With a hot stretch to end the first half of the 2016-17 Ontario Hockey League season, there are many within the Saginaw Spirit organization beaming with smiles about the team’s future heading down the stretch.
However, perhaps no smile is quite as bright as that of rookie forward Gianluca Fuoco.
The 17-year old has appeared in 22 games this season for the Spirit, and he’s still in search of his first OHL point. But just a year after a traumatic brain injury, hospital stay, countless tests and speculation about his future, any reason to get out on the ice and grind towards a goal is reason to smile.
“I almost had my whole life — not physically — pretty much taken away from me,” Fuoco said.
On Dec. 6 of last year as a member of the Toronto Titans minor midget hockey team, Fuoco was attempting to check an opposing player when he tripped and crashed head first into the boards.
He was rushed to the hospital — resulting in an extended stay — where he was monitored and underwent a series of tests to survey the scope of the injury. Forget playing hockey, Fuoco’s long term well-being was put into question.
“(It was) a concussion and separation in my neck,” he said. “It was a long conversation with my doctor. I’m fine now, but those four months (of recovery) were very eye opening. … Every concussion is different. I had such a severe one, they didn’t know what to expect if I had another one.”
It took a month for the side effects of the concussion to subside, but it took almost four months before he was able to begin light skating. During that time, Fuoco worked at strengthening the muscles in neck that were injured.
But it was worth it.
Fuoco attended rookie camp with Saginaw in May — his first hockey games since the injury — and wasted no time shaking off the rust by scoring five goals with an assist in three games. That earned an OHL contract for the 2016-17 season.
On Sept. 23, he made his season and major junior debut on the road against Guelph.
“They were worried about a coma,” Spirit General Manager Dave Drinkill said. “So for him to come back from that (and play in the OHL) is actually pretty impressive.”
Saginaw isn’t relying on Fuoco to be a go-to player offensively this season, but at 6-foot-1, 180-pounds, he has the size teams covet. And Drinkill said he has the skill to be an impact player at this level as he develops.
“He always scored goals,” Drinkill said. “He played 20 or 21 games last year, and I think he had 17 or 18 goals. … I project him as one of those guys who, when he gets older, finds his scoring touch.”
The Spirit would love to see that scoring touch develop earlier rather than later, but for now, they’re just looking for a dependable contributor and that’s exactly what Fuoco is focused on being.
“He’s getting better every week,” Saginaw coach Spencer Carbery said. “Every week it’s a big jump for him. … He’s taken a lot in, we’re working with him a lot and he’s improving a lot.
“Right now, he’s just focused on being reliable. Be as reliable as he can defensively and be smart with the puck, then build off that and get more opportunities.”
While Fuoco is still looking for his first point with the Spirit, his attention to detail on defense has worked out with the Etobicoke, Ontario native recording an even or plus rating in every game since Nov. 12.
“I just want to be a plus player,” he said. “If I can chip in offensively — great. Most importantly, keep the puck out of the back of our net.”
Fuoco’s done a good job of winning those defensive battles, which have helped contribute to a series of wins for the Spirit.
But just being back on the ice is a win for the youngster.
“He’s overcome a lot in his life and his hockey career,” Carbery said. “He’s a fighter like that. He’s not easily detoured or someone who folds his cards or turns his back on something that’s an obstacle too big to overcome.
“He’s a guy you can tell is going to fight through it.”
Fight and win.