Fantilli’s Chicago Steel Roots Paving the Way to NHL Stardom

If you are not familiar with the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League (USHL) yet, you should be. They are among the best teams in the Tier 1 junior hockey league and they are the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the fourth straight year. Six Steel players made the final list of Central Scouting’s top North American skaters for the 2023 NHL Draft, and a lot of elite NHL talent has come from the program, such as Owen Power (Buffalo Sabres), Jaccob Slavin (Carolina Hurricanes), and Jamie Oleksiak (Seattle Kraken). One player will be added to this illustrious list in the summer: Adam Fantilli. Many hockey fans may recognize him from the University of Michigan, but the elite prospect you see today was harnessed and developed during his two years with the Steel (2020 to 2022).

I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to speak with Steel head coach/general manager Mike Garman, as well as Fantilli’s teammate Nick Moldenhauer to get more insight into the type of player and person he is, as well as his rise to future NHL stardom that started, in many ways, in Geneva, Illinois.

Fantilli Commits to Steel

In May 2020, then 15-year-old Fantilli committed to play for the Steel for the 2020-21 season. Garman was the assistant coach at the time, and the team knew they got a fantastic player in Fantilli, considering he had 36 points in 26 games with Kimball Union Academy. The pairing was made even better, knowing what the stakes were to get him.

Garman said, “We were in a serious battle to get him and keep him from the OHL [Ontario Hockey League] because he was pretty highly touted. He was a pretty big name, and for us, we just had Owen Power, and we were fortunate to have really good players. So he was, I guess, the first big name before even coming to us, or big kind of persona, big reputation before arriving.” For Fantilli, the fit worked in two ways; he could continue to play with his older brother Luca who was a draft pick of the Steel, and Adam mentioned how the USHL presented a great opportunity to play against solid competition without jeopardizing his NCAA eligibility as it was something he was considering. He ultimately committed to playing for the Michigan Wolverines (from ‘Adam Fantilli’s hockey journey worked toward development, not comfort’ – The Michigan Daily – 07/01/2022).

Adam Fantilli Chicago Steel
Adam Fantilli, former Chicago Steel (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Something to remember with the Steel is that they have a different recipe for success. Most hockey teams, whether it be junior leagues or the NHL, rely on talent and analytics when considering players to add to their teams. The eye test is compelling, but Chicago digs deeper. Garman explained the players the Steel target, “I think, obviously, everyone wants a talented player. Where I think we’re a little unique is we look at hockey IQ and how players think the game. We actually believe that a lot of hockey IQ can be learned and developed, and that’s what I like to think we are known for, even more than talent. We get really good players, and then we help them understand the game at a better level that makes them better players.”

Now, the Steel got a guy that checks all those boxes. Chicago was the top seed in the Eastern Conference the prior year but only had one Clark Cup championship (2017). You would think signing a player like Fantilli would be a Marian Hossa to the Chicago Blackhawks-type scenario, where the second he signed as a free agent in 2009, he changed the team’s landscape and led them to a Stanley Cup that very season. In some ways, Fantilli’s journey to the Steel was similar, but it wasn’t all rosy, which makes the end result that much sweeter. They knew they had a rare talent on their hands, but just like every other player on the Steel, the coach’s goal was to take his game to the next level.

Fantilli’s Rise With The Steel

Here’s something to know about Fantilli; his presence is one you can’t miss, not just because he was 6-foot-2 and 181 pounds when he got to Chicago. It’s because his personality is so endearing. When talking about first impressions, Garman mentioned, “He’s pretty charismatic. He’s got a really good presence and energy about him. You notice him like he comes in hot. He’s a very confident kid. He presents very well, and it was one of those things where he looked comfortable and confident, and he may or may not have been, right? But he very much feels like he enjoys the big moments and enjoys taking things on, which is the feeling I got from him.”

Adam Fantilli Chicago Steel
Adam Fantilli, former Chicago Steel (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

So, Fantilli had the confidence but also had competition right out of the gate. Nothing was going to be handed to him because of his reputation. The thing about the Steel’s culture is that every player is just as talented as the next. Every spot is earned. When he arrived, Garman mentioned that he didn’t start as the team’s first-line center. There was one point where he was a third-line left wing. He had to work up that, and the COVID season gave him a good test. During that year, colleges were shut down, and the team had a lot of returning players. In normal circumstances, some would have gone on to play Division 1 hockey. Because they couldn’t, it provided Fantilli with some “growing pains,” especially because he has a late 2004 birthday, and his youth provided an adjustment period in a sometimes unforgiving USHL environment where goals are hard to come by.

Garman mentioned the COVID year was probably beneficial for him because “he could just focus on getting better and playing.” The most important aspect of that year was that the team did not have to rely on Fantilli alone for success, which worked well for his development and the group as a whole. Garman explained, “He was around really good players he could look up to and could mentor him. He was able to contribute more and more as the year went on, and by the end of the year, he was the MVP of the Clark Cup Playoffs as a 16-year-old. That’s remarkable. He had an incredibly successful year, but it was one, to his credit, that he really grew through, developed, and got better as the year went along.” Fantilli was a star in the USHL with 36 points in 49 games and produced nine points in eight playoff games that ultimately led to a Clark Cup championship during his first year with the team. He was the perfect complement to the team.

Related: Adam Fantilli – 2023 NHL Draft Prospect Profile

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The following 2021-22 season with the Steel, Fantilli recorded 74 points in 54 games, which is a 38-point swing, and the Steel can be credited for that. Garman and the coaching staff’s philosophy was taking Fantilli, and the rest of the players’ strengths, and building to their game. They emphasized helping them reach their potential faster by “how we think the game, how we look at the game, and how we teach the game.” With Fantilli, Garman mentioned he came in relying on his physical assets, like his skating and his shot, but they worked on adding intangibles that helped his game grow. Fantilli agreed. He credited his time with the Steel, the coaches, and his teammates for helping to polish his game, such as with time management, hockey sense, and preserving space that did wonders for him in pursuit of his NHL dream.

What Makes Fantilli Different?

There is no denying that Fantilli is an otherworldly talent. But his situation with the Steel is similar to the NHL Draft, where every player is talented. So what is it about him that sets him apart from the rest? Garman explained, “I think it’s his competitiveness for his skill level. That’s a rare combination to have that much intensity, that much physicality, along with that much talent and giftedness. A lot of these kids do, but he eats, sleeps, and breathes [hockey]. He looks for every edge he can to get better, and he’s incredibly driven. So, I think just how he goes about it, his approach is really special, and he doesn’t leave a stone left unturned in his development.” He later mentioned, “He plays with so much speed, and he’s attacking, he’s driving the net, and he’s shooting and hitting you. So, what you get is a lot of hard skill, and I think that makes him really unique.”

When speaking with his former teammate Nick Moldenhauer, he had an excellent take on Fantilli. They faced each other for most of their minor hockey careers but were teammates for two years on the Steel and for Team Canada at the 2022 U18 World Championship. They may have the chance to play together again as Moldenhauer is heading to the University of Michigan next year, and Fantilli stated he had yet to close the door on a possible return to college. They became close friends off the ice, and although they played on different lines, they had moments when they played together.

He described Fantilli as a teammate, saying, “He’s a super competitive kid, so I think the biggest thing being on his team is how much he pushes the group. He’d expect so much of each guy, individually, so it breeds guys to want to be more competitive themselves and work harder, and stuff like that. So as a teammate, he definitely helped me to push myself and get better.”

Moldenhauer went on to explain how his and Fantilli’s game worked together, stating, “I think we play pretty well together. I think we are both smart hockey players, and he is super talented in every area of his game. So, I think it’s pretty easy to play with him. I think we both work hard, especially in practice and stuff, just competing against each other. It was really helpful for my development, just with him pushing me, that kind of thing. It’s pretty easy to play with a guy who’s helping your game, and you’re competing.” Furthermore, he stated, “We’re different players. I think he is so talented, like [he’s] an unreal skater and can shoot the puck really well. I think I can complement him well because I like to make plays. I’d say I’m more of a playmaker, and that’s where I think we play well together just because I’m good at making plays and getting him the puck, and he is really good at putting it in the net.”

For Blackhawks fans, this gives off Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat vibes, right?

That conversation with Moldenhauer gave insight into what it means to play with someone of Fantilli’s caliber and what teams and fans could expect when he makes it to the show. They are different, but both think the game the same way. So, it makes all the sense in the world why they mesh so well together. Also, the insight comes from a phenomenal prospect, as Moldenhauer is third-best in the USHL in scoring (75 points in 55 games) and is a top-five prospect for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was drafted 95th overall in 2022.

Fantilli’s Character Profile

Talking with Garman and Moldenhauer painted a great picture of who Fantilli is as a teammate and player. The words “competitive,” “driven,” and “intense” are commonly used to describe him. He has grown with his Steel teammates into the player he is now, and those characteristics are the makings of an unselfish player who “wants to be the best,” as Garman mentioned, and will do whatever it takes for himself and his teammates to reach their goals. But most know that players have different on- and off-ice personas. Regarding what Fantilli is like off the ice, he was noted as being fun-loving and genuine. Moldenhauer stated that Fantilli “is a really good friend. When you get to know him, he is a very generous person. He’s always looking out for you. He has always been a good friend to me once I got to know him and got closer to him.” He even joked that Fantilli can be a bit of a clown, adding to his jolly nature.

Adam Fantilli Michigan Wolverines
Adam Fantilli, Michigan Wolverines (Michigan Photography)

Garman had a similar experience with Fantilli. He told me several times throughout our conversation what a good person he is. Someone of his status, you may think, would have an arrogance about him, but that is not Fantilli. In fact, the furthest from that. He is extremely humble. I asked Garman if he could share a fun story about him, and what he shared exemplifies character, kindness, and maturity.

He shared, “I went to dinner with Adam and his brother just to catch up, and we were having a great time. We went to a nice steak place, and they like to eat good, [Laughs]. They ordered really good food, and it was obviously going to be my treat and something to do for them, and I went to the restroom, and when I came back, he and his brother actually picked up the bill. So, I had to call his parents and explain I would like to do it, and they were great about it. What you have with him is a really sweet kid and a good person deep down, and his relationship with his brother is something special, and the fact that they have gotten to play together is so cool.”

If you are sold on Fantilli’s game already, you will be even more sold on the kind of person he is. His positive impact goes beyond ice level and contributes to his draft stock being as high as it is.

Fantilli’s NHL Future

The Blackhawks finished third-worst in the NHL and will be in a tight race during the 2023 NHL Draft Lottery on May 8. Because of their finish, they won’t pick further than fifth in the draft. Like any NHL team, they will look closely at Fantilli if they score a top-three pick. So, I had to inquire about what he would bring to an NHL team.

I asked Garman to tell me what he would bring to a team like the Blackhawks or any team that drafts him. “I think he would be so good, especially for a team that is rebuilding or going through a transition, because he is going to be there for a long time. He has such a persona; so competitive. He’s one of those guys you can watch grow within the program. He’s young, he’s hungry, he’s extremely motivated, so I think what he brings is just this talent, this intensity, and someone that has this insatiable drive. [The Blackhawks], just as any organization, would be lucky to get him.”

To follow up, I had to ask Garman if Chicago ultimately selected him, and if he believes that Fantilli would like to be a Blackhawk. He responded, “Yes, I do. I mean, I don’t know, right? This is just me projecting, but I do. I think, like you said, it’s an incredible, historical franchise. That’s important to him. He’s a hockey guy through and through, and I think he’s not a guy that just wants to be in the shadows playing his game. I think he would actually enjoy taking on the challenge of helping be a part of a rebuild or helping a team rise back to greatness, so I do think he would really like it.” (Note: this is strictly coach Garman’s perspective and is not affiliated with Fantilli’s personal views.)

Of course, Fantilli, just like every other draft pick, would be elated to go to any NHL team, but he would be a home run pick for the Blackhawks. His hockey mindset instantly reminds me of Jonathan Toews because his intense passion for the game leads to results. His character is one of a leader, and if he came to the Hawks, he would be leading the charge off the bat as he is a franchise-altering player. The team needs accountability and results going forward, and they set a good foundation this past season, but Fantilli would add the extra insurance needed to take the next step.

Adam Fantilli Michigan Wolverines
Adam Fantilli, Michigan Wolverines (Michigan Photography)

Fantilli wants to be great, but his focus is team-oriented and improving everyone around him. The team’s success is his success, and his hockey skillset is one you can’t miss. The 18-year-old is only getting better.

After Fantilli departed the Steel, he won a gold medal with Team Canada at the World Juniors and the Hobey Baker Award for the best college hockey player. More awards will surely come his way in his career, but now, all eyes are on the NHL. He will be a player that will be a must-watch in the league, no matter where he plays. To top it all off, whenever the time comes when he faces Moldenhauer at the NHL level, that will be must-watch TV as well. Moldenhauer responded, “That would be a pretty special moment, for sure. It would be awesome, and a dream come true. I think that would be a pretty special moment for both of us.” But don’t expect them to drop the gloves. Although Fantilli is known for playing a chippy-style game, Moldenhauer joked he would probably lose that fight. Boys will be boys! That could come as an Original Six matchup, or it may not. Either way, these upcoming stars couldn’t be better for the game.

Fantilli has many layers: he’s a competitor, he is driven, he is caring, and he is authentically himself. He is the quintessential NHL forward. No lottery team wants to miss out on Connor Bedard, but the same notion could be said about Fantilli. He will be a household name in the league, and any team that whiffs on Bedard will not be disappointed in the slightest to land Fantilli. In fact, they will be just as ecstatic. Remember how the Blackhawks were once regarded as “Cold Steel on Ice?” Well, his time with the Steel will always be a part of him.

And that is what makes him exceptional.

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