Francesco Pinelli has been looking forward to the 2020-21 hockey season his entire life. Pinelli, a 17-year-old from Hamilton, Ontario, is a top prospect in the 2021 NHL draft. In October, the NHL Central Scouting named Pinelli as a draft pick for its roster review; the Kitchener Rangers (Ontario Hockey League) center was one of 31 A-rated players projected as potential first-round picks. But the Ontario Hockey League, like many other leagues in North America, was put on hold this fall and winter because of the pandemic.

When the launch date remained uncertain, Pinelli became nervous.

Local restrictions and an abundance of players who could not play in any league made it difficult to find ice time. Pinelli had the opportunity to train with five or 10 players. The entire season was supposed to be an audition for NHL evaluators, but Pinelli feared his development would stagnate. I just wanted to be competitive and stay in shape, he said. I just wanted to play a game I like.

Pinelli discussed it with his agent, who looked into the possibilities. There weren’t that many. With so many leagues closing, supply and demand are skewed. Many players from the East Coast Hockey League and American Hockey League also applied for places on European teams, and since these players had more experience than the 17-year-olds, they set a precedent. The teams had all the leverage they needed, especially since Pinelli was hoping for some flexibility to return to the OHL when the season starts this spring.

Pinelli’s agent came back with an offer. There was a team of professionals ready to give Pinelli a spot on short notice to showcase himself and gain experience. He received no compensation, but the team covered travel and accommodation expenses. The only caveat: It was in Slovenia.

The reaction of a teenager: I was ready. I didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to go to another country, and I didn’t really know the country. But I understood immediately, without a doubt.

In January, Pinelli’s parents took him to the airport for a 16-hour flight.

We were happy to send her, her mother Daniela said. It’s not about what’s in our comfort zone. He seemed very comfortable traveling alone, and he was excited to play.

Pinelli encountered a few obstacles in the beginning. When he was 17, he was not allowed to drive a car in Slovenia. He didn’t speak the language and there were no North American players at HDD Jesenice (the team plays in the Alpenliga, which also includes teams from Austria and Italy). The average Yesenis player was 25 and the captain 36 – more than double Pinelli’s age.

A lot of guys had kids on the team, and when we trained, there were a lot of kids walking through the locker room, he said. I’m not used to this at all.

Pinelli never lived alone either. He came to the market, and when no one spoke English, he just pointed. No freezer, he bought everything fresh. Pinelli often called Daniela, known for her Italian cooking, for advice on cooking.

The first two weeks I was only doing simple things, chicken, potatoes, pasta with red sauces, he said. I made crab paste, mixed and made all kinds of things. You have no idea how long it takes to cook. And the cleaning.

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He found some provisions in the house. Hamilton is known as the steel capital of Canada. Jesenica, hidden just below the Austrian border, is known for the same.

There was a huge steel mill in the middle of the small town, Pinelli said. Very nice, there was a small church in the middle of the lake.

The team moved Pinelli into a small apartment with a bedroom window overlooking the mountain. It’s not a bad idea to take online classes, which Pinelli usually did when he wasn’t playing.

Pinelli was often brought to the rink by Dr. Tom – Tom Cvetkovic, the 25-year-old team physician who took the Canadian import under his wing. He must have felt bad or something, because I was stuck in my apartment for a long time because I didn’t have a car, Pinelli said. And then it clicked and he took me to the ice rink to play table tennis on the weekends, which was a lot of fun.

For the first two weeks, I only did simple things, chicken, potatoes, pasta with red sauces, Pinelli says. I made crab paste, mixed and made all kinds of things. You have no idea how long it takes to cook. Thanks to Francesco Pinelli.

Pinelli hadn’t played hockey in almost a year and was worried he’d be rusty. Adapting to European ice has taught me that it’s more about skating and hard work, Pinelli said. The boys worked a lot harder.

Pinelli’s parents broadcast the games from their home. The Alpine League is relatively new, having been founded in 2016. The level of performance is not as high as in the top leagues in Europe, but it is still a leap forward from the OHL, where athletes aged 16-21 play.

It was a little nerve-wracking for us parents, because we knew he was 17, still getting physically stronger and developing, and playing against adults, said Frank, Pinelli’s father. So security was an issue. But he was confident and really adapted to the European ice cap.

It also helps with the transition: Almost all of his teammates spoke English.

Only one didn’t, Pinelli said. We played together on the power play and when he scored a goal it was funny because I didn’t know what to say to him. So I’m just saying: Well done!

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The atmosphere in the locker room was very different from that of the youth team. They listen to a lot of stuff like Eminem, he said. They really liked hip-hop. Then there was a lot of Serbian and Croatian music.

Before each practice, a teammate had to tell a joke. They didn’t say it in English because then it wouldn’t have been as funny, Pinelli said. One guy says a joke and everyone dies, and I’m like: Okay, guys, what’s going on? My closet friend translated, but the jokes translated into English didn’t always make sense.

The bus routes were also different and often winding through the Alps. The scenery was breathtaking, but there were a lot of twists and turns, Pinelli said. The newcomer quickly learned that chewing lemon helps with motion sickness.

I’m so grateful to the organization: the coaches, the players, the whole staff, they made me feel welcome, Pinelli said. I really learned a lot about what it takes to be a professional.

After a slow start, Pinelli has found his niche and has scored 11 points in his last nine games. He returned to Canada this month because the OHL wants to shorten his season on the ice.

The trip to Slovenia prepared me even more, because now I have proven that I can play and compete with the men, Pinelli said. I had to show both sides of my game: play against kids my own age and play against guys 15 or 20 years older than me. I learned a lot during the process. I am so grateful to have had this experience this year.

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