Traditionally the Thunder Bay, Ontario area has been one of hockey's hottest hotbeds, developing some of Canada's top players over the years.
And one of Italy's.
Rick Bragnalo was born in nearby Fort William, Ontario. He grew up dominating the hockey rinks in the winter and the baseball diamonds in the summer time.
In 1970 Bragnalo left northern Ontario to attend classes at the University of Denver. He also starred with the Pioneers hockey team, playing forward but also, at times, on defense. It was still rare for NCAA teams to be sending players to the NHL at that time, but some of Bragnalo's teammates included Peter McNab, Rich Preston, Mike Christie Bruce Affleck, Rob Palmer and Mike Busniuk. With a line up like that, it was no wonder that the team advanced to the "Final Four" three of the four years the team was together.
Like most of his teammates, Bragnalo was quick to thank coach Murray Armstrong.
“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.”
Bragnalo still went unnoticed by the National Hockey League. It was not until after two dominating seasons with the IHL's Dayton Gems that the Washington Capitals offered him a NHL contract.
He finished the 1975-76 season with the Capitals. He played all 80 games in the 1976-77 season and 46 more over the next two seasons. In total he scored 15 goals and 50 points in 145 career NHL games.
By 1980 Bragnalo was out of the NHL and pursuing playing professionally in Italy. It was a natural fit given his ancestry. It allowed him easy access to an Italian career that extended all the way until 1992. He was granted Italian citizenship and competed for his adopted country in international tournaments including six world championships. He was anxiously anticipating representing Italy at the 1984 Olympics, but just days before the Sarajevo games were set to begin he was ruled ineligible due to his past NHL experience.
“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.”
Bragnalo did return to the Thunder Bay area and became a teacher and coached youth hockey.