How the NHL rookie class has handled life on and off the ice

ByKristen Shilton ESPN logo
Thursday, March 14, 2024

HOCKEY PLAYERS KNOW the power of a good video session.

It's how they study an opponent. Critique their own game. And -- thanks to years of recorded highlights available online -- admire the exploits of superstars past and present.

Yes, video study is an integral part of an athlete's day. So it's no wonder that Columbus Blue Jackets rookie Adam Fantilli has leaned into that again in confronting a whole new life frontier.

"So I'm learning to cook. I'm working on it," he told ESPN recently. "I have to watch the YouTube videos. I can do, like, a steak and veggies, potatoes; pasta and fish are easy. But when I get a little bit exotic with it? That definitely means watching. I can pretty much do it all, just takes more time to get creative."

Welcome to the NHL rookie experience.

It's more than just figuring out how to play in the toughest league on earth. Rookies are navigating extreme on-ice expectations while mastering how to live alone for the first time, finding work-life balance, keeping up with frenzied travel schedules and facing all the real-world pressures of growing up -- and growing into their best selves as players and people.

"It's pretty eye-opening, playing in this league," Maple Leafs forward Matthew Knies said. "It's challenging to have juice and have energy every day to show up and just be prepared and be willing to sacrifice your body every day and get better. It's challenging and it's a lot of fun at the same time."

Players have spent their rookie seasons searching for a secret sauce to keep them dialed in at home and the rink. Many have been guided by older teammates. Others count on family support. There's a formula to it for everyone -- with some common threads. Those ties that bind are revealed here by nearly a dozen of the NHL's best freshmen.

"To be honest with you, the best part now is I just get to do what I love for a longer period of time throughout the day," said Fantilli, the third pick in the 2023 draft. "It's my job. I'm coming from college [at the University of Michigan] where I had to focus on school half the time and that was taking time away from hockey. But now I can just take all of that time and focus on opponents, focus on myself and just put all my efforts into hockey."

ROOKIES CAN BECOME ENTHRALLED by the more grandiose parts of professional life.

Buffalo Sabres forward Zach Benson -- going straight from the Western Hockey League to a top-six NHL slot -- was mesmerized by one in particular.

"I mean, we're riding on a plane instead of a bus up here? That is life-changing, for sure," he said. "There's definitely been some big, huge changes in my life and they're definitely good changes."

Case in point: Benson's living situation. Just like that awe-inspiring upgrade in transportation, Benson's head was spinning over his luxury five-star dwelling -- until something even better than that came along.

"It was pretty crazy living in a hotel to start the season. It was so, so nice," he said. "They make your room every day. It's hard to complain. But I'm just moving out of there now and moving into [Sabres' defenseman] Rasmus Dahlin's house. He just offered it, him and his girlfriend. It's pretty hard to turn that down."

Benson -- who has scored six goals and 18 points through 54 games -- isn't the only one who got an assist from a teammate in that department. Fantilli became acclimated to Columbus while living with Patrik Laine for a few weeks ("he's an awesome personality") , and Knies spent all of two nights in a hotel after he landed in Toronto before Leafs captain John Tavares invited him to bunk at his place.

"John opened his doors and was like, 'Hey, I want you to live with our family,'" Knies recalled. "I checked out with his wife, so that was good. I'd been staying there the whole time, and I actually just got a place of my own. That's a first. At school [playing for the University of Minnesota], I had a roommate, so this will be the first space of my own. I haven't really moved everything yet. It's pretty hectic trying to get settled when we're playing."

Brock Faber can relate. The Minnesota Wild standout -- who's second behind Connor Bedard in rookie scoring, with 37 points through 65 games -- spent the summer rooming with teammate Sam Walker before seeking out solo accommodations. Faber found a spot easily enough. Making it feel like home is a work in progress.

"I'm just in an apartment here all by myself, first time ever having no roommates," he said. "I'm enjoying it. But, yeah, still trying to set up the place a little bit. The season started and I did a good job moving in before that, got a good chunk of things, but I'm still missing a few. It's a busy season, so it's tough to get it all done."

Being by their lonesome may be uncharted waters for some rookies. It's old hand for Anaheim Ducks first-year center Leo Carlsson. What's not so familiar is being separated from his family by an ocean.

"I've been living on my own [in California], but I lived by myself for three years in Sweden before this [while playing in the Swedish Elite League]," he said. "But my parents were maybe one hour away from that place I was living then. I saw them all the time. And now it's like a 12-hour flight for them. So that's different. But at least I'm more used to the alone time."

The same can't be said for Ridly Greig. The Ottawa Senators rookie -- a consistent contributor with nine goals and 21 points -- is sharing space alongside teammates Jake Sanderson and Jacob Bernard-Docker, preferring their collective chaos to recharging by himself.

"It's a lot of fun; it's always nice having both of them around to hang out and chitchat or watch movies together or whatever you want to do," he said. "I moved away from home when I was 16 [to play in the WHL] so I had those four years of experience away from my family and that helped to definitely make this a smooth transition. It's still a bit different going from living with billets [local families who players live with] to on your own with teammates, though. It's good to have those guys."

Grieg may be used to not having his parents around physically, but they're never far from his mind. There's nothing simple about stepping into a full-time NHL role and Greig fell under a massive leaguewide spotlight in February when his slapshot into an empty net against Toronto drew a crosscheck to the face from Morgan Rielly. The play earned Rielly a five-game suspension and offered Greig new attention he didn't anticipate.

Whatever the struggle is though, Grieg knows how best to handle it.

"I definitely lean on my dad. I call him a lot," said Greig. "Whenever I want to pick his brain or whatever it is, he definitely helps me a lot. Not only with ideas for on the ice, but just the mental side of things too."

FABER CAN SKATE CIRCLES around almost anyone.

But he's entirely direct about the tough parts of professional life.

"There are positives [throughout the season], but there's some bad, too," he said. "It's a hard league. You're making mistakes. There's a lot of travel and back-to-backs. Stuff like that can make things harder. There's really both sides to the NHL for sure."

Carlsson felt that, too. Anaheim picked their forward second overall in 2023, an investment immediately producing high expectations. The 19-year-old has responded with a respectable nine goals and 23 points through 40 games, in between missed time nursing a sprained right knee. Carlsson wasn't fazed by the setbacks though; he'd never tried to predict how Year 1 would go.

"It's hard to have expectations as a rookie," he said. "It's your first year going against the best players in the world. You don't really know how good they're going to be or how hard they're going to hit. The first time I played against Nathan MacKinnon, you realize how good [the best players are] and how fast they are. You just learn so fast how good you're going to have to be to play in this league."

It's a nightly battle for players adjusting to an 82-game schedule with excellence as a baseline. Failing to show up? Not an option.

"I've seen it's a grind, and you've got to be ready to play every night and ready to go even when you're not feeling it," Calgary Flames forward Connor Zary said. "You've got to come in and try and play your best every night. It's a mental test. So even if you normally do [certain things] to get ready, maybe you do them even longer and even more on those days you don't feel good, to help the body move a little quicker and a little better on those back-to-backs and those tough games. When you can get your body feeling good, it helps mentally too."

Another hurdle the rookies must clear is becoming monthly cross-country travelers. Yes, they're ferried now via private planes instead of coach buses (much to Benson's delight), but the constant time zone changes coupled with late night check-ins and early-morning wakeups can take their toll.

"Coming from college, I didn't play that many games last year," Fantilli said. "I had like Sunday to Thursday to kind of get my body right for the weekend, and we would only have one opponent for two games. So getting used to playing a bunch of different opponents in one week or two weeks and having a quick turnaround on flights and with playing time have been the biggest adjustments."

"It's been the biggest surprise," Wild forward Marco Rossi noted. "Just the amount of games and all the travel is a lot. When you're playing almost every day, the consistency is the most important thing and that's what you learn in this league. When you play night in, night out, it's got to always be at your best and sometimes it gets tiring."

Teammates become invaluable resources there. Rookies have unencumbered access to veterans who've discovered their own hacks to maintain an edge regardless of the circumstance. All the rookies have to do is pay attention.

That is Knies' strategy anyway. The forward -- who's spent time on Auston Matthews' wing while producing 11 goals and 26 points through 62 games -- scoured the Leafs' dressing room for intel on a stable routine that would also remove some of that draining day-to-day monotony.

"It gets repetitive," he admits of the long NHL season. "I had to switch up [what I was doing]. You're playing triple the number of games now. I had to find what works with me and I've been seeing what other guys do. I'm just picking up on them and seeing things I like and putting it in my game. It's a lot of stealing things away from other players and just adding it to myself."

Spoken like a true student of the game. But it's not all work and no play, either. Balance is the key.

FANTILLI WON'T DENY he's a rink rat.

When the time finally comes to head home though, there's no shortage of activities to occupy his non-hockey focused hours.

"I'll hang out with whatever teammates can hang out. I like to get dinner or lunch or do whatever," he said. "I don't get on the [video game] sticks too much. I don't even own a console, to be honest with you. But I like to watch TV shows. A lot."

Fantilli wholly embraced the habit while sidelined for eight weeks with a calf laceration. The 19-year-old was having a stellar rookie campaign before the injury as a top-line skater for the Blue Jackets, now with 12 goals and 27 points through 49 games.

When Fantilli couldn't play he channeled his energy elsewhere.

"I've actually had a few [TV show binges], believe it or not," he said. "I have been watching 'Masters of the Air' on Apple TV. I watched that 'Griselda' show that was on Netflix. It was really good. I watched the 'Ted' series. All these are like five episodes long and I've been injured, so don't judge me. But, I've been making my way through 'The Sopranos' as well."

Zary's downtime is similarly filled with couch-sitting, something for which he's likely had more time lately. The 22-year-old suffered an upper-body injury earlier this month that has held him out of game action; before that, Zary had been on a solid scoring pace with 12 goals and 29 points through 50 games.

"I'm a pretty big binge watcher. That's my thing," he said. "Whenever I have a night just to hang out and relax, especially when the schedule can get pretty busy, just spending a couple hours vegging out is something that's always nice, especially when you're really tired after a long week or after a lot of games."

In Knies' case there's a best of both worlds, where one solo passion holds space with another more virtually immersive hobby enjoyed with others.

"I wasn't big into video games but like so many teammates play that I don't want to miss out on it," he said. "It's like peer pressure; it's like I want to play just to honestly chat with the guys. But I actually got a guitar so I'm learning guitar. I picked it up this summer so I've got a good six, seven months in me now. Self-taught to now. I've been looking into a teacher but I think it feels more like an accomplishment to be self-taught."

Given all the time players spend inside it's a treat for some to recharge outdoors.

Carlsson, who has embraced the shift from frigid Swedish winters to semi-permanent sunshine in California, is an avid golfer (and has a 5 handicap).

Nature is healing for others too. Rossi -- who's third behind teammate Faber in rookie scoring, with 17 goals and 33 points through 65 games -- doesn't look to escape the real world outside the office; he wants to get lost in it. Preferably with company.

"I love to go for a walk," he said. "Me and my girlfriend, we just bought a dog [a Pomeranian] earlier in the year and it brings you away a little bit from hockey when you think about different things [on the walks] and just turn your brain off a little bit about hockey."

Benson's a fan of walking, too. His walks just happen in a different venue. And inadvertently attract attention.

"I'll search up the local malls," he said. "You just drive around to find spots that you like. That's what I've done. I actually went to the mall yesterday and a few people recognized me. I don't mind that, it's cool to see fans that enjoy watching you play hockey."

He's not the only rookie who's been stopped in his tracks by well-wishers. Rossi said it happens to him in restaurants. Ditto for Fantilli. And they get it. The players are fans, too. And on most nights, guys they admire are directly across from them on the ice.

DMITRI VORONKOV USES words sparingly. But they're highly effective.

Like when the Blue Jackets forward -- who has 31 points through 58 games -- dropped his initial takeaways after facing Edmonton captain Connor McDavid.

"It looked like he has arrived from a different planet," Voronkov said, via a translator. "I don't think I've seen somebody like that, ever."

Faber recalls the "wild" (no pun intended) feeling of witnessing those iconic players of his youth still crushing the competition -- right in front of him.

"You can't believe you've playing against [Sidney] Crosby and [Alex] Ovechkin," he said. "I watched them a ton growing up. When I was a young kid, they were the superstars of the league and they still are. That's crazy."

The trick is not to get distracted in the moment. Carlsson figured that out in a hurry against Pittsburgh.

"I had Sidney Crosby as an idol growing up, so the first time I played against him was really cool," he said. "When I saw him on the opposite side of the faceoff dot, that was like, wow. It was so cool. But I think when I was out there against him after that first faceoff, I was just focused on playing hockey."

There's precious little time for chitchat once the puck gets dropped anyway. So some league veterans make sure to get their hellos in early.

"My first NHL game, Artemi Panarin off the draw kind of tapped me on the shin pads and was like, 'Welcome to the NHL, kid,'" Benson said. "So that was pretty cool for me."

Not every rookie gets an ideal NHL greeting, though. Knies points to another, more humbling experience that truly summarized where he was at. And of course, it's something he'll never forget.

"Last year at playoffs, I missed the first two power-play meetings," he laughed. "I had no idea what time [they were] or what was going on. Guys kind of give it to me for that. That was probably my 'welcome to the NHL moment;' like, you need to show up, and you need to be ready."

THERE ARE SOME THINGS for which a rookie can prepare himself. Some can't be controlled.

Take Faber, for instance. He's heard the outside chatter for months. It's saying there's a chance he'll be more than just a Calder Trophy finalist. He'll be a favorite to win.

Chicago's Bedard looked like the runaway Rookie of the Year leader early in the season. Then Bedard missed six weeks with a fractured jaw and Faber's increasingly excellent play separated him from the remaining freshman pack.

It's a nice compliment to Faber that he's been seen as award-worthy. It's just not what drives him, especially now when Minnesota is on track to miss the playoffs.

"It'd be really cool and a tremendous honor [to be a finalist] considering how many great rookies there are this year," he said. "It's crazy to think that it's maybe a possibility. But I think every guy in the league would say they're more focused on the team's success, and doing what they can for their teammates. Individually, it's just a pretty cool thing on the side to be mentioned in."

And there's another bit of balance that rookies have to find. They might be teenagers and 20-somethings living a dream, but the NHL is a business, too. Winning matters in ways it sometimes hasn't in the past, with real-world implications -- and painful fallout -- when players and teams fall short.

Confidence becomes more than just a buzzword: It's a mantra. The rookies, after all, have to believe they belong -- even among the future Hall of Famers.

"It's not like the guys you're playing against are not human, you know what I mean?" Carlsson said. "You realize you can be a good player here too, and you don't have to be worried that you're not going to make it. If you have confidence out there, you're going to be fine."

The trick for Zary has been remembering every skater -- regardless of their status -- is going through a season-long adventure that inevitably produces highs and lows. The rookies won't be exempt from, or destroyed by, their struggles.

This is, after all, just the beginning.

"Bad games or a bad day, whatever it is, just let it go, and know the next day is a new day and you can go enjoy that," he said. "Put a smile on your face and take a step back and realize, you know what, you might have had a bad day, maybe made a couple bad plays, but at the end of the day, you know where you are and you know how good you can be.

"Step back and tell yourself, 'I'm in the NHL and that's one of my lifelong goals,' so you've got to kind of pinch yourself sometimes."