In strange times, the hockey world has come up with unique solutions. While some leagues have started up in North America for 2020-21, many have not and the development curves of young players has led teams and player agents to direct a number of prospects over to Europe. Two such players are Los Angeles Kings pick Akil Thomas and Edmonton Oilers prospect Ryan McLeod, both repped by agent Joe Resnick.
The 20-year-old Thomas was one of five Kings prospects who were sent to train with Eisbaren Berlin in Germany's DEL, while McLeod has kicked off his 2020-21 campaign with EV Zug in Switzerland. Both players had to clear Covid-19 tests upon arrival in Europe and from there, they began their newest adventures.
For Thomas, that initially meant sharing a four-bedroom apartment in Berlin with four other Los Angeles prospects - Alex Turcotte, Tyler Madden, Jacob Ingham and Aidan Dudas.
"Turcotte and I had to share a room," Thomas said. "I walked into the apartment first and took the biggest bed - but Jacob Ingham is 6-foot-5, so I gave it to him and decided to go in the room with two twin beds with Turcotte."
Now Thomas has a room to himself, as Turcotte and Madden both recently went back to the U.S. after sustaining injuries, but the remaining Kings kids are finding their way in Germany. The biggest difference is cooking every day and the players have been working as a team: one guy handles the steak, another the veggies and another pasta, for example. But making sure they've got the right ingredients and portions has been a challenge at times thanks to unfamiliar German grocery stores.
"It's definitely way different," Thomas said. "The portions are different - bacon packets come with just eight strips, eggs come in sixes instead of 12, but the waters are huge. I bought bacon the other day - well, what I thought was bacon - and it was very far from it. Little stuff like that; us not being able to find garlic the first three times we went to a grocery store. It's definitely been a culture shock in regards to grocery stores."
McLeod had to laugh after he tried ordering McDonald's at a Swiss drive-thru, only to be presented with two meals at the window instead of the one he thought he requested.
"That was my 'welcome to Switzerland' moment," he said.
McLeod has a grocery store right next to his place in Zug, which has been tremendously convenient for the 21-year-old, who isn't used to cooking but is starting to get a feel for it. Like Thomas, he's navigating the different culinary palates of Europe.
"They don't have certain sauces over here and that threw me for a twirl," McLeod said. "They have no Ranch or Caesar and that's tough because I like to use those to dip a lot. That was a low blow for me."
Luckily, the other off-ice comforts have made up for the lack of sauces for McLeod. Zug is centrally located in Switzerland, so the furthest road game is only three-and-a-half hours away. Plus, the scenery and landscape of the country is pretty special.
"It's beautiful; you have all the mountains and lakes so when you're not at the rink it's a really nice set-up," McLeod said. "I was lucky enough to have my mom and my brother Matt come over not long ago and they were touring around the country with me and that was a lot of fun."
As for Thomas and the Kings kids, they've gone to a few restaurants in Berlin, but as Covid cases get worse in Germany, they're not venturing out too much otherwise. They did have a memorable day trip to Sachsenhausen, the former concentration camp, however.
While there has been some homesickness and a lot of uncertainty in terms of schedules (due to the pandemic), Thomas has been quite happy with his experience so far and he has already played in two exhibition games with Berlin, with more planned on the way.
"I thought they went OK," he said. "I didn't play great, but I didn't play bad."
The former OHL star has been getting used to game action after a seven-month layoff, plus he's been playing on the wing rather than his natural center position. The larger, international-sized ice surface means 'D' zone coverage is different, as is the way defensemen play 2-on-1s.
For McLeod, Switzerland has been an adjustment on the ice as well. He's been playing on a line with Jerome Bachofner and Calvin Thurkauf (who had a cup of coffee in the NHL with Columbus last year) and they're usually out with the same defense pairing.
"You can play with 12 forwards and eight 'D' here, so you can roll four lines," McLeod said. "There's a lot of penalties over here too, which scrambles things up."
With five points in his first seven games, McLeod is one of Zug's top scorers and the guys in the dressing room have made him feel welcome. He doesn't know how long he'll be in Switzerland, but uncertainty reigns over the hockey world right now - so he's not alone. But for both him and Thomas, game experience is a huge plus - and they're getting the chance to do it in very cool new environments.