In his sensational hockey career at Peabody High, Andrew Bucci's favorite place to play was always Salem State's Rockett Arena.
Now, he'll get to call that wonderful big sheet of ice home for four more years.
Bucci, who has spent the last two years seasoning his game with the Boston Jr. Bulldogs, has verbally committed to join the Salem State men's hockey team this fall.
The Vikings are getting a player with supreme speed, passing ability and a finishing touch. Bucci finished 10th in the Atlantic Junior Hockey League's scoring race this past season with 22 goals, 26 assists and 48 points in 42 games.
For Bucci, who graduated from Peabody High in 2010, the decision to come home was virtually a no-brainer.
"Playing at Salem State was always in the back of my mind," Bucci said. "I've always loved that rink, and I love the idea of being close to home so my family and friends can see me play."
Bucci, who is third all-time at Peabody High with 130 career points, chose Salem State over a handful of other Division 3 schools. He had interest from a few Division 1 programs — such as Mercyhurst, Connecticut and Sacred Heart — but Salem State's stability was a big draw.
"Every kid's dream is to play Division 1, but there's only so many spots," Bucci said. "The Division 1s weren't sure about playing time, and I got a lot of advice that it's better to have a top Division 3 program and be playing all the time."
Fans from the Tanner City will remember Bucci as one of the famed "Three Amigos" with Matt Rodgers and Derrik Pereira. They were one of the most potent scoring lines the Northeastern Conference has seen over the last decade and led Peabody to the Division 2 North final as seniors.
"I'm excited for Andrew to be coming home. He played some of his best games and scored his biggest goals for us at that rink," said longtime Peabody High coach Mark Leonard. "He's a great kid and one of the best players I ever coached at Peabody. I'm looking forward to watching his college career right down the street."
After graduating from Peabody, Bucci opted for junior hockey and the watchful eye of Bulldogs coach Mike Addessa, one of the most experienced coaches in the country. His first full season was a trying one, as he scored just 22 points and was worn down by the physical play of the AJHL.
"It's a tough league. I wasn't well-conditioned, and I wasn't in the gym enough," said Bucci, who lifted four or five times a week last summer and trained at Boyle's to prepare for his second season in juniors.
The results were immediate, and along with linemate and former Revere star Chris Mastropietro, Bucci wound up among the league's leaders.
"He worked extremely hard on his body and his skills the past two years, and he's improved a great deal," Leonard said.
Bucci held off on enrolling in college full time to chase a hockey dream, a difficult choice for a youngster. He worked at Market Basket while playing for the Bulldogs and soaked up as much as he could from the legendary Addessa, who led RPI to the NCAA title in 1985.
"Coach Addessa knows the game like no one else," said Bucci, who nearly quadrupled his goal-scoring total from year one to year two in the AJHL. "I improved my speed, but he taught me how to use it — how to get to the net, to turn guys around, work without the puck and get to those dirty areas."
The Peabody native, who was also an NEC all-star in baseball, is moving from one coaching legend to another. Salem State's Bill O'Neill won his 500th game last winter and is one of Division 3's sharpest minds.
"Coach O'Neill is a legend. It was a pretty easy decision," said Bucci, who was also drawn to Salem State's recent run of success.
The Vikings won the first MASCAC championship in 2010 and lost in the league final in overtime the last two seasons. That means there's a good chance Bucci could help Salem State reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995 sometime during his four-year stint wearing the orange-and-blue.
"I hope I can come in and help out right away," Bucci said. "I'm really excited about it."