Mark Masters: Luca Del Bel Belluz ponders possibility of getting drafted by hometown Maple Leafs

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Luca Del Bel Belluz is a proud product of Leafs Nation.

“The Toronto Maple Leafs have a crazy fan base,” the Woodbridge, Ont. native said. “It’s awesome. I’ve been to a lot of games growing up, including playoff games. It gets extra loud in there. They have a cool fan base.”

Sometimes people lose their cool.

“I almost saw a fight in the stands,” a smiling Del Bel Belluz recalled while considering his most memorable moments as a kid. “A fan of the opponent was giving it to one of the Leaf fans and he didn’t like it.”

Del Bel Belluz has grown from a star-struck spectator into a top National Hockey League prospect. TSN director of scouting Craig Button ranked the Mississauga Steelheads centre at No. 23 on his final list of prospects eligible for the upcoming draft. The Leafs own the No. 25 pick.

So, maybe Del Bel Belluz will get a chance to go from the stands to the home dressing room inside Scotiabank Arena.

“I thought about it a little bit,” he acknowledged. “You never know what’s going to happen on draft day but, definitely, there’s a possibility. It would be really cool to be drafted by your hometown and the team that you grew up cheering for.”

Del Bel Belluz felt his interview with the Leafs went well at the NHL Scouting Combine. During a conversation with TSN, he shared details about that experience and also explained how playing soccer helped his hockey career. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

TSN: What was it like to interview with the Leafs?

From Bel Belluz: “That was one I was nervous to go in for, obviously, growing up as a Leafs fan. It was super awesome. Good guys in there.”

TSN: What stood out the most?

From Bel Belluz: “Meeting Kyle Dubas was probably one of the coolest things. He’s the general manager and the guy who brought in all the guys. That was really cool.”

TSN: Did they have you watch video?

From Bel Belluz: “They played some NHL clips, and they would ask me, ‘What do you see?’ They wanted to know how I thought the game and processed it.”

TSN: What video clips did they show you?

From Bel Belluz: “Some Leafs clips, but mostly just plays in the NHL. They’d show like eight seconds and then it would go black, and they’d ask what I saw.”

TSN: How did you do?

From Bel Belluz: “I thought I was solid at it. I watch a lot of hockey, so I knew who the players were. I knew who everyone was, and I thought I gave great answers.”

TSN: How would you describe your style?

From Bel Belluz: “A responsible, 200-foot centre. Offensively, I’m very creative and able to make smart plays.”

TSN: Where does the creativity come from?

From Bel Belluz: “Working on little skills in the off-season. Doing little stickhandling skills in the garage and then even on the ice after practice. You see little things in the NHL, and you try and work on them in practice.”

TSN: Who do you watch in the NHL?

From Bel Belluz: “Being from Toronto you see the Leafs a lot and see Auston Matthews doing a lot of great things. He’s a very skilled player and can put the puck in the net, so I try and steal a couple things from. He’s a player I try and model my game after.”

TSN: What’s something you’ve tried to take from Matthews?

From Bel Belluz: “Something that I really, really focus on is the way he shoots the puck and how he changes the angle. I know he uses a shorter stick, which makes it easier to pull into his body when he’s releasing the puck.”

TSN: Have you changed your stick?

From Bel Belluz: “Yeah, I do use a shorter stick and it’s helped a lot even with stickhandling. It’s easier in tight areas to keep the puck to your body and protect it.”

TSN: When did you make that change?

From Bel Belluz: “Around minor midget is when I started to shorten it and it’s kept getting shorter and shorter from then.”

TSN: How short is it now?

From Bel Belluz: “Right now, it’s about right here (gestures to base of his neck) that area.”

TSN: Is that the sweet spot?

From Bel Belluz: “I like it there. A couple people tell me to make it longer and some people like it, so you hear a bit of both. I’ve tried both and will stick with the shorter one right now.”

TSN: In the Ontario Hockey League coaches poll, you came in first in the Eastern Conference in the most improved category. In what ways are you a better player this year?

From Bel Belluz: “My first year was a huge learning process. I was playing two to five minutes a night. I was a 15 and 16-year-old coming into the league, and I just wanted to soak up as much as possible. Having that first year under my belt was huge. During the [lost] COVID season I was able to get in the gym a lot more … My coach [James Richmond] helped me a ton with trying to perfect my two-way game. I owe a lot to him.”

TSN: How did you improve in the two-way department?

From Bel Belluz: “My first year I played two to five minutes a night and led the team in minuses. I was -13. So, in practice we would do defensive drills and work on five-on-five play in the D-zone and I would only play defence. I wasn’t allowed to play offence. So, I love how J.R. pushed me every day. It was awesome.”

TSN: What was it like that first year?

Luca Del Bel Belluz: “Being a young player, I was just overthinking and running around from puck to puck. I was young and not as smart. So, being able to simplify and playing smarter and thinking before things happen has been the biggest thing.”

TSN: Did you play any other sports growing up?

From Bel Belluz: “I played soccer until I was 12 and then I actually had to choose between hockey and soccer. Hockey was my main love, but I still watch soccer daily. I think it’s a really good sport.”

TSN: What do you like about it?

From Bel Belluz: “How smart the game is. You have to be smart to play at a high level and you have to be able to slow the game down. I take a little bit of that from soccer and try and implement that into hockey. So, I think that aspect of the game is really important.”

TSN: Are there any similarities between hockey and soccer?

Luca Del Bel Belluz: “I played striker and midfield when I played soccer. When I see a midfielder, I see a centre who plays both sides of the ball. You play offence and you play defence and when you have the ball you’re kind of controlling the game with what you can do. And being able to slow it down and not rush anything is a pretty key aspect of soccer. So, that’s what I take away from it.”

TSN: Do you have a favourite soccer player or team?

From Bel Belluz: “Well, I am Portuguese, so I will say Cristiano Ronaldo, obviously. He plays for Manchester United so that’s my team.”

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