After being away from competitive hockey for about seven months, Guelph’s Mike Cazzola is anxious to get back into game play.
“A lot of players will probably say this. Just with the way the season ended last year, we've been away from the game for so long,” Cazzola said in a video chat.
“When I was skating at the University of Guelph this summer, you're getting dressed in the parking lot and then you're going into the rink. Just kind of being in the locker room with the guys, being around the guys and then playing, it's been about six or seven months since I played a game.
“Just getting back and playing the game of hockey. I eat, sleep and breathe the game of hockey and having it, not taken away, but just being away from it for six or seven months, it's just exciting to get back and doing something I love to do.”
This season Cazzola’s to lace up his skates and pull on the jersey of Cortina in the Alps Hockey League, his seventh team in seven years.
He completed his fourth year of Canadian university hockey with Acadia of the Atlantic conference in the spring of 2016. He then played a season in the ECHL with Fort Wayne where he was the team’s MVP before getting a late-season, three-game call-up to Binghamton of the American Hockey League. Then it was three seasons in Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League, the first year with Edinburgh and the last two with Fife.
“The U.K. league is going to be a little bit different just because you're allowed 14 imports whereas in the Alps league, you're only allowed four,” Cazzola said. “The majority of my team in the U.K. were Canadian and you'd have a few British players. Don't get me wrong, the Italians are pretty good at hockey. They're in the first league in the world championships. There's definitely high calibre, but I think it'll be very similar in terms of the imports and then it's just a matter of trying to recruit the best Italian players. I think that's going to be the biggest key. I think all the imports will be very similar skill wise and the people that have the best Italians will probably have the best team.”
Cazzola’s first game with Cortina is to be a preseason game Friday night, seven days after he emerged from the mandatory 14-day quarantine he had to go through after travelling from Guelph at the beginning of the month. The regular season is to start Oct. 3.
The quarantine was Cazzola’s second two-week quarantine of the year as he did the same in Guelph after the British league shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic and he returned home.
“I did quarantine back in Canada when I came back from Scotland, but this quarantine was a little bit different,” he said. “I'm studying for an exam to be certified in Canada as a physiotherapist. I write the exam Saturday so I've had my hands full with that during quarantine so it hasn't seemed as bad as it should've been. I've just been studying pretty much all day every day and any time I’ve taken off (this week), I'm usually going to the rink for practice and then right back and back to studying.”
Cazzola’s desire to upgrade his education actually brought about the end to a pro hockey career in North America and sent him to Britain in the first place.
“When I finished my undergrad out east in Nova Scotia, I quickly realized that there wasn't a whole lot of jobs in my field,” he said.
“I did my undergraduate in kinesiology so I knew I'd have to do more schooling. I applied to schools in Ontario and I got put on the waiting list for a few. The year after I graduated (from Acadia) I went to the (ECHL) and I played there and I volunteered at a physiotherapy clinic in Fort Wayne. I was talking to a team in Scotland about going there and potentially playing there for two years and doing my Masters (at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh), but that agreement couldn't get done until I actually got accepted into school so I had to apply.
“Once I got accepted we worked out an agreement where I'd be able to do schooling and hockey at the same time. It worked out really, really nicely. The team practised at night time so I was able to go to school full time. All my placements at hospitals were done in the summertime so I actually stayed there for two full years through the summer. I went on placements in the summertime. I got six weeks off every summer so I had to choose between coming home for six weeks or go and travel Europe. I did my fair share of travel when I was over there. It's so cheap once you're over there.”
A left-handed centre who turned 29 a couple of weeks before the abrupt end to the season at Fife, Cazzola’s always been more of a set-up guy than a goal scorer. He did have 30 goals in a 76-point season at Fort Wayne, his first over the 20-goal plateau since netting 36 with Erie of the OHL in the 2009-10 season.
In five seasons in the OHL (four and a half with Erie and half a season with Ottawa), Cazzola had 85 goals and 164 assists in regular-season and playoff play. He also had 52 goals and 81 assists in four years at Acadia and 42 goals and 91 assists in three seasons in Scotland.
“My first year (in Scotland) when I played in Edinburgh, obviously the team wasn't the greatest, but for myself personally, I think I did well,” he said. Cazzola had 14 goals and 39 assists on a team that posted a record of five wins, 50 losses and a setback in overtime.
“When I transitioned over to Fife, I just took a different role with the team. I was more of a defensive or responsible player. Last year started out really well and then our team fell through some injuries. A lot of your success has to do with people you surround yourself with. Last year started out really well and then a couple of guys on my line got injured and then you're trying to find line combinations.”
In Cortina, Cazzola will be on a line with a familiar face in Remy Giftopoulos, the team’s leading scorer in the virus-shortened 2019-20 campaign. Giftopoulos and Cazzola were teammates for two seasons at Acadia and also during Cazzola’s time with Ottawa in the OHL.
“He's from the Hamilton area and I've played with him before and I'll play with him here,” Cazzola said. “Having someone that's been around the town and someone that you know, you get more comfortable quickly.”
The Guelph native is also looking forward to working on a self-imposed challenge.
“Cazzola's an Italian last name. My parents speak Italian, but -- that's my goal this year to learn how to speak it. I can understand and clue in on what's being said, but in terms of speaking the language it's not up to where I want it to be. Hopefully these next eight months I'll be able to learn as much as I can.”
And he’ll be looking forward to the start of the Alps league’s season. The league is being careful in relation to the virus, adopting a schedule that for the most part sees each team play a home-and-home series against one opponent before moving on to do the same with another opponent. They’re also limiting the number of spectators in the arena. In Cortina, they’re to have 200 in the Stadio Olimpico del Ghiaccio that has a capacity of about 2,500. It opened in 1956 and hosted the opening and closing ceremonies, figure skating and some of the hockey games of that year’s Winter Olympics. It’s to be the home of curling in the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympics.
“There's no book on how to follow protocol with this situation,” Cazzola said. “In a perfect world we'd be able to have a bubble like they do (for the playoffs) in the NHL, but it's just not feasible for leagues in Europe like this. It's going to be a new situation for everyone just like it is in every career or job. It's a new situation and you just have to take it one day at a time and see how it goes.”