By: Bill Potrecz
The Fort Erie Meteors have earned a reputation as an organization that gives young hockey players a place to develop their talents.
The late Tony Passero loved seeing young players earn their wings with the Meteors, even if it meant usually losing them to another team or higher league down the road.
Passero’s son Nik Passero is carrying on with the same philosophy in his first season as general manager and coach of the Mets.
Nik Passero has brought in a pair of 16-year-olds he believes will make an impact, forward Antonino Pugliese, who netted 12 goals and 27 points in 31 games for the Hamilton Huskies and was a draft pick of the Kitchener Rangers, and St. Catharines native Derek Smythe, who was selected in the 11th round by the Ottawa 67’s.
Nik Passero has high hopes both players will play key roles for the Meteors this season.
“It’s important for us our 16-year-olds are among the top players for us,” he said. “They have to be in the upper part of the lineup, especially at forward.
“The defencemen get a little bit longer of a leash in the development process because it is a harder game and a harder adjustment. You don’t want to throw them into the fire right away. You have to build their confidence where forwards can be a little bit more reckless and learn the game and when they make a mistake it doesn’t automatically end up in the back of your net.”
Pugliese comes to the Meteors on the recommendation of former goalie coach and current Kitchener Rangers Director of Prospect Development, Mike Bukator.
“He has high-end speed, high-end talent,” Nik Passero said. “I think he’s got the drive to be better every day. I think he’s the most talked about player so far in our camps. Every day he impresses. I think he’s in the best shape of anyone on the ice.
“He pushes the pace, pushes the tempo. He’s fearless.”
Pugliese, a native of Hamilton who attends St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School, has enjoyed skating with the Meteors for the past couple of weeks.
“It hasn’t been too bad. I was on a pretty good team last year and played with some pretty good players,” he said. “The older guys are bigger and stronger. I just have to adapt.”
Pugliese was selected in the 14th round of the Ontario Hockey League draft this year.
“Obviously I wanted to play in the O this year, but with everything going on, it looks like junior B is going to be better for me to get more playing time and develop and then make that jump next year.”
Pugliese’s determination comes in part from watching his younger brother, Giacomo, battle leukemia.
“That’s also been my motivation. When I get down, I play for my brother who went through tough times,” he said.
Giacomo Pugliese was diagnosed when he was six years old. After two years of treatment, he has been in remission for five years.
“It was terrible. I hated seeing him sick,” Antonino said. “That part of my life it’s hard to remember. I get emotional just thinking about what he had to go through.”
Smythe, a St. Catharines native who attends Sir Winston Churchill, is a 6-foot-4, 200-pound rearguard who played for the Niagara North Stars last season.
“He has so much upside, a huge ceiling,” Nik Passero said. “He’s a big boy with a good stick and a good shot. He has to learn the tougher parts of the game. He’s played the game where he can bully people and now it’s going to be a little tougher.”
Nik Passero has been impressed with Smythe’s work ethic.
“He’s the come early, stay late kind of guy,” he said. “He’s a big monster with a big stick. Defending is going to come easy for him once he gets his base.”
Smythe is thrilled to get a chance to play at the next level.
“I’m really excited to get this opportunity,” he said. “They have been great to me and made me feel at home right away. The boys in the dressing room have been great so far and I can’t wait to get the season started.”
Smythe is confident he can contribute right off the bat.
“I think I can carry myself. I think I can still play that bully game. I’ve been working repeatedly and working out so I can compete at this level.”
Smythe has been working overtime in the gym — weights, cardio and sprints — to prepare.
“I’ve been a gym rat before but not at this level,” he said. “Before minor midget, I really started to get into it. This off-season (I’ve been going) as much as I can.
“It’s not always easy but I can definitely see the results. I’ve been getting stronger and getting my weight up. I’ve been getting faster and quicker feet. If I keep doing it I should be in a good spot.”
The Meteors are skating in small groups a couple of times a week. Training camp is slated begin in October.
The Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League has set a Dec. 2 start date, pending government approval.
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