BUFFALO – This time, Joseph Cecconi’s cheering section was more subdued. His 20 or so family members and friends in attendance still cheered for the Sabres defenseman, mind you.
But they left their neon green “Cecconi Fan Club” shirts, giant head cutouts and signs at home.
Instead, Cecconi’s mother, Regina, opted to have some smaller “Cecconi heads” mounted on stick.
“Let them enjoy it,” Cecconi, a Youngstown native, joked Tuesday prior his preseason debut, a 4-1 win over the Boston Bruins.
His fans rarely get a chance to cheer for him here. He hadn’t played at KeyBank Center in exactly nine years: Sept. 26, 2014, when his rabid supporters made their presence known at the All-American Prospects Game.
A lot has changed since then. Cecconi, 26, finished junior hockey, was drafted by the Dallas Stars, played four seasons at Michigan and began his pro career.
On Monday, as he stood in the dressing room sporting Sabres workout gear, Cecconi couldn’t stop smiling.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said of being in the Sabres organization. “I mean, growing up 45 minutes away, dreaming of playing for the Buffalo Sabres. So now I got that chance.”
Cecconi spent parts of four seasons with Dallas’ AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars, yet never received a recall. Joining the Sabres organization Dec. 15 in a swap of defensemen – Buffalo sent Oskari Laaksonen to the Stars – has reignited his career.
“The goal is to play in the National Hockey League,” said Cecconi, who signed a one-year, two-way contract during the offseason. “I spent three and a half years there and you’re kind of not moving up in the ranks. It’s always good to get a fresh start when you can play.”
General manager Kevyn Adams puts a premium on acquiring players who want to be in Buffalo and take pride in wearing the jersey, and Cecconi certainly fits that description.
“Joe’s a guy that grew up here, grew up a Sabres fan, putting this organization’s colors on mean a ton to him,” Rochester Americans coach Seth Appert said. “So you have a chance to get a little extra from a young man like that.”
Cecconi earned regular duty with the Amerks for the rest of the season, showcasing a steady style that has impressed Buffalo’s brass.
In the Calder Cup Playoffs, he and partner Jeremy Davies logged big minutes, often facing the opponent’s top line during Rochester’s 14-game run.
“It was just a chance to start over,” Cecconi said. “… I got better as a hockey player and brought a lot of confidence over to the Sabres organization when I got traded. And then just being in Roch, the coaching staff and my teammates give me a lot of confidence to be myself, and ultimately I had a good playoff run.”
Appert said the 6-foot-3, 216-pound Cecconi gave the Amerks the big, steady defenseman they coveted.
“He’s a solid, long, strong defender,” he said. “I think his length is underappreciated. He’s physical, but he’s not like a crusher. That’s not his style. But he’s long. He breaks up a lot of plays with his length, his gapping. He’s a really good partner for offensive guys.”
Appert believes playing for Rochester, where Cecconi will likely start this season, “probably rejuvenated him and gave him hope.”
“Sometimes as a prospect you can feel stuck in an organization you can feel stuck, you haven’t got a call-up and other guys go up over you,” he said. “And you feel like it’s hopeless. You feel like you got no chance. And going to a new organization provides a little bit of life, little bit of hope.
“Then he has a good performance for us. Then he has great summer. He looks outstanding. He’s had a strong camp. So all of those things are exciting for a player and probably drive a player to work a little harder because you feel there’s a chance.”
Cecconi’s performance in the spring grabbed the attention of Adams and Sabres coach Don Granato.
“(We) liked him more and more as we watched him,” Granato said.
He added: “I was excited to see where he fits now. And so far, he’s done very well.”