Neither a shattered kneecap nor a fractured femur could deter Joey Sofo from pursuing his dreams of playing college hockey.
The fledgling forward suffered a broken patella when he was 14, and then fractured the largest bone in his leg at 17.
But Sofo, a Sylvania native, persevered to achieve his ultimate goal of playing Division I hockey.
Sofo, who will turn 21 next month, has committed to play for the University of Alaska-Anchorage. The St. John’s Jesuit graduate played four seasons of major junior travel hockey, leaving home for months on end as a teenager to play in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
“I’ve put my whole life into the sport,” Sofo said. “From my earliest memories, I knew I would pursue it. The biggest thing that has driven me through injuries is how much sacrifice I had already put into it. I’ve worked my whole life for this. It’s been a long journey.”
Sofo, who played the past three seasons in the North American Hockey League, is coming off the most productive season of his young career. The forward had 51 points with 27 goals and 24 assists in 57 games with the Coulee Region Chill, a team based in Wisconsin.
“I found a spot I was comfortable in,” Sofo said, explaining his breakout performance.
“I played the role of an older guy with a lot of experience. [Coach Ryan Egan] gave me the opportunity to show what I could do.
“I played with some really good players, and I finally got a chance to put up good numbers.”
Sofo, who is 5-foot-10 and 182 pounds, also was selected to play in the NAHL top prospects tournament, and started to receive offers from D-I schools.
“It’s a really cool opportunity to play at Alaska-Anchorage,” he said. “There has been a lot put into it. It’s nice to get rewarded.”
The scenario seemed far off just three years ago when Sofo collided with an opponent near center ice during the third game of his season. Sofo faced the daunting task of recovering once again from a devastating lower leg injury.
Local fitness guru Dan Jones, who has worked with Sofo since 2011, had no doubt the winger with lightning quick speed and a sniper’s shot would bounce back.
“Joey has a tremendous internal drive,” Jones said. “He’s gotten kicked and knocked down. He’s had some major injuries, but the kid has desire. He’s always been focused. He’s committed his young life to hockey.”
Jones, who is the owner of a Sylvania-based training center Elite Athletes Only, works with competitors from all sports. The instructor also is the Toledo Walleye’s strength and conditioning coach.
Jones said Sofo has sacrificed tremendously, especially through his rehabilitation through injuries.
“He’s always come back. He’s always wanted to be back at it, training,” Jones said. “He crawled, walked, and then ran. He’s worked. He has emptied his bucket.”
Jones said Sofo possesses the rare combination of a high-level skill set along with a drive to be the best.
“He has great hands, he can shoot, and he can skate really well,” Jones said. “Joey is stout and in good shape.”
Jones said Sofo has worked on the ice with some of Toledo’s pro players and fit in during drills.
“The Walleye guys always said he had a Division I skill set,” he said. “He stood out. He has a great hockey IQ.”
Sofo credited Jones for pushing him through the dark times.
“He’s one of the most influential aspects of my development — both physically and mentally,” Sofo said. “He deserves the utmost credit.”
Sofo, whose great-grandfather founded one of Toledo’s most well-known ethnic food distributors, said he has been on skates since he was 18 months. He spent hours upon hours at Tam-O-Shanter, the ice rink in Sylvania.
His father, Joe Jr., also played hockey and encouraged his son to try the sport. Young Joey joined his first team when he was just 4 and made his first top tier, Triple-A team when he was 12.
“I always played up an age group,” he said. “I think it was a combination of natural talent and skating from an early age.”
Sofo said he was always a forward. “I played D maybe one game because I was the only one who could skate backward,” he said. “But I always wanted to score goals.”
He only played one season of high school hockey. At St. John's in 2012 as a sophomore, he reached double figures in goals and assists. Like many high-end high school hockey players who hoped to reach a higher plateau, Sofo ultimately took the junior hockey route.
“It was a cool experience to play for my school, in front of my classmates, and with my friends,” Sofo said. “But I knew it was important [to play travel hockey] to get exposure to colleges and other teams.”
As a junior and senior, Sofo took summer classes so that he could leave school early to play for a team in Michigan.
“I would always miss the last period to get to the rink up there at 4, and I’d be up there until 10 p.m. with practice and workouts and meetings,” he said. “It’s difficult to balance school work during the hockey season, and your social life is nonexistent.”
In 2014, Sofo graduated with a 3.20 grade-point average.
He played for teams called Port Huron (Michigan), Keystone (Pennsylvania), Janesville (Wisconsin), and the last two seasons with Coulee Region.
Jones, a former hockey player and referee, said it takes a special kid to move away from home and forgo social life to work at their craft.
“His parents have done such a good job. He’s charismatic, yet grounded,” Jones said. “He brightens the room. People just like him.”
Sofo ran into his first major obstacle at age 14 when he shattered his kneecap in a game.
“I broke my kneecap on my right leg. It was a hit in the middle of a game,” he said.
After trying to come back early from the setback, Sofo was out for three months.
When he was 17, Sofo broke his femur during a game.
“It was an awkward collision. It was a weird feeling. I didn’t really know it happened,” he said.
He limped off the ice, yet managed to play the rest of the game.
“Two days later, it was still really painful,” he said.
A neighbor, who was an orthopedic surgeon, said he should get X-rays immediately. Sofo’s leg was put into a straight brace for nearly three months, and he was out of action for four months.
“I had to use a wheelchair to get around school,” he said.
Sofo said his leg had so much muscle atrophy he essentially had to learn to skate again.
“The most difficult part was trusting the process. It goes so slow,” he said. “But it would have been a slap in the face to myself to give up.”
Joey’s father is vice president of Sofo Foods, a food distribution business that started in Toledo in 1946. The company now has centers in Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, and Texas. Sofo Foods delivers to restaurants and pizzerias in 22 states, and has more than 500 employees.
“I eat well,” Joey joked about growing up in the Sofo family. “I don’t know any different. But I want to make my own path.”
Sofo is running clinics and working out at Tam-O-Shanter and at EAO Sports. He said he learned a lot about himself overcoming the injuries and traveling for junior hockey.
“You’re with a host family for eight months out of the year,” he said. “You’re moving and switching teams. I just wanted to work and show my ability. I made so many friends that will last a lifetime. It’s interesting to see how things work out.”
Jones called Sofo’s realization of his dreams extremely rewarding.
“It’s great to see the kid get the return on his investment and reach the pinnacle,” Jones said. “All the time he spent away from family and social life and friends. It’s now here because of his heart.”
Sofo said the college recruiting process was stressful.
“My whole life I had waited for schools to start calling,” he said. “I had a couple of offers and I narrowed it to three. I picked Alaska-Anchorage because I have the opportunity to play and it fit me best.”
Sofo said he will major in business management, but hockey remains the passion that drives him.
“My highest goal since I was 12 was to play Division I hockey. I put everything I had toward the sport. Now that I’ve made it this far, I want to keep climbing the ladder,” Sofo said.
“I want to play the sport at the highest level as long as it allows me to. I owe it to myself.”
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