BUFFALO, N.Y. - In seven-plus seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, Josh Gorges faced the Toronto Maple Leafs 36 times. This past summer, the hatred he built up for Montreal's arch-rival over the years changed the course of his career.
When the Canadiens tried to trade the veteran defenceman to Toronto at the draft, Gorges said no. The Leafs were on his list of teams he wouldn't go to, and he wouldn't remove them.
After being dealt to the rebuilding Buffalo Sabres, Gorges stands by his decision not to go to the Leafs because his heart wasn't in it. That's what he told new team president Brendan Shanahan.
"I just said, 'I'm a heart-and-soul player. It's the only reason I can be good at this level is I have to play and commit with my heart,'" Gorges said in an interview with The Canadian Press on Wednesday after practice at First Niagara Centre. "And after playing against them for that many years of being our No. 1 rival, I just didn't think it would've been fair to them. I wouldn't have been the same player that they would've expected me to be.
"Over time I would've got there. But I just didn't think I could commit my heart to playing the right way."
A tough, defensive defenceman, Gorges was just what the Leafs were looking for. When the feeling wasn't mutual, Gorges said Shanahan "understood completely."
"What he said to me was, 'That's why we're trying to make a trade for you is you have that character where you give yourself to one team,'" Gorges recalled. "He even said to me, 'If you would've been a guy that said, 'Oh yeah, sure I'll go to Toronto,' like that, then you're obviously not the player that I thought you were. The fact that you have that built in you is why we like you as a player.'"
Toronto turned its attention to Roman Polak, getting the stay-at-home right-hander from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Carl Gunnarsson. And as Gorges continued to ponder the possibility of being a Leaf, the Habs traded him to Buffalo for a second-round pick in next year's draft.
"Things have a way of working themselves out," Gorges said.
What the 30-year-old knew for sure was he wasn't going back to Montreal. Being asked to waive his no-trade clause was enough of a signal of the Habs' intentions to Gorges.
"Knowing that they wanted to get rid of you, it's hard to go on and play for a team that doesn't want you anymore," he said. "But I don't think that was ever going to be an option, from my understanding. I wasn't coming back."
In his conversation with Shanahan and again this week, Gorges said he respected the Leafs' organization and that it was no slight to the city of Toronto that he didn't want to play there.
His reasoning will no doubt be debated for a while, and his first regular-season game back at Air Canada Centre with the Sabres on Oct. 28 could be something of a circus. But Gorges said he's happy in Buffalo, where he's joined by former Habs captain Brian Gionta.
"Having a guy that you know, been with for a number of years, you kind of start this chapter off together," Gorges said. "Probably most importantly is our wives are great friends. ... The fact that our wives can come together and get used to the city and figure out where to go for shopping and grocery shopping and kids and meet everyone together, it makes things a lot more comfortable for us."
Off the ice, there's a comfort level, Gionta said recently at the NHL player media tour in New York City. On the ice, Gorges and Gionta will be counted on by coach Ted Nolan to help lead a very young team.
"The attitude in training camp has been tremendous," Nolan said. "When that happens, you usually look in the room and who the players are to lead that parade. Josh Gorges is one of those guys for sure."
Pre-season is a time for boundless optimism, and Gorges is certainly part of that. After going to the Eastern Conference final with the Habs, he'll more than likely miss out on the playoffs entirely this season with the Sabres.
But Gorges isn't wired to think like that.
"The great thing about being here is the excitement level and the potential to be good," he said. "The fact that no one's giving us a chance, that's an opportunity for us to come together as a group and that's what I like about this situation is we can go and surprise some people. It'll be fun."
Notes—The Leafs reduced their training-camp roster to 41 players by sending 13 players to the AHL's Marlies. Goaltenders Christopher Gibson and Cal Heeter, defencemen Eric Knodel, Andrew MacWilliam, Brendan Mikkelson and Tom Nilsson and forwards David Broll, Connor Brown, Jamie Devane, Greg McKegg, Carson McMillan, Brad Ross and Brady Vail were assigned to minor-league camp. Four goalies, 12 defencemen and 25 forwards remain. ... Toronto continues its pre-season schedule Friday night at the Sabres.
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