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The Toronto Marlies hockey team is photographed during practice at the Ricoh Coliseum on Wednesday.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

There are nice cars in the parking lot.

There is free food, customized protein shakes, free massages and an open-concept gym available, too.

But this isn't a high-end getaway. It's Ricoh Coliseum, the 1920s-era arena just west of downtown Toronto that's home to the Marlies, the Toronto Maple Leafs minor-league team that piled up 114 points this season as one of the best American Hockey League teams in history.

The Marlies have been preparing all week for what the organization hopes is a run at an AHL championship – potentially the franchise's first Calder Cup. They're the favourites after finishing first overall with one of the league's youngest rosters and their NHL parent borrowing heavily from their lineup all year.

In all, 58 players skated for first-year Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe this season, an almost unthinkable number that included players from just about every league possible.

It's common knowledge the Leafs have built one of the better prospect pools in the league and that in turn helped fuel the Marlies' rise. But one of the less-heralded secrets to their success has been their ability to tap into Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment's resources.

The Leafs have spent money to make the Marlies travel schedule less onerous. They've spent money to bring in top-end staff to develop and take care of their prospects. They've spent money on how they eat and how they train.

The players are treated well – almost like NHLers – and some now even make NHL-level money. Those perks have helped make the Marlies the most desirable place to play in the minor leagues.

It's about as far from Slap Shot as you can get.

"It's not like that at all," Sam Carrick said. "They put us up in nice hotels. We go a day early before games. They really do treat us like we're an NHL team, and I think that's a big advantage."

"The bus rides are basically the only difference," said teammate Brendan Leipsic, who had a taste of both worlds when he spent six games with the Leafs. "We get treated really well here."

And the bus? Even it has satellite TVs, he said.

What the Marlies players rave about, however, more than any other amenity, is the food. In an initiative brought in this year by GM Kyle Dubas, the team supplies a nutritionist-approved breakfast and lunch every day to the entire roster and staff, a big expense for a typical minor-league organization.

Players who have played in other AHL cities say they have never had this luxury before. It saves them time and considerable money and also ensures they get a diet fit for a pro athlete, which can be a challenge for young players on an entry-level salary (about $70,000).

Keefe, a second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1999, recalled how his diet was filled with fast food when he was a 20-year-old trying to make the jump from junior to the pros. Not having a billet for the first time and living in a strange city on a tight budget with limited time to cook meals was a bad combination.

"It just makes a lot of sense at this level," Keefe said. "Players personally don't have the same resources that NHLers do so we should take care of the guys here. They're younger. They need development and nutrition more, in terms of adding weight and strength and all of that."

Several young Marlies – the team's average age is a little more than 23 – said they are taking what they're learning about food at the arena home for their other meals.

"It's really good," Carrick said. "There's rice. There's sweet potatoes. Steak and chicken. It's all healthy. There's nothing really that's going to make you fat."

"We talked about doing this in [junior]," Keefe said. "We just didn't have the resources to pull it off."

That – like a lot of things – isn't a problem for the Marlies.

Another big difference in the organization is how much staff the team has. In addition to the typical pair of assistant coaches, the Marlies have a goalie coach, full-time video coach, multiple equipment managers, three or four staff focused on physio, massage and rehab, and what Keefe calls a "full army" of doctors. They also have an analytics staffer, social-media staff and a sales group that has helped boost attendance by 20 per cent this season.

Because they're in the same city as the Leafs, the Marlies have the added benefit of being able to train in the NHL team's facilities and work with its staff. It's common to see the Leafs' four development staffers – led by former NHLer Scott Pellerin and Olympic figure skater Barb Underhill – around the Ricoh working with players.

Like the free food, these are resources AHL veterans haven't experienced elsewhere.

"Not to take anything away from [the other teams]," said Rich Clune, who played multiple years in Manchester, N.H., and Milwaukee. "They do the best with what they've got. But it's obvious MLSE has a little bit of coin to throw around to take care of athletes pretty well. It's just a first-class organization."

"They really take away virtually every excuse that a player can come up with to not be feeling good and not fight their way through a difficult schedule," Keefe said. "It makes our job easier as a coaching staff."

Even Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello, who spent almost 30 years in the New Jersey Devils organization – including when their affiliate, the Albany River Rats, won the Calder Cup in 1995 – has been impressed by the Marlies operation.

"You can't do everything exactly the same [as the NHL]," Lamoriello said, likening what they're doing to how Triple A teams function as vital feeder systems in major-league baseball. "But you treat them as close to [the Leafs] as you possibly can. With the type of ice time that's given. The type of travel they have. The support staff. ... We're able to do all of that.

"To be able to have the type of team we have [in the standings] – and still develop players who will potentially be in the NHL – is really a utopia as far as an [AHL] team. Not all teams look at it that way, but the Toronto Maple Leafs do."

The Marlies wealth is visible in more overt ways, too. Some players who have had a taste of NHL money drive BMWs or Range Rovers. The majority of the team lives in downtown condos, either on their own or with a teammate.

The team's payroll likely topped $5-million this season thanks to big-ticket salaries for players such as Mark Arcobello ($1.1-million), Matt Frattin ($850,000), T.J. Brennan ($675,000), Clune ($350,000) and captain Andrew Campbell ($250,000), whose contracts guaranteed big money even when they played in the minors.

That's equivalent to what many of the high-end European teams pay their rosters – Swedish prospect Tobias Lindberg said the operation reminded him of his team, Djurgardens, back home – and it allows the Marlies to supplement their top draft picks with mentors who are proved contributors in pro hockey.

AHL salaries are also not subject to escrow so a high-end player on a one-way deal, such as Brennan, actually made more money playing for the Marlies than during his seven-game call-up to the Leafs.

While the Marlies attendance was up to 6,400 fans a game this season, the club is still believed to be a money loser for MLSE. But the organization believes the benefits of having the team in Toronto – with Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock always a short drive away – is worth that investment.

The Leafs can also save money on the salary cap every year by making last-minute demotions and call-ups, something that is far more difficult for NHL teams with affiliates that are a flight or long bus ride away.

None of what the organization spends on the Marlies, meanwhile, is limited by the NHL's collective agreement, which makes improving their minor-league setup an obvious area for a cash-flush team to focus on.

That emphasis could pay off in the AHL playoffs. The Marlies will fly – commercial not chartered – to Bridgeport, Conn., on Thursday morning in order to prepare for Saturday's Game 1 of their first-round series against the eight-seeded Sound Tigers.

As they have all season, they'll be there a day early, booked into one of the nicest hotels in town and ready to have a decent meal. "It probably helped our road record a lot," Clune said.

With the last-place Leafs season long over, the organization's focus – and financial heft – is on them.

It's championship or bust, for at least one professional hockey team in Canada this spring.

"The schedule is a grind," Campbell said. "You have a lot of ... tough bus trips. It definitely makes it easier when the organization is doing everything in their absolute power to make it as good as they can for you.

"If you're an [AHL] player and you have a choice of where you want to be, this has to be at the top of your list."