Joe Veleno is working overtime to improve his game and develop himself into an NHL player.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Talk to Joe Veleno for any length of time about what it will take to go from being a late first-round draft pick to becoming a bonafide NHL star and you might get the idea that the young man has a one-track mind.
Work, work hard, work harder. Pick any variation of the endeavor to excel through endless effort and you will have found the essence of his ethos. Keep working is Veleno’s mantra, and he will do his best to assure you that a good work ethic is ultimately the only way forward.
At age 19, Veleno already shows considerable maturity, a gift of his upbringing in Kirkland, Quebec, a suburban outpost on the Island of Montreal, where his father Tony managed a catering company while his mother Lina was working to make sure the three kids in the family kept their heads on straight.
Veleno showed exceptional talent as a youngster, honing his skills while playing pond hockey and other games with older brother Michael-Anthony and older cousins Anthony and Michael Buonincontri.
He dreamed about someday doing what his favorite player could do better than almost anyone. His childhood hero was Alexander Ovechkin, whom he idolized for his scoring ability – even receiving a Washington Capitals jersey as a Christmas present when he was about 8.
“I was always a big Ovi fan,” Veleno said. “As I was growing up, he was in his prime and he was always scoring big goals. I’d watch the Capitals games whenever I could and I’d get pretty excited because they were a fun team to watch with so many skilled players.”
Even so, Veleno learned from an early age that there’s more to being a complete hockey player than just putting the puck into the net. His dedication and determination to the game allowed him to excel far beyond his years.
“It was a combination of coaching and just putting in a lot of work,” Veleno said of his early development. “Certainly there are many coaches who helped me big time over the years and my parents sacrificed a great deal to help me become the player that I am today.”
Minor hockey, for Veleno, was about having fun as much as strengthening his skating ability and puck skills. He singles out guidance given by coaches like Dominic Romano and his uncle, Frank Buonincontri.
“They helped me develop even more as a person than a player,” Veleno said. “They brought me up with a good work ethic. They taught me how important it is to be a good, hard worker. With time and good coaching, I think my skill eventually took over.”
Veleno played elite soccer until he was 12 then played a year of lacrosse, before it became evident that his hockey aspirations would benefit from a singular focus. By the age of 14, it was clear that he had special talent that stamped him as the best 2000-born hockey player in the Quebec province.
He became the first player in QMJHL history to be granted exceptional status, allowing him to join the major-junior league as a 15-year-old. He became only the fifth player in Canadian Hockey League history allowed to join a year early, following John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid and Sean Day.
With the petition to be permitted to play against 19- and 20-year-olds in the province ahead of schedule, Veleno was accepting a rare challenge, willing to shoulder untold hype and headlines.
Not even the likes of Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux were tested so early in their hockey careers. For Veleno, living with high expectations was something that he had long known.
“When I was younger, I was taught to be a good example to the other kids who may have been a little behind in their development,” he said. “The qualities of being a good leader have stuck with me ever since.”
Veleno played Midget Triple-A hockey for the Lac St-Louis Lions, the same program that had produced NHL players like Jonathan Drouin and Anthony Duclair. “I had the idea of school in the back of my mind, but it wasn’t my main priority,” he said. “For me, the biggest thing was to get the chance to play in the Q. I wanted to play on the same ice where those guys had one played, to play on a nice stage, in big arenas.”
The Saint John Ice Dogs selected Veleno with the first pick in the QMJHL draft, which allowed him to join an already talented team that had qualified for the playoffs the previous season and had been fortunate to hold the No. 1 card, thanks to a previous deal with Drummondville.
Veleno quickly learned that facing players a few years older wasn’t going to be easy.
“It was definitely a bigger step,” he said. “It was a challenge, but the game in the Q is based on skill and speed, so the league fit my style of play. It took me a couple of games to get used to the pace and physicality, but it was eventually just a matter of having fun.”
Playing mostly third-line minutes, Veleno posted respectable, if hardly eye-popping, numbers during the 2015-16 season, when he scored 13 goals in 62 games, along with 30 assists for a total of 43 points.
“It’s not an easy thing to put up the kind of numbers some of the guys put up their first year,” Veleno said. “When I came to the rink every day, I wasn’t worried about getting points. I just kept working hard and trying to become the best player I could be. Being a skilled player, I knew the points would eventually come.”
Veleno started producing at a point-per-game pace during his second season in the Q and continued to score at a similar rate during his third year, when he was traded in midseason to Drummondville, the organization that originally owned the pick that would bring him into the league.
He appeared to elevate his game upon joining the Voltigeurs, tallying 16 goals and 32 assists for 48 points in 33 games with Drummondville. He credits his teammates for helping him make the transition to his new club and ascribes his improved play to the instruction of his new coach, Dominique Ducharme.
“Besides scoring and putting up points, my coach had me focus on playing good defense so that I was able to show that I could be responsible and earn his trust,” he said. “To this day, it’s still a learning process.”
His dedication to defense only increased after the Red Wings selected him in the first round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. Veleno was Detroit’s second selection, 30th overall, behind Filip Zadina, who the Wings had chosen with the sixth pick.
“I wanted to score goals and put up points, but after I was drafted, Detroit stressed the importance of playing a 200-foot game,” he said. “The game is not all about points. It’s also about playing the game properly and playing a 200-foot game. Playing defense may not matter when you’re putting up 100 points in juniors, but when you get to the next level, the game gets tougher and things like defensive play become more important.”
Shawn Horcoff, the Red Wings’ director of player development, helped Veleno see the value of becoming a strong two-way player. Ducharme, Veleno adds, helped him stay on track.
“He was hard on me every day during practice because good practice habits often lead into the game,” Veleno said. “He pushed me to use my skills and as I became more comfortable with my linemates, I started playing the way I’m supposed to play.”
Veleno put up some rather impressive numbers during the 2018-19 season. With a renewed focus on defense, he recorded 42 goals and 62 assists for a total of 104 points in 59 games.
“I saw that playing better defensively led to more offense,” he said. “I got to play with some really talented guys, including my current teammate, Gregor MacLeod, who is a smart player and creates a lot of offense. So if I worked hard and distributed the puck to them, I’d often get rewarded.
“As a team, when your group is going good, you’re going to enjoy success individually as well.”
Veleno saw proof of that belief again this past fall when the Red Wings won the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City. The young center had seven goals in four games, including two third-period tallies in the championship game against the Dallas Stars.
“Everything was clicking, so it was fun,” he said. “As an organization, Detroit hadn’t won the prospects tournament in a while, so the guys wanted to make sure that we had that trophy in the end.”
Veleno spent last summer in Detroit, working on a quicker release for his shot and improving himself from a positional standpoint. He watched video clips of a young Dylan Larkin and saw first-hand how the Wings’ budding star worked hard to better himself.
“I thought sacrificing my summer helped my game a lot,” he said. “I wanted to get stronger and get on the same page by working out with NHL players like Larkin, (Luke) Glendening, (Darren) Helm and others. I just tried my best to keep up with them.
“When you see established NHL players looking to get extra reps in the gym, looking to give it their all even on days when they may not feel like it, you realize that they’re doing everything they can to push each other and to prove why they’re able to play in the best league in the world.”
Veleno admits that he was a little surprised that he was selected so late in the first round of the draft when some had projected him to be a much earlier pick. In the end, he knows it won’t matter whether he was drafted 10th or 30th overall. What will matter is how well he eventually plays.
“I was just happy to get drafted,” he said. “I didn’t go into the draft hoping I would be picked here or there. That’s not the mentality you want to have because all kinds of crazy things can happen in a draft. Ultimately, it just makes me want to work harder every day and beat all those guys who went ahead of me.”
Veleno talks about “bearing down” and a “winning mentality.” He feels he is in a good spot, playing for a playoff-hungry organization that has been procuring prospects to push the team in the right direction.
“Coming to a great organization like Detroit where it looks like there will be a lot of opportunities for younger players pushes you to work that much harder to make it to the big club,” Veleno said.
“We have a lot of good, young players in the organization, whether they were drafted or coming out of school. There’s a lot of talent, but we have to work hard. It’s a matter of staying patient and finding ways to get better at what we’re doing.”