ROCHESTER – Right away, Joseph Cecconi called his grandfather, Joe, to share the special news.
Throughout his grandson’s junior and college career, the elder Cecconi traveled to nearly every one of his home games. He estimates he racked up about 30,000 miles a year driving from his Youngstown home to Muskegon and Ann Arbor.
Then Joseph Cecconi turned pro in 2019 and reported to the Texas Stars, Dallas’ AHL affiliate, and the trips ended. Michigan is a reasonable five- or six-hour drive. Austin, where the Stars play, takes about a full day to reach by car.
Other than a short drive to Toronto when the Stars visited a few years ago, Joe Cecconi has watched games on television.
So when the Stars traded Cecconi, a defenseman, to the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 15 and assigned him to the Rochester Americans, he immediately phoned his grandfather.
“I asked him if he was up for driving anymore and if Michigan was a good spot,” the Youngstown native told the Times Herald last month following a game at Blue Cross Arena. “And he said, ‘No.’ And I go, ‘How about a somewhere a little closer, like maybe Rochester?’ He’s like, ‘That’s not bad.’ I’m like, ‘Well, I just got traded to Buffalo, so you’re going to be able to see me a lot more.’”
On the other end of line, Joe Cecconi had tears in his eyes. He was speechless.
On Sunday afternoon, he plans to travel to Rochester for the first time to watch his grandson play for the Amerks.
“It was like a bolt of lightning out of the blue,” Joe Cecconi said of the trade. “We’ve been hoping for a long time that something would transpire with him to get him a better opportunity to make the National Hockey League. And when he called me I was just beside myself.”
Cecconi, a Sabres fan growing up, said getting dealt to the Buffalo organization “was a big deal for everyone back home.”
“Not often do you get to play in front of your family an hour and a half away and have the chance to play in the NHL 30 minutes away from your hometown,” he said. “It meant a lot to me that it was an emotional phone call for him. He’s been through a lot with me and so have my parents. It’s just awesome to hear that they’re rooting for me that much and they can come see me.”
Naturally, a fresh opportunity so close to home excites Cecconi, who recently missed eight games recovering from an upper-body injury. He’s grateful to the Stars for drafting him in 2015 and giving him his first opportunity. But after three years, the Amerks offer him what he called a “clean slate.”
“I get to impress a new set of coaches, try to build some trust in my teammates and a whole new management group and just do my thing and worry about what Joe Cecconi can do on the ice,” said Cecconi, who was swapped for Oskari Laaksonen, another right-shot defender.
He added: “I hope I’m one of those guys that just a new team, new system, new teammates, new culture, that’ll help me moving forward.”
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Cecconi is known as a defensive defenseman. In 188 career AHL games entering Tuesday’s road contest against the Cleveland Monsters, he had compiled four goals and 35 points, including four assists in 24 outings this season.
Still, he said these days, “There’s not too many just legitimate stay-at-home defensemen.”
“You got to evolve and get your game a little bit better in all areas,” he said. “I feel like I’m trying to be both (an) offensive defenseman, just move the puck north, play simple but still defend hard. When I need to be that stay-at-home D-man, I can do that. When I need to put pucks on net and be more offensive, I can do that as well. Being a full 200-foot player is kind of what I’ve been progressing into.”
The familiarity surrounding Cecconi clearly makes him feel comfortable with the Amerks. He and forward Brendan Warren were college roommates at Michigan. He played with defenseman Mitch Eliot and center Mason Jobst with the Muskegon Lumberjacks. He was also teammates with captain Michael Mersch in Texas.
“Before I even came in here I knew a few guys on the team and they’ve told me how great this organization is, from management up in Buffalo all the way to the training staff here, the coaching staff and teammates, they built a culture where everyone is pretty close and they want to win and they want to win the right way,” Cecconi said. “It’s been an easy fit to slide right in.
Cecconi has fit in well on the blue line, earning regular duty. He and Chase Priskie are the Amerks’ only right-shot defensemen who have NHL contracts. Righties, of course, always seem to be at a premium.
“Great person, great teammate, high work ethic, very professional approach,” Amerks coach Seth Appert said of Cecconi. “Real strong, solid defenseman. Long defensively, seems to break up a lot of plays, he’s got the long reach, long stick. It feels even longer than his height says.”