Some of Johnny Meo’s teammates call him “The Face of Phantoms Hockey.”
That may be due in part to the fact that his missing front teeth give him a classic hockey smile, but it’s more because of his boundless work ethic, the incredible heart with which he plays and the leadership he displays as a third-year Phantom.
Meo, however, was not always “The Face of Phantoms Hockey.” Early on in his first season in the Valley, he struggled to gain playing time with his new team.
“I played one game in the first three weeks of the 2006-07 season,” Meo said. “After that, we had some injuries and some guys that got cut, and that gave me a chance to get into the starting lineup. I think it was hard work that helped me stay in the lineup.
“I had a good combination with my linemates and we started to get a good thing going. I also met with (Phantoms) coach (Bob Mainhardt) and he helped me find the things that I needed to keep working on to keep my spot. When it came time for the Robertson Cup when I was playing every day, but I was trying to do everything to not only keep my spot but also win the championship.”
When it came time for Meo’s second season with the Phantoms, his hard work helped him secure a full-time roster spot while his role on the team evolved.
“Even though I was still a younger guy,” the fan-favorite center remembers, “I was still a leader on the team for the younger players. I wanted to lead the team and get the championship we missed the year before. I knew what it was like to have that championship stolen and I worked as hard as I could to make sure the team got back to the championship.”
As the team gets into the swing of regular season play for the ‘08-09 season, he says his gamut of experiences as a third-year player put him in a great position to lead this year’s squad.
“I know what it’s like to be a first-, second- and third -year player; in high school and not in high school. This year I want to help everyone be ready to reach our goal which is nothing less than a Robertson Cup championship.”
One of Meo’s unique qualities as a hockey player is his height. At 5-foot-6 in a league where most players are 5-10 or taller, you might think that his short stature would put him behind the eight ball, but he sees it differently.
“I feel like my height is an advantage,” the 19 year-old native of Mundelein, Ill., said with a grin. “A lot of people don’t expect a smaller guy to throw big hits, score goals and make assists. It gives me a lot of motivation to prove people wrong; to show everyone that I can do everything just as well as guys who are 6-2.”
One thing that is tough for any player to handle is the inherent turnover that a league like the NAHL has. Some teammates move on to college, some get traded and some are given their outright release from the team. Meo says that while it’s difficult to get used to teammates getting cut, he - in a fashion that his teammates say is typical of the two-time Robertson Cup finalist -finds a way to make it inspire him to play harder.
“When somebody gets cut,” Meo says, “there’s a time when you can feel bad about it, but you have to move on from it pretty quickly. Being a vet and a third-year leader I need to be able to turn it around and use it for motivation for myself and my teammates.
“It keeps you on your toes, so you always make sure you’re playing your best hockey.”
This is Meo’s last year in the Valley, one way or another, as this is the last season that players born in 1988 can play junior hockey (his birthday is December 4, 1988). He says that Youngstown has been a great to him through his time here.
“It’s been very welcoming,” said Meo. “I went to high school in the Valley, at Ursuline, so I’ve made a lot of good friends and had a lot of good times.
“We’ve also been involved in a lot of community service, which I like a lot because it gives us a chance to be involved and be connected to the community which supports the team so much. I’ve had a great two and a half years here in the Valley and I know the rest of my time will be even better.
“I’ll miss this place, for sure. It’s going to be different going someplace else… I’ve been here for three years. I’m excited to be moving on ,but I’ll be sad to leave the Valley.”
Meo is currently tied for third on the Phantoms with four points, including a goal and three assists. He is very active on special teams as well, logging regular shifts on both the power-play and penalty-killing units.