Like Eden Prairie's Casey Mittelstadt, Buffalo's Jake Braccini (right) verbally committed to Minnesota before skating his first varsity shift. Bison coach Aaron Johnson called the sophomore a special player. "He’s got the quickest shot release that I’ve ever seen. He’s got a high hockey IQ and he’s driven.” Star Tribune photo by David Joles • email@example.com
The Buffalo boys’ hockey home-opener, a Saturday matinee against high-flying Moorhead, is the program’s most anticipated game in years.
Sophomore forward Jake Braccini has looked forward to this game for some time, eager to face a Spuds team that he watched “kind of tear it up in the state tournament.”
But Class 2A runner-up Moorhead isn’t the lone attraction. Braccini, who has verbally committed to Minnesota, headlines the Bison’s large sophomore contingent. One of the state’s top bantam players last winter, Braccini kind of tore it up with 78 goals and 62 assists in 45 games.
“He’s got phenomenal skill,” Buffalo coach Aaron Johnson said. “He’s a special player. He’s got the quickest shot release that I’ve ever seen. He’s got a high hockey IQ and he’s driven.”
Like Eden Prairie standout Casey Mittelstadt, Braccini committed to the Gophers before ever skating a varsity shift. Early recruitment is a sign of the times but having a player of that caliber in Buffalo, about 40 miles west of downtown Minneapolis, is something rare.
Mike MacMillan, executive director of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association and Bison coach from 1995-2011, had a few later-committing Division I players. He said Braccini’s rising profile as a sophomore “shines a light on the kid and the program so I think it’s a great thing for him to be in the conversation.”
Braccini emerged as one of the state's top bantam players after recording 78 goals and 62 assists in 45 games last year. Star Tribune photo by David Joles
A 5-11, 187-pound left wing, Braccini is a strong skater with explosive speed. Last year, he played on a line with twin brother Tyler at center and Devin Huebner at right wing. They are three of the Bison’s eight sophomores, a group Braccini said went 24-20-1 in Bantam AA last year and “surprised a few teams and put ourselves out there a little bit.”
The bantams won a tournament in Moorhead, defeating the host Spuds along with Grand Forks (N.D.) and Andover. Not bad for a group of players mistaken for an East Coast team.
“In Moorhead, people were like, ‘Buffalo. In New York?’ ” Braccini said. “You tell them Buffalo, Minnesota, and then it’s ‘Where’s Buffalo? Who are you guys?’ People found out who we were, I guess.”
Years earlier, Braccini had hockey questions of his own. Bryan and Teresa Braccini put their sons on skates and the introduction wasn’t grand.
“Just the other week we were watching our little cousin playing hockey,’’ Braccini said, “and my mom said, ‘I remember when you were out there. You came up to the glass and just dropped your stick and you were crying.’ ”
Braccini makes a much better impression leaving the ice these days. A varsity team with only two seniors needs others to carry themselves with a similar maturity and Braccini is doing his part.
“Every day at the end of practice he says thank you to the coaches,” Johnson said. “He knows he’s in a leadership position as a young man because of his talent.”
Like early recruitment, leaving one’s home association for the promise of greener pastures elsewhere happens more often. Buffalo last won a conference title in 2006 and has never reached the state tournament. Braccini said the idea of leaving “popped up a couple times.” The family, which lives in Hanover, considered tradition-rich Benilde-St. Margaret’s before opting to stay.
“In the end, this is where I started youth hockey and where I’ve built relationships,” Braccini said.
David La Vaque