Without having stepped on the ice in almost 18 months, Luka Profaca and Ben McFarlane have gone from role-playing rookies to seasoned veterans with the Guelph Storm
They were 17 the last time they played a game at the Sleeman Centre. Now they're 19 and expected to lead a rookie-laden lineup into the season that gets underway Oct. 8.
Such is the reality of the COVID pandemic having robbed Storm and all other junior hockey players a key year of eligibility and growth.
"It's been a long road over COVID. Everything was ... altered," said Profaca as training camp got undeway at the Sleeman Centre on Wednesday. "Even when we did get back on the ice (as restrictions eased over the summer) it wasn't real hockey.
"I'm really eager to get back out there. Everyone's been in the same boat and we just can't wait to get started," he said Profaca said via a Zoom interview, which is how all media interviews are being conducted, at least early on.
For McFarlane, it's a "weird" feeling.
"It's definitely a weird feeling. I feel like just yesterday I was in this rink as a little kid, now I'm one of the older guys on the team."
New roles aside, everyone is just eager to get back to playing hockey.
McFarlane said there's nothing like that feeling you get before a game starts.
"I've definitely missed that feeling you get in your stomach just before you go out there," the Cambridge native said. "I just can't wait to get back to it."
The first exhibition game is Saturday night at home against Mississauga (up to 1,000 fans will be allowed).
There’s 50 players on the main camp roster, at least for the first two days: 29 forwards, 15 defencemen and six goaltenders.
Four of them are not currently in camp as Sasha Pastujov and Daniil Chayka are heading to NHL training camps and new imports Valentin Zhugin and Leo Hafenrichter are in the process of coming to Guelph.
"I think being a 17 year old in the league and then coming back as a 19 year old, it is a bit weird," Profaca said. "I think over that time everyone's grown up a bit and matured. You can handle the responsibility."
Despite dedication to working out and skating where and when possible, a player can't make up for missed game action.
"Couldn't agree more with you," said Profaca. "You can stickhandle in your garage, you can work on your skating, but until you get that game experience it's kind of tough to transfer it."
"It's definitely different in the summer," added McFarlane. "You can do scrimmages and summer tournaments and that, but it's definitely not the same as getting back here with all the guys you know and all the new guys coming in and finally getting together after such a long time."
One of the things the pandemic has done is given players a different perspective on the game and life.
Profaca said you feel more appreciative and realize how things can end at any time for any reason, be it an injury or a global pandemic.
"It definitely changes the way you look at the game," he said, pointing to former teammates who lost their final year of junior eligibility to the pandemic.
McFarlane said it's definitely made him realize how fast everything goes.
"It makes me look back at all the guys I've played with and all the memories we've made and make me appreciate this year coming up and live every second of it."
Forwards: Ben McFarlane, Cooper Walker, Marko Sikic, Jacob Maillet, Danny Zhilkin, Matt Papais; Defence: Luka Profaca, Michael Bianconi, Daniil Chayka; Goaltenders: Owen Bennett.
Forwards: Sasha Pastujov, Valentin Zhugin, Braeden Bowman, Nolan Forster, Jake Karabella, Ryan McGuire, Charlie Paquette, Matt Poitras; Defence: Cameron Allen, Michael Buchinger, Leo Hafenrichter; Goaltenders: Dixon Grimes.