Clarke MacArthur will never forget the feeling.
He was 7, sitting in Northlands Coliseum and about to watch his favourite team, the Edmonton Oilers, take the ice. And he was nervous.
"I would just have butterflies the whole game," MacArthur said. "It was just one of those things where I knew this is what I wanted to do.
"I would be so nervous at the games and I would always say that to my Dad. He just said: 'You're nervous because you're going to be in this league one day.'"
Almost 20 years later, MacArthur is the Toronto Maple Leafs' leading scorer with 18 points in 20 games, making good on his father's wishful thinking and earning a name for himself at hockey's highest level.
After years of pushing to establish himself in the NHL, MacArthur heads into Toronto's game Friday against his former Buffalo Sabres team feeling like he has finally found a home in Toronto.
"I knew I was going to get an opportunity here and I didn't want to waste it," he said. "Whatever the reason is, things are clicking this year."
The road from watching the Oilers to leading the Leafs, however, hasn't been without a few bumps along the way.
Just 5 foot 4 until he was 15, MacArthur went untouched in the Western Hockey League's bantam draft, overlooked by every team despite his considerable skill. A scout in his hometown of Lloydminster, Alta., helped him get a tryout with the Medicine Hat Tigers a year later, but he was the team's final cut.
Devastated, he left home to play in Alberta's Junior A circuit, where he grew seven inches over the season and scored better than a point a game as one of the league's youngest players.
The Tigers knew they missed the boat.
"They were trying to call me up at Christmas," MacArthur said.
His next season was a whirlwind. After putting up 75 points as a rookie with the Tigers, the Sabres made MacArthur their third-round pick, 74th overall in 2003.
The years since have been an in-depth education in pro hockey, from life in the minors to trying to steal jobs from older, higher paid veterans in the NHL.
The Sabres eventually gave up on MacArthur, dealing him to the Atlanta Thrashers last March for two mid-round draft picks. When Atlanta walked away from his arbitration award this summer, he became one of the last free agents without a home.
With a handful of teams interested, MacArthur signed a one-year, $1.1-million (U.S.) deal in Toronto in the hopes of getting his career back on track.
No one in the organization expected him to lead the team in scoring.
"I certainly didn't," coach Ron Wilson said. "Good for him. His line's clearly our best line and the most consistent up to this point. And I haven't even used them as the primary power play guys, but I'm going to start to do that now."
"In Buffalo, I didn't really have the opportunity to do this," MacArthur said. "You look at the minutes I was playing, like 12 minutes a game on average. What are you supposed to do with 12 minutes a game?"
Set to become a restricted free agent next July, MacArthur's future is a little uncertain. Leafs general manager Brian Burke said Thursday he normally waits for the 40- to 50-game mark before evaluating how players fit into the organization long term.
When that time comes, MacArthur wants to make management's decision difficult.
"I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing," he said. "It's tough to get 80 points or whatever, but I want to keep a consistent pace.
"I don't know [if I'll get to stay] That's up to Toronto I guess, what they want to do. I like it here, I hope things work out, but you never know. It's so far down the road."