— Noel Acciari
’s philosophy, at this point in his life, is to be ready for anything — whatever any given day might throw at him.
But even still, there is no way he could have been prepared for what happened on Dec. 4 against Portland.
That night, in the middle of a game against the Pirates, he was struck in the face by a puck and was left with a broken jaw that would ultimately sideline him for just under a month.
“It definitely was just frustrating because after surgery, your whole body can do everything — it’s just, you’re not allowed to do anything at all, if that makes sense,” said the first-year pro. “Some guys have broken feet or hands or whatever, and they can’t do something — but the fact that I could skate, stickhandle, do all that, it was just kind of difficult to see [games] and be wishing you were out there and just trying to get better as soon as possible so you can get out there.”
The broken jaw was a healthy dose of adversity for Acciari, who signed with Boston as a free agent last spring after his Providence Friars captured the NCAA championship.
Up until Dec. 4, things had been going great for Acciari. He had established himself as one of the P-Bruins’ most versatile forwards, a grinder who could slot in anywhere from the top of the lineup to the bottom, at center or on the wing.
Then, suddenly, he had to take a seat for a month. But even that — being forced to watch from afar as his new team competed — wasn’t necessarily the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge was being restricted to a liquid diet for six weeks.
“I lost about eight, nine pounds, and it was tough to just maintain,” Acciari said. “When you can’t chew, you really don’t want to eat much, but you have to force yourself and still try and eat healthy with everything that is going on. You don’t lose what you’ve built and all that. It was tough, but now it’s good to be able to chew again and just kind of be back out there.”
Acciari was finally able to return to game action on Jan. 3, almost exactly a month after he had been struck. He had lost a few pounds and gained three plates in his face — two on his chin, and one on his jawline.
But now, finally, about a month after making his return, he is beginning to feel like his old self again.
“I kind of felt like I lost a step out there, just from being out for a month,” Acciari said. “It’s slowly coming back, and I feel myself getting better, stronger, out there again — being strong on pucks and doing what I do best.”
For every player on Providence’s roster, this season has been a bit of a roller coaster. With so many first-year pros in the lineup — and so many of the remaining few veterans constantly shuffling back and forth from Boston — consistency was hard to come by, especially early on.
But the last month or so, in which Providence has climbed into fourth place in the Atlantic Division, has been a different story.
“I think we responded well in the last month,” Acciari said. “Every guy that comes up and down has been great for us, and it’s been fun. I’ve had a lot of fun with all these guys, meeting new guys, and I thought we meshed pretty well. Whoever’s in the lineup each night, we all know what our job is and what we need to do out there, and we found our stride of late, and hopefully we can keep that going this season.”
Acciari entered his first pro season thinking he’d be a center, but early on, plans changed. One night, he’d be on the wing with Anton Blidh and Colby Cave in the bottom six; the next night, he might find himself centering the top line with Seth Griffith and Frank Vatrano.
“The practices help, definitely — getting used to guys — but everyone’s good, and it’s easy to adjust to who you’re playing with [from knowing] their game, watching it all year, and just knowing what they do and kind of read off them,” he said. “It’s fun.”
The fact that, for the first time in his life, he has been able to dedicate himself solely to hockey has also helped.
“I’ve always done the school route — I never did juniors; I did prep school,” Acciari said. “So I’ve always had school with [hockey].”
Now, there’s no schoolwork to worry about during bus rides home from games. He doesn’t have to worry about waking up early for classes.
“It’s definitely different for me,” he said. “It’s a lot of free time, but at the same time, you get to focus more on your body, and more on your job, and it makes playing a lot easier.”
That increased focus on hockey has been necessary because the difference between the average NCAA player and the average professional player can be considerable. It’s a big adjustment — to the pace at the AHL level, to the size and strength of opponents, to the three-games-in-three-days schedule.
“I think the biggest difference [in the pro game] is just kind of having poise with the puck,” Acciari said. “I’ve watched a couple of college games this year, and just seeing how you’re dumping the puck every time you’re going on a forecheck, but yet that’s probably one of the last things you want to be doing out [here], just because it’s a possession game, and the more time you have the puck, the better chance you have to score a goal. I think possession and poise with the puck is probably the biggest difference.
“And everyone’s good out here. Everyone’s strong. So you just have to work that much harder in the offseason, and just kind of be ready for anything.”
Fortunately for Acciari, he has shown an affinity for rolling with the punches, for playing the hands that are dealt.
“Coming in, I thought I was just going to be a center, kind of being a grinder and stuff like that,” he said. “But halfway through the season, I moved to right wing, adjusted to that, did fine with that. Now, I’m playing center again. So on any given day, you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’ve just got to be ready for whatever your job is. Whatever they ask you, you’re going to do it just because it’s your job.”
And that, after all, is kind of the name of the game when you’re a 24-year-old prospect in a deep system who’s waiting for his first NHL recall.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Acciari said. “Of course I want to be up [in Boston], but I’m not going to be dwelling on it. I’m just going to work hard every day here, and if it happens, I’ll work hard up there, and just be ready for anything.”