It is a brief glimpse of the homegrown advantage that has been talked about with the Toronto Maple Leafs for years, the idea that kids from in and around the city and province would grow up wanting to play here.
This year, more than any in recent memory, they are.
Yes, the Leafs have been mired in the NHL’s basement for weeks, but what’s notable is they have done so with a lineup filled with Ontario players. There are nine from the province on the roster, including several who signed specifically to play for the Leafs.
On one hand, that’s been a dream come true: a chance to join the team they loved as kids, with their parents in their stands cheering them on, almost every night.
On the other? Their team has the fewest wins in the league as part of a scorched-earth rebuild, which will only get more scorched in the days to come. Many of these homegrown Leafs have been benched or injured or even sent to the minors. In some cases, their agents have been grumbling behind the scenes about it all.
Now, many of those Leafs are on the trade block, with the Feb. 29 deadline rapidly approaching.
In any other market, that would have been a nightmare year – a season to forget and move on.
In Toronto, it’s been one they’ll remember the rest of their lives.
“I’ve loved it,” said veteran Brad Boyes, who is playing less than 12 minutes a night and has sat a dozen games in the press box. “I really want to be here.”
“Wearing that jersey, every time I put it on, I still look at it just before I put it on,” said defenceman Frank Corrado, who has played only 13 games after spending more than 40 as a healthy scratch. “Because it’s pretty special to wear. It’s been great.”
“Man, there’s so many good things [about being a Leaf],” said Peter Holland, who grew up in Caledon just north of Toronto, where his bedroom is still painted Leafs blue and is filled with posters of Mats Sundin and Alex Mogilny.
There are more stories like that all over this roster. Dan Winnik and Shawn Matthias are both Toronto kids who signed to play at home. But they have been injured and had less production and ice time than they hoped coming in. Now they’re on the block, as GM Lou Lamoriello shops all his veterans to other teams.
So, too, is Palmerston, Ont.’s Nick Spaling, who came over in the Phil Kessel trade but doesn’t have a contract for next season.
But he wants one. Even though he hasn’t scored in 33 games for the struggling-to-score Leafs, who had only four wins in 17 games before facing the New York Rangers on Thursday.
“I was lucky to come to a team like this and an organization that’s in the direction we are,” Spaling said. “It’s been fun so far.”
Oddly, what’s made the season bearable for the homegrown Leafs has been the losing. It’s not that they enjoy getting dumped 7-2 by a team such as the Chicago Blackhawks – they don’t – but that the fan base understands why it’s happening.
They understand why the Leafs traded captain Dion Phaneuf to Ottawa last week without getting much back in return.
And they understand that these particular players aren’t responsible for the fact the franchise had to rebuild this way.
“Around the city, people generally think we’re on the right path,” Corrado said. “They appreciate when we go out there and we work hard. Even if we don’t win, they honestly tell us ‘you guys played great.’ Hockey fans are smart here. They’re obviously very educated on the game. They can tell when you’re working hard and when you’re not. They can tell when you’ve given up. I don’t think this is a group that does that.”
“In previous years, you almost don’t want to go out to eat sometimes,” Holland said. “Because you’d just get ridiculed. But people have been great this year. The fans have been really supportive.”
What the Leafs haven’t had in ages is a local superstar come home. None of the Ontarians on the roster qualify, which is partly why there’s been almost unrelenting attention on Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos’s contract talks. It’s also why that conversation could move to John Tavares of the New York Islanders – a free agent in two years – as soon as Stamkos ends up elsewhere. (Presuming he doesn’t sign here, of course.)
But what’s clear from their roster is, even in these dreadful times, there is still a pull to play for the Leafs. It means something, and it could be an advantage down the line, when Toronto is a better team and – as coach Mike Babcock is fond of saying – a safer place to play.
To hear players tell it, it already is.
“Sometimes I still have to pinch myself,” Holland said. “I wouldn’t want to do this for any other team.”Report Typo/Error