Skip to main content

Toronto Maple Leafs center Alexander Kerfoot battles for the puck against the St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Miss., on Jan 15.Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

The route that Alexander Kerfoot took to the National Hockey League is rarely travelled.

The Maple Leafs’ most versatile player never set foot in the minors. Instead, he went right from the Junior-A level in British Columbia to the Ivy League and from there directly to the Colorado Avalanche.

Drafted by the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League and later the New Jersey Devils, Kerfoot spurned both to pursue an economics degree at Harvard. In his final year he was the Crimson’s co-captain and a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award presented to the top player in the NCAA.

“Looking back, it was the best decision for me,” Kerfoot says. “I was an underdeveloped kid and a late bloomer, and I am forever grateful for the decisions I made. I couldn’t be happier and am proud of the way everything turned out.”

As Toronto heads into a contest on Wednesday in New York against the Rangers, Kerfoot is its fifth-leading scorer. He has 26 points in 36 games and is in the midst of his best season in four-plus years in the NHL.

On a star-studded club, his contributions are easy for fans to overlook but not his coaches and teammates. He can play centre or on either wing, kills off penalties and is a member of the second power-play unit.

When John Tavares, the Maple Leafs captain, was injured during the playoffs last year, Kerfoot stepped in as second-line centre and had a goal and five assists.

With Mitch Marner sidelined with COVID-19 recently, Kerfoot moved to right wing and had a goal and two assists in an overtime loss at Colorado.

“I think he looks really comfortable this season,” head coach Sheldon Keefe says. “I thought he took steps last year. In that playoff series against Montreal, he was outstanding for us and he has just picked up from there.

“Coming back now for his third season here, he is a big part of our team and a big part of our leadership group.”

Kerfoot was traded to Toronto along with Tyson Barrie on Canada Day in 2019 as part of the deal that sent Nazem Kadri to the Avalanche. Named to the all-star game on Tuesday, Kadri is easily having the best year of his career.

There could be something to lament there, but Kerfoot has likely exceeded expectations since he joined the Maple Leafs. As long as he stays healthy, he should exceed the 43 points he accrued in his rookie campaign with Colorado in 2017-18.

Kerfoot is now in the third year of a four-year contract worth US$14-million, and his future with the team is uncertain mainly because of salary-cap considerations.

“I think I have had good stretches throughout my career and I feel comfortable with who I am,” he says.

Originally from Vancouver, Kerfoot grew up alongside Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly. Kerfoot’s father, Greg, is the majority owner of the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer and the family has long had a vacation home in Whistler, B.C.

It is there that Kerfoot spent countless hours honing his skills on a private rink his dad had constructed on their property.

The jump from Harvard to the NHL was a huge leap but he weathered it well.

“I wanted to go to Harvard to take classes with some of the smartest students around,” Kerfoot says. “It was always something I strived for, but I realize it is not a natural progression for a hockey player.

“I went from playing 30 games in college to 82 in the NHL against the best players in the world. It takes getting used to. It was a challenge, but I would never want to have done it a different way.”

The Maple Leafs enter the encounter with the Rangers with a 24-9-3 record and hold down third in the NHL’s Atlantic Division behind the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. New York is 25-10-4 and first in the Metropolitan Division.

It is yet another in a series of difficult opponents. Along with Colorado, Toronto recently played Vegas and St. Louis – each on the road.

“We are aware of the standings at all times, but it is not like we are checking them after every win and every loss,” Kerfoot says. “We are aware of who is around us but it’s not like we are sitting back and hoping for losses [by other teams] or anything like that.

“We are focused on ourselves and we know that will sort itself out at the end. The NHL is always a roller coaster. The longer you are around the better you are able to handle it.”

Kerfoot, the guy with the Ivy League economics degree, has taken on responsibility helping Jason Spezza in representing Toronto with the NHL Players’ Association.

It was a natural for an egghead from Harvard who gets ribbed by teammates about his Hah-vard credentials.

“Guys always joke about that,” Kerfoot says. “It comes with the territory. No matter who you are and where you are from, there will always be joking around.”