There is nothing that prepares you for it. You're grinding away in your hockey career, pulling yourself up each rung of the ladder. The toast of small- town Canada in junior. Riding the buses in the anonymity of the American Hockey League as a young pro. Waiting for a shot.
Then you make the League, and while the money is good, playing in Nashville or St. Louis or Phoenix is a lesson in humility. You're a big shot at the arena on game nights, but on Thursday afternoon at ShopRite? Not so much.
But then you get traded, or you sign as a free agent.
And overnight you're a Toronto Maple Leaf. In an instant, your life changes.
No longer a hockey player, you're now a celebrity. No longer a just a third- line plugger, now you're a Toronto Maple Leaf plugging away on the third line.
"You can watch it from the outside as a kid growing up or you can live it every day as a fan, but until you're in that fish bowl, you'll never understand how truly difficult at times it can be on you," says Nick Kypreos, a Toronto native who played his last two seasons with the Leafs after plying his trade in the likes of Hartford and Washington before winning a Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994.
"... It is a beast when you gather up all the out - side influences of playing in this city, whether it's [four]major newspapers following you or [four]sports channels or whatever, dissecting your thoughts, your emotions, your play, your activity on and off the ice. It's different than anything else, including New York."
Not that the Leafs all want to complain about horrors of being adored all the time. Kyle Wellwood played three full seasons in Toronto and loved every minute of it.
Excerpt 5 A fifth-round pick who somehow found himself on the first line early in his career as a Leaf, Wellwood's soft hands and talents as a playmaker were a welcome anomaly on a roster shy on talent. [But]after three seasons of watching in frustration as Wellwood avoided back-checking, held on to the puck too long or tried ill- advised passes at the blue line, the club was all but telling the hockey world that Wellwood was fat, out of shape and too lazy to do anything about it. He was waived in 2008 and eventually picked up by the Vancouver Canucks where he required three tries to pass the club- mandated fitness test in training camp.
One might think that being drummed out of town and having your professionalism questioned along the way would taint just about anyone's outlook. One might think wrong.
"Playing for the Leafs was the funnest time of my life so far," says Wellwood over the phone from Vancouver one afternoon in the winter of 2009. "Every day it was exciting to come to the rink. It was always exciting to put on that uniform on Saturday night.
"People came up to you every day and wanted to talk about your hockey game. Every day felt special."
Win or lose, Wellwood was out on Saturday night, hitting any number of downtown clubs where bouncers were more than happy to whisk some Leafs and their friends past the velvet ropes and straight to the VIP areas. "The minute you show up at the club you cut the line, get a table, get a few drinks," he says. "As a young kid it was a lot of fun, I definitely miss it. If Tie [Domi]was bringing you out, you got a lot of attention, but it was nice. It was tough for the guys who were married or had a girlfriend. There's always some one who wants a cell- phone picture taken and next thing you know you're on someone's Facebook page and there's a girl kissing you on the cheek. You have to be careful. But if you wanted attention from the girls, you could definitely get it. I just think it's fun for them to hang out with an NHL player in Toronto. And if they'd had a few drinks it was even more fun."
That Wellwood could miss the playoffs all three years in Toronto, undergo three surgeries and get waived and still say it was the "funnest time of my life" makes a pretty strong case about the ancillary benefits of citizenship in Leafland.
A player with a conscience might feel differently. A player like Tom Fitzgerald, perhaps. A fourteen- year veteran and a 34-year- old father of three when he signed with the Leafs as a free agent in the summer of 2002, he wasn't coming to Toronto for the nightlife. A son of a longshoreman from Boston, he had an idea what playing in Toronto might be like based on his own experience as life- long Red Sox fan.
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