A frozen pond is a place of solace for hockey players. There's solitude, broken only by the sound of skates carving into the ice, a stick striking the surface or the ping of shot ricocheting off the goal post.
Growing up in wildly affluent Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Russell Cicerone understood the power of the pond. He craved time on the ice across the street from his house, and his parents, Mary and David, furthered his fervent desire to develop as a hockey player.
There was one problem - there were few neighbors close to Russell's age. Although Cicerone's inner-drive meant opponents were less a necessity than a luxury, the allure of the ice was shared by a household of athletes.
"He was satisfied to be out there for hours with just me," said Mary, a six-time state championship winner as head coach of the Marian High School's girls basketball team. "He'd have me rate his moves, and he'd get mad if I didn't rate him high enough."
In addition to learning how to skate backwards - a trait she's now rather proud of - Mary Cicerone earned an uncommon nickname, "The Zamboni." She led the charge in cutting a hole in the ice and pumping water from below to flood the rink's surface, ensuring smooth ice for skating. When it snowed, the whole family shoveled.
David, a baseball player in his youth, wasn't keen on learning to skate but became an "excellent goalie in boots," his wife said, leading to hours of Russell stick-handling around his mother and trying to snipe shots just over his father's shoulders - if he wasn't dishing to his older sister, Anina, for a tap-in.
Setting up for outdoor hockey wasn't always simple - lugging the net across the street was a hassle, and storing it in the woods worked until rabble-rousing kids stumbled upon it.
Juggling busy work schedules themselves, Cicerone's parents took shifts with their son on the ice after the early years of grade school - usually Mary first for two or three hours, then David, who kept the car lights on the ice until 11 or 11:30 p.m.
On weekends and during winter breaks as he got older, Cicerone and the pond became even more inseparable.
"My parents would just drop me off there, and I’d be on the ice from morning until night," he remembers. "They’d bring me food and Gatorade so I didn’t have to leave the ice."
Hockey was king in Michigan, and the frozen pond became a place of warm family memories for the Cicerones.
TWO LOVES IN HOCKEY CENTRAL
Collecting dust in the athletic history of Russell Cicerone - the reigning Mid-American Conference Player of the Year and likely Major League Soccer SuperDraft pick this spring - is a battle between two first loves, run-ins with Red Wings legends and an unrelenting hunger to be the best.
To reach the professional level at any single sport, nearly every waking moment must be devoted to development. Holland encourages its top youth soccer players to get 10,000 touches on a ball each day. Renowned author Malcolm Gladwell preaches the 10,000-hour rule, emphasizing repetition and the sheer time needed to master something.
In modern youth soccer, especially at the academy level, young athletes train three or four times each week, with another game or two mixed in. For Cicerone to reach the level he's at today, you'd think his story would involve endless hours curling a ball against the garage door, grueling individual training sessions with former professionals and year-round, high-level competition with soccer as his lone focus. That's not how it happened.
The story's first few chapters aren't extraordinary, but there was a plan. Russell picked up hockey the winter after he was introduced to soccer - at 6 years old - because of prescient advice from Mary's side of the family.
"We had a little insight that anyone who played hockey should play soccer, and anyone who plays soccer should play hockey, and you'll see the benefits later down the line," remembers David, thinking back during halftime of a spirited clash between Russell's Bulls and Big 4 rival Canisius.
One memory of Russell's early days in competitive hockey - one that foretold future success - was as a 12-year-old for the USA Eagles, an elite travel team competing in a youth state championship.
"It was double overtime in the state championship and I scored, and it was crazy," Cicerone recalls. "We were up in Marquette or Calumet, Michigan - they live and breathe hockey up there – as soon as it happened my name was in big letters in the newspaper, and it was awesome."
Cicerone wasn't just having success in some fringe hockey state. USA Hockey separates its youth system into regional districts like Atlantic, Central, New England and Mid-American, but certain hockey-crazed states - Michigan, Massachusetts and Minnesota, for example - get districts all to themselves.
In 2006, when Cicerone scored the winner for the Eagles, Michigan boasted nearly 63,000 players, coaches and officials, the second-most among 11 districts across the United States. Soccer, on the other hand, lagged behind hockey in popularity and youth talent, allowing a gifted athlete like Cicerone to face fewer impediments and make a name for himself quickly.
He was part of prestigious Vardar Soccer Club's state championship club teams in 2007, 2008 and 2010 - his U-12, U-13, and U-15 years - and as a 15-year-old, his club side finished third in the entire nation.
Balancing hockey for the Eagles during the winter and soccer for Vardar made for a wild schedule; Cicerone often swapped hockey pads for soccer shin guards in a sweaty, cramped passenger seat. But living 20 minutes from Detroit - where the Red Wings captured more Stanley Cups than any other U.S.-based team - led to more brushes with greatness on the ice than on the pitch.
PAVEL, THE NEIGHBOR
Like most kids in Michigan, Russell Cicerone grew up a Red Wings fan. Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov jerseys were prized parts of his wardrobe, and head coach Mike Babcock was one of those scarily intense leaders who just didn't seem to lose.
Living in Oakland County, among the 25 wealthiest in the United States despite being just minutes from the poorest major metro, had its perks, too. In the early 2000s, a late Wings draft pick from the Russian Super League quickly established himself as a young star, winning the Stanley Cup in 2002 and being chosen to the NHL All-Star Game in 2004.
It just so happened that Pavel Datsyuk, his then-wife Svetlana and their daughter Elizabeth moved into Bloomfield Hills, not far from the Cicerones, and the two families would run into each other on occasion.
"[Datsyuk] was in my backyard a couple times playing soccer – he’s actually a pretty skilled soccer player," Russell remembers. "When he had his first daughter, her first pair of skates were my old skates, and he took her out on the pond that we used to play on."
Mary remembers less about Elizabeth's first skates and more about Datsyuk's stops in the driveway to hit a soccer ball around. The Red Wings star became less of a larger-than-life figure and more of a quirky-yet-friendly neighbor. "Russell liked it when Pavel was just being Pavel," Mary said.
THE HOCKEY BREAKOUT
Russell attended high school at all-boys Brother Rice, an athletic powerhouse with roughly 850 students across four grades and an annual tuition of around $10,000.
He'd had grown from a 90-pound freshman - when his mom said he "looked like an 8-year-old" and soccer teammates part-teasingly, part-affectionately called him "Baby Russ" - to a 5-foot-9, 150-pound junior - not huge but sturdy enough to hold his own on the ice.
"I always read the game really well – I knew where people were going to be before they were there – I obviously wasn’t the biggest or the fastest guy on the ice, so I had to use my brain a lot more than the other guys did," Cicerone self-reflected. "Every coach I’ve known has said I’ve got hockey smarts – reading the game, a great passer of the puck, great vision – those were my best attributes."
His dad thought a key part of his hockey skill set was how he offset his lack of size.
"The way Russ played hockey mainly is that everybody was trying to take him out - you could not hit that guy, he was on the boards, he'd dodge left, dodge right, dodge low - he never took a hard hit, ever," David Cicerone said. "You just couldn't hit him. In the open ice he could do whatever he wanted."
From the player's perspective, Russell relied upon his balance and low center of gravity. "In hockey you have to fend big guys off like that, and in soccer, [you have] to keep possession of the ball with all those bodies all over you, a lot of that came from hockey.”
Russell's size hindered him even less on the pitch, where he made the team and contributed as a freshman on the Brother Rice state championship squad, earning him more of a local reputation as a soccer prodigy, but Brother Rice hockey coach Lou Schmidt Jr. positioned him as the pivot between two gifted wingers, Mackenzie MacEachern and Thomas Ebbing, where he flourished.
"Every time [Russell] found them, they were the type of players that he could turn and skate to the bench because they were finishing it from that point," David Cicerone remarked. "Russell almost never saw the puck come back because they finished after his pass."
Cicerone's hockey prospects grew, as Brother Rice captured the Michigan state championship that year (2012), with Russell netting two in the 4-1 final win over Grosse Pointe South, including the eventual game-winning goal in the second period.
Finishing his junior season on the highest note left open the possibility of Cicerone pursuing hockey, not soccer.
The choice loomed. Although soccer in Michigan wasn't seen in the same light as hockey, Cicerone hadn't slowed down after winning the state championship as a freshman; he wore the captain's armband as a junior and soon earned a starter's role on the Vardar SC academy team, which due to a 2012 ruling, prevented Cicerone from playing with Brother Rice his senior year.
Many top high school athletes make decisions about their future after their junior year of high school, which put Cicerone in a bit of a pickle; choosing between hockey and soccer was not easy.
Russell was recruited heavily for both sports - scouts from junior hockey teams were common outside the Brother Rice locker room, often to see MacEachern and Ebbing - both now at Michigan State - but increasingly to see Cicerone during the state title run.
But post-high school hockey is a bit of a gauntlet - the usual route is two years in juniors, preferably in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but also the United States Hockey League - and then four years at a college before making the jump to the pro ranks.
For soccer, Division I schools University of Dayton, Western Michigan and Bowling Green showed the most intense interest in Cicerone, with local Big Ten power Michigan State reaching out more passively.
Ultimately, Cicerone's decision about his athletic future hinged on two factors: uncertainties surrounding hockey and a family's relationship with a soccer coach.
HOCKEY UNCERTAINTIES AND RIDDLE'S ROLE
Hockey was trending bigger and meaner - and even a smaller NHL forward like Datsyuk, whom Cicerone emulated, outweighed him by almost 50 pounds.
"When I was in high school I went to watch some of the other guys play in the juniors league and everyone was massive," Cicerone remembers. "There’s tons of fights and it’s a really physical game – I was much smaller than everybody else."
The time-frame to move up the hockey ladder was worrying, too.
"The older kids from my high school team told me how they were going to play juniors – then it would be another 2-3 years before they’d go to college," Cicerone said. "They'd be maybe 22, 23 years old being a freshman in college - and going to live with a foreign family, I didn’t think that was for me."
His father was believed that Russell's lack of size was probably the deciding issue.
"It was a tough, tough decision for him," David explained. "We weighed the pros and the cons of both [sports], the height, the weight, the size. We'd heard the horror stories of the guys who've gone to juniors - very physical, he didn't have the size at that time and it probably could have hurt him."
When scouts and hockey parents would ask Mary why Russell was leaning toward soccer, she was logical.
"We won't sit with the possibility of a scholarship for a few years when we have one now," she'd say, referring to offers from Stu Riddle at Western Michigan and Eric Nichols at Bowling Green, two Mid-American Conference schools with solid soccer programs. "Russ wanted a scholarship and wanted to prove he could earn some money."
Still, Mary - whom Russell credits as the major motivator for his hockey career - wasn't entirely thrilled that hockey would go by the wayside once high school ended.
"I was torn," she admitted. "I do love hockey, I love the game and soccer can be kind of boring. Hockey goes back and forth, it's a game of turnovers, bing-bing. It's not disappointment [in Russell's decision], but I miss it."
Western offered the most money for soccer, and Russell knew the lay of the land - the campus was only two hours away from Brother Rice, and Anina, graduating in spring 2013, had spent four years in the soccer program and became an Academic All-American.
Plus, the Broncos' head coach, New Zealand native Stu Riddle, came highly recommended by Russell's sister, who'd been allowed to train occasionally with the men's team.
"Russ kind of liked hearing that Stu used to have a board in his office, and for two years before Russell was even out of high school, Stu had all his [recruits] - about 35 guys - all listed," David described.
"Russ was No. 1 for two years straight - the other guys were being jockeyed to different spots, Russ never moved from that. Anina really built Stu up, liked Stu and said, 'Go to Western, go to Western!' We were all set for that."
Halfway through Cicerone's senior year, though, he got a call from Riddle. The head coach whom he'd committed to at Western had taken the job at the University at Buffalo, over four hours away from Bloomfield Hills.
"It was pretty scary when I got the call from Stu," Russell recalled. "I was all set to go to Western, I was following my sister and I knew a bunch of people there. I really did not know Buffalo at all that much, so it was really scary."
"We knew absolutely nothing about Buffalo," his father echoed. "The only thing me and Russ knew about Buffalo were hockey tournaments up in Kitchener and London, and we used to have them in Buffalo, then of course we'd go to the Anchor Bar and we'd knock out 50 wings between the two of us. There were never any soccer tournaments in that area."
In many ways, then, Cicerone chose the person over the school. Riddle had earned Anina's trust, impressed the Cicerones while recruiting, and convinced Russell that he'd have a big role in turning around the UB program, which came off a 5-11-1 campaign in 2012 and hadn't posted a record over .500 since 2008.
"Stu's approach was, 'No matter what I do, you're coming with me,'" David Cicerone added. "That's what I liked about Stu; he was good about saying - no matter what, I don't care who's looking at you, you're coming with me."
The leap of faith was then set in stone - Russell Cicerone would attend the University at Buffalo to play soccer.
Even though Cicerone knew he was headed to Buffalo in the fall, there was still one season left of hockey to play. Ebbing and MacEachern had graduated and moved on to juniors, but Cicerone wanted to prove that he could lead Brother Rice without the two snipers.
Brother Rice's quest for Michigan prep school domination frequently collided with Catholic Central, another all-boys school with similar enrollment and cost, which boasted a first-line center with a familiar name: Michael Babcock III, the son of then-Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock.
Cicerone saved his biggest performance for the rivalry against Catholic Central - and it just so happened that the elder Babcock was in attendance.
"Russell didn't know [Babcock] was even there," David Cicerone remembers. "[Russell] was just dazzling [Catholic Central] - I think he had three goals and a couple of assists that game." Cicerone actually tallied two goals and an assist in that outing, and the 7-4 win was the only time Brother Rice defeated Catholic Central during Russell's final two years.
Not shockingly, the elder Babcock took notice, approaching Russell as he exited the arena.
"He stopped me and said, 'You’re the soccer player, right? You’re doing a lot for the game, you should keep looking into hockey,'" Cicerone said. "I watched that guy every night on the bench for the Wings, so for him to say something like that was really awesome."
David Cicerone remembers Babcock as pure class, someone who'd taken an interest in Russell but not pushed him aggressively toward hockey.
As a senior, Cicerone compiled 43 points in 27 games en route to a 22-4 record for the Warriors, and his production created some awkward situations outside the locker room. Head coach Schmidt knew that Russell had chosen soccer for college, but most of those who witnessed the whirling dervish wearing No. 7 didn't know that.
Expectant scouts, agents and coaches left disappointed after asking, "Why isn't your best kid not playing hockey?", and Schmidt simply tired of relaying the same story.
"[Schmidt] finally got pissed off and said, 'Don't come anymore looking for Russ, he's playing soccer. You can come find someone else on my team, but don't come looking for him anymore,'" David remembered.
The Babcocks got the last laugh, with Catholic Central beating Brother Rice, 3-1, in the regional finals. From the state championship to the team MVP award as a senior, Cicerone's name endures on banners at Brother Rice's rink, a reminder of his legacy as a high school hockey star.
NOT EVERYONE LOVES RUSSELL
Hockey's rough-and-tumble nature is partly to blame, but Russell Cicerone's temperament is a case of fierce competitiveness that doesn't take much to boil over.
Starting with the hours on the pond and progressing to the state titles in two different sports, Russell hated to be anything other than the best, Mary noted, citing that trait as crucial to his development.
He's very much the showman, eager to engage with visiting crowds - many of which direct most of their banter at him - and his shriek of "It's much too easy" toward the Niagara students after dribbling four defenders in a tight area and assisting on a Bulls goal earlier this season is a memorable example.
But when others, especially teammates, don't meet his expectations, frustration ensues. He still tries to rein it in - with limited success. Cicerone was suspended by UB for one match in the 2015 season against Stony Brook for reportedly berating his teammates in practice, and earned a red card against the Erie Admirals in 2014 as a member of FC Buffalo for cursing out a referee.
"I think that anyone who has seen him play could see that he loses his head as soon as the whistle is blown," wrote former Canisius defender A.C. LaFlore, about Cicerone, in a message. "I would say that Russell’s temperament on the field is like a pampered poodle. He thinks a lot of himself and might win an award here and there but as soon as things get a little rough all he does is embarrass himself, bark senselessly, and whimper and complain to everyone on the field, including teammates."
There are still moments - like Cicerone's verbal haranguing that left back Austin Place stomached during a shaky first half against Canisius in which he wasn't feeding him ball enough - that remind you of the volatile character.
"As funny, and irritating, as it is listening to him try to talk smack, it might be more entertaining to listen to all the odd demands and complaints he has for his teammates," LaFlore added.
Cicerone's mother, one of the most decorated coaches in Michigan girls basketball history, has tried to call out her son on the dangers of his competitiveness.
"I would get after him - you see how well I've done - he's still out of control," she said. "He might have some anger management issues - he gets mad at me, and he won't admit it but he knows I'm right."
Cicerone isn't the first combustible athlete, and his antics stem from a freakish desire to win rather than a more troubling source. Will his attitude be a concern if and when he reaches the professional ranks? Possibly, but his skill set is too dynamic to overlook.
THE RIGHT PATH
No Big 4 team has made the NCAA Tournament since Niagara in 2012, but the 2016 Bulls represent the best hope since the Purple Eagles' conquest of the MAAC. UB's first Mid-American Conference clash of 2016 - a 4-0 loss at Akron on Oct. 7 - was not an ideal start, but the Bulls simply need to finish in the top four of the six-team conference to advance to the postseason.
Buoyed by five goals against NCAA Division II Daemen College earlier in the season, Cicerone still leads the nation in total points. His laundry list of awards is a word-count killer: he captured the MAC Player of the Year in 2015; scored the game-winning goal in overtime to beat Western Michigan, his sister's alma mater and nearly Russell's college destination, in last year's conference semifinals; then won Professional Development League Finals MVP honors when his Michigan Bucks seized the title.
At times, Cicerone is jaw-dropping to watch. The Bulls' No. 7 is electric with the ball at his feet, especially when dribbling at pace. His prowess at changing direction with suddenness, wrong-footing defenders and maintaining tight control at top speed set him apart from his peers.
Roommate, close friend and UB teammate Daniel Cramarossa deserves credit for Cicerone's rise, too. A prodigious high school wrestler, Cramarossa dragged Cicerone to the weight room as an underclassman, fueling the then-scrawny Michigan native's urge to get bigger and more explosive.
For a midfielder, Cicerone has possessed the clinical finishing of a forward since he reached Amherst; he's a threat as a set-piece taker, in the run of play and as a distributor; he's productive as a left winger or as a No. 10. The most terrifying part? He's become lethal with his head, a trait added before his senior season.
"People see [Cicerone] in games, but they don't see him in training every day," said UB winger Braden Scales after a non-conference match earlier this season. "He's the same level every day, and then he'll just pull stuff out his hat and just surprise you at any moment.
"The other day he dribbled the whole team...then he megs [Ryan] Pereira and hits it outside of the foot top-left corner," Scales reminisced. "He's an amazing player."
The expectations are even higher for his senior season, one that saw him surprisingly snubbed from the watch list for the Hermann Trophy, the annual award given to the nation's best player.
"I know he's probably pushing himself to be the repeat MAC Player of the Year, but at the end of the day, I think he's just got to focus on playing, and when he does that, he's going to be creative and score goals," Riddle said early in the season. "He's going to get the chance to be a pro, that's for sure."
While scoring the winner against Western in the MAC semis and playing in the conference final are two great memories, Cicerone harbors a special place for his viral golden goal from his sophomore season, a planned missile just off the kickoff.
Achievements aside, Cicerone is thankful he followed Riddle to Buffalo, calling it "one of the best decisions" he's ever made.
"[Stu] has not disappointed me in the slightest," Cicerone gushed. "He’s developed me into 100 times the player I would have been anywhere else."
Asked to elaborate, Cicerone pointed to intangibles, not skill development.
"[He's helped with] the mental side of the game – when you’re supposedly supposed to be scoring all these goals, there’s a lot of pressure that comes down on you, he just does a great job taking the weight off my shoulders – almost bringing me back down to earth," Cicerone noted.
"When I first got here, he wasn’t restrictive, he just let me go play my game – If I went to another place, if a coach would have put restrictions on me, I don’t think I would have become as good of a player as I’ve become."
"We're delighted for him, we're lucky to have him, and we're going to cherish every moment that he's still here," Riddle said.
THE NEXT STEP
Cicerone has been on the radar of Major League Soccer clubs since late spring 2015, when he was invited to train with the New England Revolution and Columbus Crew over the summer. Considering the Michigan Bucks are one of the most storied semi-professional clubs in the country, scouts and agents flock to their games.
Unlike the major American sports, there are precious few MLS mock drafts on the internet, and it's simply conjecture at this point to call Cicerone a first-round pick or even a draft pick at all. The pursuits of agents and scouts are filtered through Riddle and the Bulls' athletic compliance department, and Cicerone's parents make the 4.5-hour drive from Michigan for each home match to stay in contact and show their support, which allows Cicerone to focus on lighting up the MAC.
"That’s the biggest thing – getting my Buffalo team to the NCAA Tournament," Cicerone stated. "I know if I do that and I put up a good season, things will fall into place with the draft and professional teams.
STIFF-ARMING THE PAST
The Fedorov and Yzerman jerseys have been pushed aside in favor of Barcelona megastar Lionel Messi, who graces Cicerone's laptop and phone backgrounds, as well as posters in his room. He hasn't put on full hockey pads since his last high school hockey game.
Cicerone has caught a few Brother Rice hockey games, but none yet at the home rink. He's happy to banter with former teammates about the legacy left behind at the Michigan private school, quipping that he's proud to be listed above other MVPs and leading scorers because he collected a scholar-athlete award that they did not.
When he's home for UB's abnormally long winter breaks, Cicerone laces up his skates and returns to the pond, even if it's not as well groomed as it once was. More than anything else, watching the NHL playoffs rekindles Cicerone's love for hockey, both in his appreciation for the sport and memories on the ice in Michigan.
"Aw, yeah, big time," Russell responded when asked if he missed playing. "I don’t think any sport is as intense as hockey or that exciting."
An MVP plaque with his name emblazoned on it was hung in Brother Rice's redone locker room - where the next generation of aspiring skaters will see the incredible achievements of an undersized center who didn't even choose hockey as his main sport - but Cicerone isn't in a rush to look back.
"[Russell] always says, 'We'll get around to seeing it," David lamented, referring to the plaque.
In the meantime, there's work to be done. Russell Cicerone took a leap of faith in following Stu Riddle away from his home state, then proudly earned his scholarship money at the University at Buffalo. For now, there's nothing he wants more than a MAC championship.
Email Ben Tsujimoto at firstname.lastname@example.org