A new and improved Antonio Pugliese arrived at Fort Erie Meteors training camp this year.
The 17-year-old Hamilton native was with the Meteors last year and showed a good deal of promise when the team practised and played in non-contact scrimmages as permitted during the height of the COVID pandemic.
But when Pugliese showed up this year, general manager/head coach Nik Passero was blown away with the improvements the speedy winger made.
“I told the guys and other hockey people this is the best summer I’ve ever seen a player have,” Passero said. “The difference between this year and last year, just in practice habits and maturity, is the best summer I’ve ever seen.”
Passero said Pugliese’s understanding of the game has caught up to his blazing speed.
“He’s always played with speed, but I think the way he plays with that speed now is top end,” Passero said. “I think he always play fast, but sometimes he went too fast for his own good and now he plays at that top speed. His hands and his mind matches his feet and in this league there aren’t many who can keep up with him.”
Pugliese credits his work with Hamilton native and National Hockey League forward Zac Rinaldo over the summer for his marked improvement. Rinaldo played in the NHL for 10 years and went to camp this fall with the Columbus Blue Jackets where he was waived due to his COVID-19 vaccination status.
“I was working out every single day and I just changed the types of workouts that I was doing,” Pugliese said. “He introduced me to a lot of things.
“I’ve been doing some brain training stuff, just different workouts and things that helped my brain speed and everything with that.”
Pugliese is off to a roaring start with the Meteors, leading the team in scoring with six goals and 10 points in seven games.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “All the hard work in the last 18 months and before, I just wanted to show what I had and the team is great this year. We’re looking really good, really promising.”
Passero plans on Pugliese playing big minutes in key situations for the Mets this season.
“He doesn’t play like a 17-year-old and the guys don’t treat him like a 17-year-old,” Passero said. “He will be a go-to guy for us, on and off the ice. Off the ice he has a great maturity about him that the players love and he’s very likeable. Watching him succeed is very fun.”
Pugliese, a 14th-round selection of the Kitchener Rangers in the 2020 Ontario Hockey League draft, made his OHL debut this week skating on a fourth line as the Rangers doubled the Guelph Storm 4-2.
Pugliese said he was happy with the amount of ice time he received and how he performed.
“I remember going to the Bulldogs games as a 10-year-old watching those guys in warmups and trying to get a puck and then eventually playing as one of those players that you looked up to, it was just amazing.”
Pugliese’s brief exposure to the OHL gave him the confidence he can compete at that level.
“Just seeing how last night went, I think I can play in that league as of now,” he said. “I think I’m ready. I have the talent and work ethic to do so.”
The Meteors, 3-3-1, have dropped their last three games after roaring out of the gate with three straight victories.
Passero pointed to injuries to four defencemen as a factor.
“Not that it is an excuse, but it’s been tough,” he said. “We haven’t had our full lineup once this season, and I think a lot of teams are going through the same thing. Even practices have been tough with not enough bodies.”
The Meteors still figure to be shorthanded when they are home to Hamilton Saturday for their only game of the week.
“We’re definitely going to have a few AP’s (associated players) in the lineup,” Passero said.