It is a 12-team league with at least a half a dozen exceptional goalies. And included among the standout stoppers in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League is Shane Brancato of the Soo Eagles.
The 20-year old Brancato, who hails from Lake Villa, Illinois, which is about an hour north of Chicago, is now in his third season with the Eagles. And on an Eagles team that is hovering around the .500 mark, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Brancato has been a workhorse between the pipes.
He has played in 13 of the Eagles 16 games to date and while his 6-6-1 record is just even, his .929 save percentage and 2.62 goals against average clearly shows Brancato’s net worth to the Eagles.
And what stands out even more is that Brancato is averaging almost 35 saves per outing, a statistic that impresses long-time Eagles general manager Bruno Bragagnolo.
“Shane gives us a chance to win every game,” Bragagnolo noted during a recent edition of the Hockey North Show, which airs weekly on Sault Ste. Marie radio station ESPN 1400. “And really, you can’t ask for anything more from your goalie.”
Bragagnolo, a former goalie himself during his playing days of more than 40 years ago, added that Brancato’s athleticism and conditioning level only adds to what the slender tender brings to the Eagles.
“He loves to play and he can handle the heavy workload,” Bragagnolo said of Brancato. “He can play three games on a weekend and not get tired. I think if it was up to Shane he would play every game.”
Eagles head coach Doug Laprade also made mention of Brancato’s athleticism, noting that his no. 1 goalie “is probably the best all around athlete on our team. I mean, this is a kid who is just over six feet tall but he can dunk a basketball.”
Brancato, from his end, is enjoying this, his final season of junior eligibility. In fact, he elected to return to the Eagles for a third season despite having a few offers to play college hockey.
“After talking with my parents and my family advisor (David Maciuk of JDM Sports) I thought it was better for me to play my final season of junior in a good league like the NOJHL and for a great organization like the Eagles.
“Dave (Maciuk) tells me that there are schools interested in me … it is just a matter of having a good season and then deciding what school is the best fit, both for academics and hockey,” Brancato noted.
A personable youngster with a down to earth, friendly demeanour, Brancato has grown to, in his words, “really like” playing for the Eagles and living in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan during the hockey season.
“The Eagles really treat their players well,” Brancato began, “and I have met a lot of really good people in the Sault through team functions. As a team, we do a lot of community work and in turn, we have great fans who come out and support us at the Pullar (Stadium.)”
Brancato appreciates the level of play in the NOJHL.
“Oh, it’s a really good league,” he relayed. “There are so many good players and teams. There is a lot of parity in the league … the competition and the level of play is amazing.”
Hockey isn’t all that occupies Brancato’s time as he plays out his last year of junior ahead of going the National Collegiate Athletic Association route. He also holds down a job as a dishwasher at Antler’s Restaurant, a popular dining establishment that is a big supporter of athletics and community events in the Twin Saults.
“Chris and Cathy Szabo (the owners of Antlers) are great people to work for,” said Brancato. “The Szabos are a great family.”
As for how he became a goalie, Brancato laughed.
“I started playing hockey when I was about eight years old and I think I played like one game as a forward before I asked if I could be the goalie. To be honest, I wanted to be the goalie because I wasn’t a very good skater,” he smiled, with a chuckle.
All these years later, Brancato is still a goalie.
“I love being a goalie,” he said. “I love being in on the action and I love trying to stop the other team from scoring.”
Brancato said he likes playing for aforementioned head coach Doug Laprade.
“He’s a patient guy and a good teacher,” Brancato said of Laprade. “We have a really good coaching staff led by Doug and Bruno is always around to make sure things are run right.”
Brancato said he also appreciates the input and feedback from veteran Eagles goalie Bill Vanderleest.
“Bill is a good guy and he really cares,” Brancato relayed. “He pays close attention to what I am doing out there. If he sees something that he thinks will help me, he makes sure that he points it out.”
In the meantime, Brancato is focused on helping the Eagles achieve success as a team.
“It’s a balanced league and where we are in the West Division the rivalries are really intense,” said Brancato. “There are no easy games, that is for sure. I think we match up well with the top teams in the league … most of the games are really close.
“I think when we put it all together, we are as good as any team in our division. We have a good group of veterans and our rookies are helping out a lot,” Brancato concluded.
PHOTO: Soo Eagles goalie Shane Brancato.