by David Diaczuk
Sometimes dreams do come true, especially for hockey players in Northwestern Ontario. University of Denver alum Rick Bragnalo, one of the 2011 inductees into the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame, has had an extensive hockey career, but it all started on those outdoor rinks in Fort William, Ontario.
“Parents knew where their kids were because all they had to do was look across the street and that’s where they were on the rinks,” Bragnalo recalled. “We all grew up with the same ambitions and same passions for the games. When you’re young you always have those dreams, but at the time they are only dreams.”
Bragnalo started playing junior hockey in the early 1960s in Fort William. In 1968, he became a forward for the Fort William Canadiens junior team where he won Rookie of the Year and was the league’s scoring champion, as well as advancing to the Memorial Cup final.
In 1970, he was lucky enough to earn a hockey scholarship at the University of Denver, and that’s when things really started to take shape.
“At that age you start thinking this dream might be possible,” he said.
During his time as a forward and defencemen with the University of Denver, Bragnalo earned 46 points in 29 games, as well as 24 goals and 22 assists in the 1973-74 season. It was also during this time that Bragnalo was coached by Murray Armstrong, who he said impacted his life, not only as a hockey player, but as person.
“I learned a lot from that gentleman on how to conduct myself as a person and as a player,” he said. “I would have to say he was very instrumental in forming my hockey philosophy.”
After graduating from the University of Denver in 1974, Bragnalo signed on with the Dayton Gems in the International Hockey League, playing four seasons.
Bragnalo’s next step was the National Hockey League. In 1975, he was put on the negotiation list for the Washington Capitals and attended their training camp. Bragnalo played four seasons with the Capitals scoring 15 goals and 35 assists.
Even though he said he was never a star player in the NHL, it did provide him with one of his most memorable moments throughout his hockey career.
“If I had to pick one of my most memorable moments, it would have to be my first goal in the NHL,” he said. “It is one thing I guess you never forget. It was just one goal but it was an important time for me.”
The goal was scored against New York Rangers goaltender John Davidson in the 1975-76 season. And even though he saved the puck, sometimes mementos go missing, he said.
After playing in the NHL, Bragnalo had a two-season stint in the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears and again in the International Hockey League with the Port Huron Flags. But what came next was going to be quite the change for the hockey player from Fort William.
From 1980 to 1992, Bragnalo played hockey in Italy in the professional leagues as well as representing Italy in the World Championships.
“It was a totally different ball game,” Bragnalo said. “It wasn’t the NHL and the caliber of hockey wasn’t as good as here. But it was a great experience for me and probably a better experience for my family. I got to expose my family and kids to quite a cultural experience. I think if you ask them today they would say it was unforgettable.”
While he is a Canadian by birth, Bragnalo said his Italian background gave him the opportunity to play in Italy. And being a Canadian at heart, Bragnalo said it was always a thrill to play against Team Canada.
“It was always nice to play against Team Canada or Team USA because you always felt you had something to prove and that you could play with them,” he said. “We tied Team Canada 3-3 and I think that has to rank up there as one of the greater thrills in my career as well.”
Bragnalo retired from his hockey career in 1992, but he wasn’t quite ready to hang up the skates just yet. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Bragnalo worked as a coach with the Thunder Bay Kings. He is also a teacher in the Thunder Bay District Catholic School Board, which he said is very rewarding because he always liked working with kids.
This isn’t Bragnalo’s first induction into the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. In 1991 and 1995, he was inducted with the 1966 and 1967 Fort William little league teams, respectively. But this is his first honor for his hockey career.
“I was quite surprised and very humbled by being inducted,” he said. “I know the quality of past recipients and I’m certainly honored to be mentioned in the same category as they are.”
As for all those kids out on cold winter nights, skating on all those outdoor rinks, Bragnalo said they just have to keep dreaming, just like he did.
“If you like the game and you have a passion for it, then do your best and you never know,” he said. “You dream and sometimes dreams come true.”