By Rob Tucker
He'd played his way through the open tryout, survived not one, not two, but three subsequent tryouts and still, as he sat in a room looking over the faces of the last few remaining hopefuls, he figured this might be the end of the line.
Chautauqua Lake Central School graduate Justin Andriaccio has made the Buffalo Blades of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League.
So as Justin Andriaccio, 18, listened to Matt English, coach of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League's Buffalo Regals (formerly the Buffalo Blades), describe the situation at hand to the attentive group - only eight openings remained, just three of which were at Andriaccio's forward position - the 2013 Chautauqua Lake Central School graduate wasn't exactly feeling optimistic.
"It was a goal I really didn't think I'd reach," he said. "I was definitely an underdog. But I had good coaching throughout my Lakers years from Coach (Randy) Stuart, and my parents and family all said I could do it, so I kept going for it."
Then, after more waiting - he estimates the whole process, from the first tryout to the last, spanned more than a month - the phone rang.
A spot was open, English told Andriaccio. Want it?
Andriaccio's reply was short, and to the point.
"Hell yeah!" he said.
The "underdog" was a Regal.
The Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League (GOJHL) is a developmental Junior B-level Canadian hockey league that is based in Southern Ontario.
Formed in 2007 by the combining of three leagues - the Western Ontario Hockey League, the Mid-Western Hockey League and the Golden Horseshoe Hockey League - it is made up of 27 squads, each of which play 50- to 60-game schedules over a six-month period.
The league has quickly come to be known as one of the best on the continent, amateur or professional.
Thehockeywriters.com, in fact, recently placed it at No. 8 on a list of the top-10 developmental leagues in North America. That's one spot better than the North American Hockey League, the league in which the Jamestown Ironmen played.
Naturally, the American Hockey League - often a player's last stop before reaching the NHL - was No. 1.
"It's ridiculous," Andriaccio said of the talent-level amongst the players of the GOJHL. "It's the real deal; there's a lot of skill."
That should suit the former Jamestown Raider (he was the team co-captain) and Jamestown Laker just fine.
Not only did Andriaccio help to lead the Raiders to a solid second-place finish at the Western New York High School Club Hockey Large Division Mixed State Championships back in early March, but he also, just a few weeks later, guided the Lakers to the New York State 18-and-under state championship, the organization's first since 2005.
All told, the center netted 36 goals over about 55 games.
He hopes to be just as prolific this season with his new team.
Andriaccio, who now lives in the Buffalo suburb of Kenmore with his aunt and uncle, suits up for his first live action against an opponent as a member of the Regals today, when the squad plays the first of three guaranteed games at the annual Pirates Cup Tournament at the New Health and Wellness Centre in Port Colborne, Ontario.
And, after an admittedly tough start in practice, he feels good about where his game is at heading into the preseason competition.
"It took me a week to get used to playing (at that level)," he said, "but now I'm starting to get comfortable. So far, things are looking pretty good."
Andriaccio and his Regal teammates are first set to go against the Ancaster Avalanche at 6 p.m. Then, on Saturday, it's an 11 a.m. contest with Brampton and a 7 p.m. battle with Port Colborne, a team on which another area native, Alex Carlson, is a member.
Should those first three games go well, the Regals will play for the championship on Sunday.
Win or lose, however, at this point of the season (the games don't count, after all), Andriaccio is merely looking to get a better feel for the game at the GOJHL level.
"The goal is to go out there and get some ice time and get some good experience," he said. "I'm going to have to really show a lot of effort, but I know I can compete."