Coming from a hockey family, there was always pressure to play hockey. It wasn’t from my father, who played in the NHL for 14 years, but there was always an internal pressure to carry out the family name and play hockey. It was a game that I always loved and wanted to carry on in the future.
Even with hockey in my blood, I never realized I could actually play Division 1 until my sophomore year of high school. I led my prep school in scoring and started to think that maybe I would be able to use hockey to get me somewhere.
After my junior year, I visited schools and this fantasy of playing at the next level started to become more and more of a reality. When I finished high school I knew that hockey was what I wanted to do and that I would sacrifice whatever was necessary in order to achieve my goals. Although I had D1 hockey as my end goal, I needed to make one stop first: juniors.
Junior hockey is a step that the majority of hockey players have to take in order to play D1 and after I finished my senior season, I knew that junior hockey was going to be necessary if I wanted to play college hockey.
These Juniors leagues specialize in sending players to play college hockey, so it was the perfect fit. The only reason that people played in this league was to be able to get the chance to play D1. I had several spots on Division 3 teams but I knew in my heart that I wanted to play D1.
Once I decided to pursue a spot in one of the juniors leagues, I got a call from the Vernon Vipers, a prestigious organization in the British Columbia Hockey League in Canada. Even though British Columbia was 3,000 miles away from Massachusetts, one of my best friends from high school played in the league the year before, so I felt comfortable making the jump.
It was really tough to leave my family and friends at home, but the ultimate goal was to play college hockey and I knew that was what I had to do in order to make my dreams come true.
The toughest part about playing junior hockey for me was the transition to living away from home. The team would put the players up in billet houses, who are families that lived in the area and willingly took players in to provide them with a home.
Thankfully, my teammate and I were lucky enough to be put in a family that had been “billeting” for a while. They quickly became my second set of parents. My billet mom would clean, cook, and even do our laundry sometimes. She was the sweetest lady and she was our biggest fan as well. By the end of my 8 months there, I felt as though I was part of the family.
Some junior players don’t get as lucky as I did in Vernon, but my billet family made living away from home a lot easier, allowing me to focus on hockey.
Playing junior hockey is different than anything else because hockey is the only time commitment that you have. I went from having an enormous workload at prep school along with demanding practice times to suddenly having the majority of my day free. I would usually spend around 5 to 6 hours at the rink every day, between working out in the weight room, practice, and getting in extra work after practice.
I found myself becoming more and more dedicated to hockey. Since there wasn’t much else to do in the small town, I really tried to use all of the opportunities I had to improve.
The league schedule also really helped players develop. I was used to playing around 30 games in a season, but in the BCHL, our season started in September and we played around 65 games including the playoffs, lasting until the end of March.
During the grind of a season, you don’t often step back and realize how unique the experience is. I got to live in a beautiful part of the world, and travel to places that I would have never even thought about visiting had I not played hockey in Vernon.
However, the travel was tough sometimes, traveling by bus on road trips that would last over 12 hours each way. Needless to say, I quickly learned how to sleep sitting up.
My favorite part about going on the road was when we would play teams that were located on the Vancouver Islands. The only way to reach these teams was by ferry. The ships we took were massive, our charter bus would just drive onto the boat and my teammates and I would go out to the deck and take in the scenery. If the boys got lucky, we’d be able to see a few whales as well.
Another aspect of playing in Vernon that really surprised me was the fan base. When playing in a small city like Vernon, the junior team is treated like the city’s very own pro team. When going out to restaurants or the grocery stores even, people would usually recognize the players on the team. I had never experienced anything like that. Playing in front of 2500-3000 fans a night was incredible. It was not only Vernon, most towns around the league provided this stardom as well.
As my season neared an end, I was still unsure about what my future was going to have in store for me. I started to receive interest from several D1 programs as the season came to a close, but I was just excited that I was finally going to be able to live out my dream of playing D1 hockey.
Now, being from the northeast of the United States, playing in the Hockey East is a dream come true. I think every player born in New England aspires to be able to play at one of the schools. I had dreamt of it, but never really thought it was a possibility.
When the University of New Hampshire came along and offered me a spot, I knew that it was the school for me. When I visited, I fell in love with the beautiful campus and the incredible facilities. The fact that it was close to home also helped me a lot in my decision.
Being able to combine a top-notch hockey program with a reputable business school at UNH has been an unbelievable experience. I used to only think about playing college hockey at a school like UNH as a fantasy, but now that I get to live it out. It’s even more amazing than I thought.
For me, it’s always been about hockey. With that mindset, I’ve had the chance to travel, meet new people, and play the game that I love. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’m only a freshman right now, but no matter what, I know that I’ll be able to do what I want with my life thanks to playing hockey.
Joe Sacco | Contributor