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.
"My attitude toward the Red Sox, as a huge fan, is up and down like the weather. Wins and losses, I go up and down. This guy's great. The pitching stinks. We need a new catcher.
We've got to fill this hole. And Leafs Nation was the same thing," says Fitzgerald.
Pat Quinn had long coveted the scrappy, no- nonsense veteran but when he came calling in 1999 and tried to convince [Fitzgerald]to come north after some solid years playing for the Florida Panthers, Fitzgerald balked and ended up joining the expansion Nashville Predators.
The money was the same; the scrutiny wasn't. "My first kick at free agency, it came down to Nashville and Toronto. At the time, I just felt I wasn't ready for that pressure. You put pressure on yourself as a player, but you fly under the radar a little bit when you're playing in South Florida. At the time, I was scoring ten to fifteen goals a year.
What if I [signed with the Leafs and]scored four?"
But after four seasons in Nashville as team captain, Fitzgerald felt ready when the Leafs came calling again, excited by the prospect of playing for an Original Six team.
Scrutiny? There was some, not always good. The Leafs lost in seven games to Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs in 2002-03.
"I had a buddy, after we lost to Philadelphia, he came to me after with a six- pack of eggs. He said, 'Do you want to throw 'em at your house or do you want me to?' "Everyone had an opinion," says Fitzgerald, now the director of player development for the Pittsburgh Penguins. For the most part it was fun, or funny. The exception being when his kids would hear it from friends at school when their dad had a rough night, or when he had to give consideration to taking his name off his eight- year- old son's hockey jersey because people in the rink would see the Leaf player at the game, see the name on the jersey, put two and two together and turn a boy's hockey game into a referendum on the old man's talents.
"I could care less if someone tells me I suck," says Fitzgerald. "When you're telling my kids, 'Your dad really sucks,' that's when it crosses the line."
The downside of celebrity in Toronto can be annoying at times, to say the least. If it isn't armchair power play quarterbacking, or overzealous enthusiasm, there is always the rumour mill. Remember the "Wendy" Clark rumours in the early '90s? The idea that the rugged Leafs captain was gay, and fond of figure skater Toller Cranston? Remember Vancouver fans maliciously chanting "Wen- dy, Wen- dy" when the Leafs faced the Canucks in the 1994 semi- finals? (Or coach Pat Burns shrugging off the rumours to reporters with the memorable quip that if being gay meant play ing like Wendel Clark, then he wanted to be gay too?) If anyone needs to be reminded from time to time that that unfounded, salacious rumours pre- dated the Internet, surely the whispering about Number 17 should offer convincing proof.
(In any case, Toronto nightlife impresario Nick Di Dinato can put the rumour to rest. "...He was always chasing women," he says. "For sure. I knew that Wendel Clark was not even slightly that direction. Him and Todd Gill lived in a place on Madison Avenue and they had a backyard hot tub and you would go to parties there and it would be them, a few other Leafs, and a lot of girls in the hot tub.") Still, no one ever died from a bit of celebrity gossip.
In February of 1994, Doug Gilmour began getting threatening mail and disturbing phone calls from a female "admirer" complaining he wasn't being nice enough to her. The caller grew increasingly volatile and irate. "'I know where you live,' that kind of thing," says Gilmour. "And finally I got one that said, 'Next Thursday, after practice, you'll be dead.'"
He reported it to NHL security and the police, and it made for a day of high drama. When the day came, the Gardens was surrounded by undercover officers, and Gilmour was given a police escort to and from practice, but nothing happened. The threats eventually stopped. Gilmour suspects they may have come from a disgruntled Gardens employee, but he's not sure. "I was pretty shaken, especially when they tell you a date they're going to kill you," says Gilmour, who was coaching the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League in 2008-09.
"I was like, okaayyy. Do I have to practise that day?" The answer in Pat Burns's world: yes.
Excerpted from Leafs Abomination: The Dismayed Fan's Handbook to Why the Leafs Stink and How They Can Rise Again. Copyright 2009 by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange. Published by Random House Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
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