sadly, Mila won’t be there to watch her dad play when the playoffs start later this month. "She’s not allowed to come to games," Bracco explains, as Mila retrieves another puck on the ice. "It’s too bad. But at least she’s allowed in after practice."

Mila drops the puck at his feet, ready for another round of fetch. "She’s the best," Bracco says.

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