On a long car ride from Chicago to his home in Nobleton, Ontario, Adam Fantilli’s family made a pit stop — a detour years in the making.
Stopping in Ann Arbor to visit the Michigan hockey program — which his older brother, Luca, had committed to a few months prior — Fantilli got an up close look at one of the many options for his future. As one of the top prospects for the 2023 NHL Draft, he had the opportunity to play anywhere he wanted, but Fantilli’s focus was to pick a home that would help him grow the most as a hockey player.
“I’m a late birthday,” Fantilli told The Daily. “So I thought playing three years of major junior before being even eligible (for the NHL Draft) was not really the way I wanted to take things because it’s hard to make the NHL as an 18-year-old.”
That meant that Fantilli wouldn’t immediately sign a major junior contract like so many other top Canadian peers had done — he needed another path.
And in the quest to find the right one, he found overlap with his brother. From playing for Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire to the United States Hockey League’s Chicago Steel, the Fantilli brothers played side by side.
But their journey wasn’t scripted like that. They never planned to don the same jersey each night — one with their first initial squeezed ahead of their last name. It just so happened that the same programs filled each brother’s separate needs — needs that led both brothers to the Michigan hockey team.
Adam’s decision to choose the NCAA came quickly once he saw Ann Arbor. He liked what he heard from Michigan coach Mel Pearson, and made his commitment shortly after the visit.
But that decision went against the grain of everything a Canadian hockey player hears growing up. For decades, most top Canadian junior players have chosen to play in Canadian major juniors leagues. Rarely have Canada’s best young players taken the NCAA route.
Of the top 10 Canadians picked in the past 10 NHL drafts, just 11 played college hockey — and that includes last year’s picks Owen Power and Kent Johnson, both of whom did so at Michigan. Top Canadians in college hockey continues to be a rare occurrence.
But that didn’t distract Adam — and Luca — from taking that option.
“They always said they wanted to pursue hockey, so we felt it was always best for them to keep all their options open,” Adam’s father, Giuliano, said. “And we made sure that their marks were always really good, Adam always took extra courses in the summer to get ahead.The NCAA was always an option from day one.”
Keeping options open meant that even though he was one of the premier prospects in his age range, Adam couldn’t play major junior hockey because it would take away his NCAA eligibility. He continued the common development route in his local AAA league, the Greater Toronto Hockey League’s U16 league, but he needed to make sure his next hockey destination didn’t shut any doors.
Luckily, his brother had already found it. Luca had gone to the States to play for Kimball Union Academy, and he loved the program. After visiting, Adam did too, in addition to being close to his brother. So Adam made a decision that baffled some of his Toronto neighbors. He packed his bags and joined Luca to play American prep school hockey.
“We’ve always kept their hockey careers separate,” Giuliano said. “… When (Adam) went to visit his brother down south, he missed him. And then he saw the caliber of play down there, which we aren’t normally exposed to up here in Toronto, and he was like, ‘Wow, this would be a great option for me.’ ”
Playing with Luca was just the icing on the cake, as their father described it.
But beyond that, the experience provided plenty of benefits. Playing for former Maine coach Tim Whitehead — who won 250 games behind the Black Bears’ bench — both Fantilli brothers sharpened their skills against top American competition. Both thrived playing for the Wildcats, and soon other junior programs pursued them.
After he honed his game against a higher level of competition, Adam decided to push himself even harder, and that took him to one of the best prospect development programs in America: the United States Hockey League’s Chicago Steel — yet another team that his brother already played for.
“It kind of happened by fluke,” Giuliano said. “… If it was a better spot for Adam somewhere else, he would have definitely done it. He wasn’t going somewhere because of his brother, that’s for sure.”
Chicago fit Adam’s needs perfectly. It allowed him to play other elite junior players without closing off a path to college hockey. In fact, that was the path that almost every one of the brothers’ teammates took, committing to an NCAA school. By not committing to a major junior program, Adam found himself in a college hockey feeder system.
Still, major junior hockey was never fully off Adam’s radar. The USHL simply offered an opportunity to play tougher competition without jeopardizing his NCAA eligibility. As a top prospect with his pick of junior programs to play for, he prioritized keeping his options open.
“It’s not like they’re closing the door on the OHL or the Western League or Quebec,” Chicago Steel coach Brock Sheahan said. “That is still an option for them. But if you go the other route, you’ve closed off college.”
So Adam skated for Chicago alongside his brother and Michigan-committed forward Mackie Samoskevich.
But back home in Canada, some of his neighbors questioned Adam’s decision. Sheahan noted that Adam received hate mail for his decision, and Giuliano fielded plenty of questions about why Adam was playing in the States.
“Other people just have Canadian Major Junior (in mind), that’s all they want you to do,” Giuliano said. “They want you to stay in Canada and play junior hockey, and they think it’s the best route. And it is a great route for a lot of kids.
“When people actually ask, and we give an explanation on why we’re doing what we do and we take Adam’s birthday into account I think they understand a little bit more.”
That outside noise didn’t matter much to Adam. He felt he was doing the right thing for his development, and he was having fun doing it.
And the results speak for themselves: In his first USHL season, he earned the MVP award in the Clark Cup finals. The season after that, he broke a record for goal scoring by USHL players two seasons before their NHL Draft year. Adam’s development journey — one that strayed from the traditional Canadian major junior path — was paying off as well as anyone could have imagined.
Adam’s desire to explore his options facilitated all that success, but soon he had to pick between them. And in the summer between those two seasons with the Steel, his decision finally came about.
In August 2021, Adam announced his commitment to play college hockey with the Wolverines — yet again playing with his brother. But those following his career knew it wasn’t about playing with his brother or preferring hockey in the States. It was about doing the right thing for his development.
“A lot of Canadians weren’t too happy with it, not going with the normal road a lot of prospects go through,” Adam said. “ … For the longest time, I saw myself trying to go as high as I could in the draft and go into the OHL, but I think once I got older and matured a little bit I saw the benefits to going to college. I thought that was the right route for me.”
In the end, development defined Adam’s decision to sign with Michigan. Everything else — especially sharing another hockey jersey with Luca — just added to the experience.
As players increasingly look at college to develop like Adam did, those non-major junior routes could become a more common option for top Canadian juniors.
“The reason (the Steel) are able to get high-end Canadian players is because of the experience that our players have,” Sheahan said. “And I feel like they get better, they enjoy it and then word travels.”
Recent seasons have seen an influx of top Canadian prospects in the NCAA. Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar, who won the Conn Smythe trophy as the Stanley Cup playoff MVP last week, honed his game in two seasons with Massachusetts before jumping to the pros.
A similar story unfolded for Owen Power. After his first season with Michigan, he impressed the Buffalo Sabres enough to draft him first overall in the 2021 NHL Draft, and he earned a spot on the Canadian men’s Olympic team last season.
Already, future Canadian prospects are following a similar path. In addition to Adam, 2023-eligible forward Jayden Perron is currently committed to play at North Dakota in two seasons. Matthew Wood, another 2023 forward, is committed to play for Connecticut. Adam believes the junior landscape is changing, and other stars like 2006-born forwards Macklin Celebrini and Michael Hage are exploring their options with Chicago just like he did.
“I’ve done a little bit recruiting myself for the Steel,” Adam said. “… A lot of Canadian guys just go into USHL just to keep the doors open. From there you can go back to major junior, you can go to college. (And) to be honest, it’s a really really tough league to play in and it’s very hard to put up points.”
With more high-end Canadians entering the NCAA fold, decisions like Adam’s could become more and more commonplace. Players want to play in places that will push them to the next level, and the NCAA’s increase in NHL-caliber development makes it an intriguing option.
Because Adam made decisions that had nothing to do with where he lived or where his brother was.. His priority was to make himself the best hockey player he could be. And as more and more prospects consider their full range of possibilities, the option to go beyond the traditional Canadian major juniors appears more promising.
Adam’s journey is just a sign of the future.