Francesco Pinelli had been looking forward to the 2020-21 hockey season his entire life. Pinelli, a 17-year-old from Hamilton, Ontario, is a top prospect for the 2021 NHL draft. In October, NHL Central Scouting named Pinelli to its preliminary players to watch list; the Kitchener Rangers (Ontario Hockey League) center was one of 31 players with an "A" rating, projecting as a potential first-round selection. But the OHL, like so many leagues across North America, has been on pause because of the pandemic this fall and winter.
As the start date remained murky, Pinelli became antsy.
Local restrictions, plus the saturation of players without a league to play in, made finding ice time difficult. Pinelli was lucky to get skill training in with five or 10 players. This entire season was supposed to be an audition for NHL evaluators, but Pinelli worried his development was going to stall. "I just really wanted the opportunity to compete, to stay in shape," he said. "I just wanted to play the game I love."
Pinelli talked it over with his agent, who explored options. There weren't many. With the closure of so many leagues, supply and demand were skewed. Plenty of ECHL and AHL players were also scrambling for spots on European teams, and since those players had more experience than a 17-year-old, they took precedent. Teams had all the leverage, especially since Pinelli was hoping for flexibility of returning to the OHL if the season started this spring.
Pinelli's agent came back with a proposal. There was a professional team willing to give Pinelli a short-term spot, for exposure and experience. He wouldn't get compensation, but the team would pick up the tab for travel and accommodation. The one caveat: It was in Slovenia.
The teenager's reaction: "I was ready to go. I didn't know what to expect. I was going to a different country, and I wasn't really familiar with the country. But I took it right away, for sure."
In January, Pinelli's parents drove him to the airport for the 16-hour flight.
"We were happy to send him off," his mother, Daniela, said. "It's not about what's in our comfort zone. He seemed very comfortable to go take that on, to go travel by himself, and he was excited to go play."
Pinelli hit a few early obstacles. At 17, he wasn't legally able to drive in Slovenia. He didn't speak the language, and there were no North American players on HDD Jesenice's roster (the team plays in the Alps league, which also features teams based in Austria and Italy). The average Jesenice player was 25, and the captain was 36 -- more than double Pinelli's age.
"A lot of the guys had kids on the team, so when we had practice there were a bunch of kids running around the dressing room," he said. "I definitely wasn't used to that."
Pinelli had also never lived alone. He would show up at the market, and if nobody spoke English, he would have to get by just pointing. No freezer meant he was buying everything fresh. Pinelli often called Daniela, known for her Italian cooking, asking for tips in the kitchen.
"The first two weeks I was just doing simple stuff, chicken, potatoes, pasta with red sauces," he said. "By the end I was doing shrimp pasta, mixing it up, cooking up all sorts of things. You don't realize how much time cooking takes up. And cleaning."
He found some comforts of home. Hamilton is known as the steel capital of Canada. Jesenice, tucked just under the Austrian border, is known for the same.
"There was a huge steel factory in the middle of the little town," Pinelli said. "It's really beautiful; there was a little church in the middle of the lake."
The team set Pinelli up in a small apartment, with his bedroom window overlooking a mountain. Not a bad setting to take online high school classes, which Pinelli did most hours when he wasn't playing.
Pinelli often bummed rides to the rink from "Dr. Tom" -- 25-year-old Tom Cvetkovic, the team's 25-year-old doctor, who took the Canadian import under his wing. "I guess he felt bad or whatever because I would have been stuck in my apartment most days, because I didn't have a car," Pinelli says. "And then we clicked, so he would take me to the rink on off days to play pingpong, which was really fun."
Pinelli hadn't played in an ice hockey game in nearly a year, and was worried he would be rusty. "Adjusting to the European[-sized] ice, I learned it was more of a skating game, and hard work," Pinelli said. "The guys worked a lot harder."
Pinelli's parents streamed the games from home. The Alps league is relatively new, formed in 2016. The skill level isn't as competitive as a lot of Europe's top leagues, but it's still a jump up from the OHL, which features 16- to 21-year-olds.
"It was a bit nerve-wracking for us as parents, knowing he was 17 years old, obviously he is still physically getting stronger and developing, and he was playing against grown men," Pinelli's father, Frank, said. "So safety was a concern. But he was confident, and he really adjusted to the European ice."
Also helping the transition: Nearly all of his teammates spoke English.
"There was only one guy who didn't," Pinelli said. "We were on the power play together, and when he scored it was funny because I didn't really know what to say to him. So I would just say, like, 'Bravo!'"
The locker room vibe was much different than a junior team. "They listen to a lot of throwbacks, like Eminem," he said. "They definitely 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 it wouldn't be as funny," Pinelli said. "So a guy would say a joke and everyone was dying, and I was like, All right guys, what's going on? My locker buddy would translate, but jokes being translated to English didn't always make sense."
Bus trips were also different, often winding around the Alps. "The scenery was awesome, but there were a lot of turns," Pinelli said. The rookie was soon taught that chewing on a lemon eases motion sickness.
"I am so grateful for the organization: the coaches, the players, all the staff, they made me feel so welcome," Pinelli said. "I really learned a lot about what it takes to be a professional."
After a slow start, Pinelli began finding his game, and scored 11 points in his last nine games. He returned to Canada this month, as the OHL is aiming to get back on the ice for a condensed season.
"Going to Slovenia, I felt like it even further prepared me because now I proved I can play against men, and can compete against men," Pinelli said. "I got to showcase both aspects of my game: playing against kids my age, and guys that were 15, 20 years older than me. It taught me a lot. I'm so grateful I could have that experience this year."