Adam Fantilli is used to leading the pack.
Scoring at a torrid pace for the No. 6 Michigan hockey team this season, the freshman forward controls the ice the moment he steps on it. Accordingly, the Wolverines call on him every time they need a spark.
But playing with Team Canada at the World Junior Championship, Fantilli wasn’t the top dog anymore. He was just another name on a roster of junior hockey all-stars, a team overwhelmed with nine first-round NHL draft picks.
So Fantilli had to run with the pack, and he had much to learn.
“One of the biggest lessons I learned was how important it was for each guy to play their role and know how they fit into that team structure,” Fantilli said Tuesday. “We had a lot of guys that are first rounders. A lot of guys are captains and the best players on our teams in junior (hockey). So just knowing how to check your ego at the door and play the right role is probably the biggest takeaway I had.”
Forced to make a position change to right wing, he had to adjust all his instincts from a lifetime playing center. It didn’t help matters that he had to learn those lessons against the top junior competition in the world — all the while under a two-week time crunch. Gaps in his knowledge turned to cracks in his game, and Fantilli started to struggle.
Take his performance in Canada’s opening 5-2 loss to Czechia. On the Czechs’ opening goal, Fantilli missed his assignment and let up an easy score. Then on their third, Fantilli relapsed into his center tendencies and lost his matchup. Unchecked, his opponent scored a wide open goal.
“With any position, there’s going to be little intricacies of the position that go along with it,” Michigan assistant coach Rob Rassey said Monday. “… As a winger, you’re kind of on the wall and sometimes above the puck. So it’s just a little bit of a different feeling. And to do it at that level having not been used to it is always gonna be tough.”
Because of those struggles, Canada coach Dennis Williams demoted Fantilli from the second line to the fourth. His minutes shrunk, and the media started to criticize his play — fair or unfair. A record-breaking tournament from presumptive first overall pick Connor Bedard, his Canadian teammate, only magnified those struggles.
No matter how much Fantilli tries to ignore the hype, he’s still an 18-year-old. When talking with reporters Tuesday, his tone noticeably dampened when discussing the tournament. After the first Czechia game, Fantilli said he had to learn to shut off his phone to avoid the noise.
And in that ensuing silence, Fantilli got to work.
“I kind of came in with the mindset that something I pride myself on is being able to play up and down a lineup,” Fantilli said. “And if I’m not playing that traditional center/top-six role that I (usually) would, I know that I could play a bottom-six wing or center role to try and get us as far as we could in that tournament.”
So that’s what Fantilli did, and he rose to the challenge. He faced his new role head on, figuring out how to contribute in the process. By the time he played Team USA in the semifinal, he chipped in the game-winning goal in a 6-2 win.
It was a moment two weeks in the making, built on all the sacrifice Fantilli made to help Canada win.
In a gold medal round rematch against Czechia, Fantilli and the Canadians won a 3-2 overtime affair to clinch gold. Fantilli skated around the ice, excitement pouring out of a wide-eyed grin. Even while finding himself falling down the lineup, he found a way to climb one of hockey’s highest peaks.
And when Fantilli speaks about the medal, pride beams from him like a beacon. Fantilli joked that he wore the gold medal into the airport when he headed back to Ann Arbor — sharing the same flight with the five American teammates he bounced in the semifinals.
“I was giving it (to them) a little bit,” Fantilli said, the gloomy energy he exuded earlier turning into chuckles. “But obviously there’s a line because they’re representing their country. I’m representing my country and we kind of leave that stuff at the door when we’re teammates here, brothers here.”
As Fantilli rejoins Michigan, he returns to being the player his team leans on. The Wolverines offense struggled in his absence, mustering just three goals combined in their Dec. 9 and 10 series against Michigan State. Clearly, they missed his firepower.
Now, as the Wolverines embark on a season-defining second half of the season, Fantilli’s diminished role with Canada only gives him extra motivation.