TORONTO – Jeremy Bracco finished his first pro season the same way he’d finished nearly every season leading up to it: celebrating inside a championship dressing room.
But there was one tiny difference about the 21-year-old’s Calder Cup victory with the Toronto Marlies. Despite being in fine health, Bracco didn’t get a chance to skate in the clinching game — or barely any playoff games for that matter.
Undeterred, the healthy scratch geared up after the buzzer in everything but a helmet, joined his teammates under the confetti storm of Game 7 glory, twirled with the Cup and cheesed for photos.
Bracco falls into the category of what Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock has termed “a serial winner.”
The playmaker from Freeport, N.Y., won gold with Team USA at the under-17 and under-18 levels, leading both tournaments in assists. In 2016-17, he bit into a world junior gold medal and lifted the Memorial Cup — integral to two major championships within a span of five months.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Bracco’s arrival in Toronto coincided with the quenching of a 51-year pro hockey title drought.
But Bracco sitting all but four games in the stacked Marlies’ run? That served as a cold wake-up call for a kid accustomed to top-line minutes.
“It wasn’t easy watching. You want to play in Game 5 against Utica. You want to play Game 7 in the final. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but at the end of the day, you’re all working towards a common goal,” Bracco says at Leafs training camp.
“You want to remember that feeling so it never happens again.”
At 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, the undersized 2015 second-rounder is at least another year away from making the cut. Part of that is due to the more mature talent ahead of Bracco on an organizational chart boasting ridiculous depth at right wing.
The other part falls on him.
“Move your feet! Move your feet!” Babcock barks at Bracco, a couple times per practice.
“It’s definitely something he’s harped on,” Bracco acknowledges with a grin.
“Every play, every detail, every faceoff is magnified. That’s what happens in the National Hockey League. He’s had success at every level he’s coached, so obviously he’s doing something right.”
Bracco has been doing something right himself this camp, he says he’s having a blast.
He scored in each of his first two pre-season games, led all Leafs with four shots in his third, improved his chemistry with centreman and fast friend Adam Brooks, and is looking comfortable on the power play.
With Marlies grads Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen jumping to the big club’s fourth line, the Brooks-Bracco combo should be a fixture on the farm club’s top six. Bracco put up a respectable 32 points in 50 games as an AHL freshman last winter, but his development is far from peak.
“He’s just gotta learn to be a good pro. That means learning how to work, learning how to train, and learning how to eat,” Babcock says.
“He’s got a skill-set, without any question. Now you’ve got to become a professional athlete. It takes some kids some time.”
Those details can be devilish.
Bracco now understands that showing up on time for meetings means arriving 10 minutes early. And he and Kyle Dubas have engaged in frequent feedback sessions, the new GM praising his strengths and prodding him to eliminate his weaknesses.
Like a kid named after NHL 94 legend Jeremy Roenick should, Bracco cruised through three years of junior at a 1.39 points-per-game clip. It’s hard to improve your defensive positioning and backchecking when the puck is always on your blade.
“Playing without the puck is a big thing,” Bracco says. “As you go up, you have the puck less and less, so you have to be able to get into open spots and get the puck more.”
Bracco has leaned on AHL veterans Ben Smith and gym rat Rich Clune to help with his grooming, sometimes literally so.
“You always want to look presentable. Obviously, Lou [Lamoriello] had his rules, but the older guys stay on top of you about it. You don’t always think about that when you wake up: Comb your hair and get ready. A guy like Dicky’s been doing it for 10-plus years, so he’ll let you know in the morning for sure,” Bracco chuckles.
“I think I can take a couple more habits from [Clune]. He was a guy who from Day 1 took me in and was really nice. He’s been a great mentor for me, kind of a father away from home.”
Clune, too, was scratched during the AHL playoffs and served as a calming sounding board for the antsy Bracco as the two watched their team win without them.
Bracco made a point to remain in Toronto over the summer to take advantage of the Leafs’ development staff and boost his conditioning. He consulted Darryl Belfry and Mike Ellis to sharpen his skills and worked with skating Barb Underhill on his stride.
“I skate the sideways way, which isn’t her favourite,” he smiles. “She takes what you’re pretty good at and tweaks it to make it better.”
As a second-year pro, Bracco plans to put his days of gathering up practice pucks and cleaning the buses behind him. The healthy scratches, too.
“Wherever you are, you want to play,” Bracco says. “You want to be on the power play. You want to be in good enough shape to play big minutes and contribute wherever you are, and at the end of the year, you want to be winning in the last game of the season.”
Wait. Back up. Did he literally have to clean the Marlies bus?
“You just pick up a bunch of things before the bus driver leaves,” Bracco says.
“It is what it is. It’s part of it. You pay your dues, right?”