On Thanksgiving Monday, a half-dozen wags showed up to chronicle the Maple Leafs’ practice. On Tuesday, 21 members of the media, including three from Montreal, gathered outside the Ford Performance Centre to collect quotes after players were put through their drills. The size of the throng is a sign that another NHL season is upon us.
Four players were brought out for interviews – the dead-serious captain John Tavares, the veteran Jason Spezza, now starting his 19th year, the affable defenceman Travis Dermott and the cheery Jack Campbell.
The head coach, Sheldon Keefe, was last to appear. He is accommodating and professional and very intense. There is no meandering during his answers like Paul Maurice of the Winnipeg Jets, who shows every inclination that he enjoys the process.
One after another, all stood at a microphone before a phalanx of cameras and with tape recorders laying on a table in front of them. Journalists always hope someone will muse a bit whimsically and it almost never happens.
On the day before Toronto plays its first game of the 2021-22 season, it does. At 38, Spezza has done this so many times that he is always at ease.
Asked if still gets excited before the opener, he smiled brightly.
“You remember being about nine years old the night before Christmas?” Spezza asked. “It is kind of the same thing. It is a new challenge, a new horizon, a new season.
“No matter how old you are and how long you have been around, it’s still a special feeling.”
The Maple Leafs renew hostilities with the Canadiens on Wednesday to kick off the 82-game campaign. The last one ended badly – with a first-round playoff loss to those same fellows from Montreal. Nearly 19,000 spectators will be on hand at Scotiabank Arena – the first full house at since March 10, 2020, when the Tampa Bay Lightning came to town.
That was before the COVID-19 pandemic busted loose, and before the end of the world, at least temporarily, as we knew it.
There is optimism all around to accompany the regular season. That is true for all 32 NHL teams, even when it is unwarranted. This is a very good team in Toronto with a very bad history. Its success has not matched its expectations for a long while. The last time it won a playoff series was 2004. The Stanley Cup? You may not have even been born.
The Maple Leafs have seven new faces on their roster as proceedings begin: centres Michael Amadio, Ondrej Kase and David Kampf; wingers Michael Bunting and Nick Ritchie; defenceman Timothy Liljegren and goalie Petr Mrazek.
Auston Matthews is expected to miss the first three games while he recovers from a wrist injury, but he and other core members of the lineup return. Mitch Marner left practice Tuesday and is being evaluated for a concussion but is unlikely to miss much time if any.
“It is just precautionary,” Keefe said.
Toronto went 35-14-7 and won the all-Canadian North Division in the last go-round. That did not preclude another early exit from the playoffs, which is why the club’s followers are in a constant state of anxiety.
Please, not another flop.
“We have talked about being a harder team to play against, to be consistent and push the envelope,” Tavares said. “We want to challenge our opponents and ourselves.”
Campbell, who replaced Frederik Andersen in the net last season and was superb, gets his first opening-day start. He is 29 and was a backup in Dallas and Los Angeles before he was traded to the Maple Leafs during the 2019-20 season.
“It definitely feels good to put the work in and be rewarded,” Campbell said. “I expected to start on an opening day before this but didn’t put the work in that was necessary. It’s exciting. I think we are ready get back at it.”
Keefe rightfully points out that his team did a lot of good things last year. Perhaps it will be able to build on that.
“We believe in the good things we did, but we have to get to a higher level,” the coach said. “That’s really where we are at. We’ve had a very good preseason and now we face the test of continuing that.”
The puck will drop for the first time for real in Toronto on Wednesday. Anticipation fills the air like autumn leaves.
After a hard offseason, the Maple Leafs feel good about themselves again.
“Hello, friends,” Dermott said as he began to address the media on Tuesday.
Months from now, he may not be so quick.