Do you remember the first time you moved away from home? Was it scary? Were you prepared for the life-changing experience?
Junior hockey players are used to moving away at an early age. Unlike most people, who remain at home until they're 18, junior hockey players are often on the road at 16, living with a billet family away from home - whether it's an hour away or even over the border to play in a neighboring country.
Nothing about the past 13 months has been normal, and that includes hockey development, too. While the WHL and QMJHL have both resumed activity, the OHL still doesn't have an updated return to play plan, and hopes of a 2020-21 season as we near the two-week mark of April - when the playoffs are typically taking place - are looking less and less likely. So for the league's top prospects, the only alternative was to play elsewhere, and with the USHL down south filling up quickly with its own players - and supplemented by a few big names from around Canada - that meant OHLers were left to look elsewhere.
That's exactly what Francesco Arcuri had to do. The Kingston Frontenacs winger found a home with the Linz Steel Wings, an Austrian-based outfit out of the AlpsHL. The 16-team league is made up of clubs in Austria, Italy and Slovenia, and fellow OHLers Cameron Supryka (Linz) and Francesco Pinelli (Jesenice) also called the league home. Arcuri mentioned former Dallas Stars prospect Curtis Douglas, an OHLer with the Windsor Spitfires that signed a PTO with the Belleville Senators on Saturday, as being someone he was able to gel with and look up to.
Arcuri, born in Woodbridge, Ont., played his minor hockey in the Greater Toronto Area. He was a key member of the stacked Don Mills Flyers team that posted a 77-1-6 record in 2018-19 with fellow top prospects Brandt Clarke (2021) and Shane Wright (2022). Arcuri made his OHL debut with Kingston last year - getting a chance to reunite with Wright- and had 20 points in 60 games for a team that finished 19th out of 20 teams.
What was one of the biggest challenges for Arcuri in his new home? Having to adjust to taking care of himself, by himself. Everything from cooking his own food to cleaning the place - normal tasks for most of us, but something most teenagers don't want any part of.
And while that's something that anyone living on their own has to do, it's something that's an added burden for someone moving away to a country they've never been to while never having to live on their own before. We're still talking about kids here, and when you've only lived in one country, the trip to somewhere completely foreign is harder than it sounds.
"Not many people spoke English there," Arcuri said. "So it was hard to adjust to that. Their food is different and everything. But luckily, my coaches and teammates spoke pretty good English, so I just stuck with them the whole time and it worked."
Similar to Canada, Arcuri said everyone had to wear N-95 masks and stores closed earlier than normal, usually at 7:00 PM. He said while many things were still shut down, hockey was still quite popular at the time, so everyone from pro to youth teams would fill the rinks up during a given day. Arcuri took classes with his Kingston high school online and otherwise tried to stay safe - he didn't get the same experience a player traveling abroad typically would in a normal year.
On the ice, Arcuri said the game had a more skill-based feel to it. He cited the larger ice surface as something that took time to get used to but said his style of play worked out well - he led Linz in scoring with nine goals and 15 points in 18 games, after all.
As the OHL sits in limbo, Arcuri is back home and is ready to hit the ice if the league does return in some fashion. Like everyone, he has felt the effects of being away from his teammates and getting to experience a major year of development, even if he did get a taste of pro hockey overseas. While he was lucky to find work elsewhere, his overall workload saw him play 42 games fewer than he did a year ago.
If the league does return, Arcuri said one of the things he is most excited about is getting to work with new Frontenacs coach Paul McFarland.
"Coach McFarland has been unreal. We've been doing zoom calls almost every day just talking about video," Arcuri said. "Just watching the video and just things that I have to improve on."
Arcuri is projected to go in the third round of the NHL draft, with teams interested in his abilities as a smart playmaker that reads plays well on any given shift. Consistency has been an issue in Arcuri's game, and he even acknowledged that himself, but the work ethic to get better is definitely there.
There's always a lot of pressure on young teenagers to perform ahead of the NHL draft and Arcuri has definitely felt that. But with the added challenge of having to adjust to life in a pandemic, Arcuri was able to take advantage of the opportunity and used it to his advantage to continue his development during trying times.
Now, the next step: getting selected at the NHL draft this summer.