By Jason Buckland
The leg was shaking now, faster and faster, the heart thumping so swiftly it seemed his chest could no longer hold it inside. Mitch Marner couldn’t think, his mind unable to focus or settle. He turned to his father, Paul, who looked back at his son. “Relax,” Dad said, reaching out for his boy. “It’s going to be OK.”
It was June 26, inside the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla. For Marner, it was some distance away from home, near Toronto, which happened to be the city playing into all this anxiety to begin with. At 18, Marner was one of the finest hockey prospects in the world, but suddenly, as the 2015 draft sped along, there was Marner left on the board at pick No. 4. Next on the clock: the Maple Leafs.
It had been some years since Marner was a tyke flying about those rinks across the GTA. He rooted for the Leafs, idolized captain Mats Sundin, even professed his admiration for the Swede on City TV, when, at age four, Marner was featured as the network’s Athlete of the Week.
But in Sunrise, Marner’s thoughts raced. Could he really be joining the team of his youth?
Just then, he heard his name. Marner, in a blue suit and brown shoes, rose to the stage to meet Gary Bettman, to hold a new Toronto jersey with his name on the back. For those seeking a play-by-play of what happened next, consider another source. “I don’t really remember what anyone said to me,” Marner said. “I don’t remember much. But it was the greatest moment of my life.”
That was the scene upon Marner’s selection to the NHL earlier this year, though many months have passed since, and it has become easy for the teen to be lost in the shuffle. Unlike other top rookies from his class, including Buffalo’s Jack Eichel and, before he was injured, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, Marner is still a footnote to this NHL season, having been shipped off to play another year for the OHL’s London Knights.
But Marner may not have to wait until 2016 for his breakout moment. He figures to hold a major role on Canada’s world junior team in Helsinki. An appointment to the team will have been a long time coming. As a boy, Marner seemed a generational talent, skating at two-and-a-half, able to flip a puck over the net at just four. He was so good, so advanced over other kids, he often played up an age group or two to find a skill level that matched his.
At home, it was clear to Paul, his wife, Bonnie, and Mitch’s brother, Christopher, that Marner existed on a different plane. At seven years old, he was perched in front of the TV breaking down NHL games, lecturing about which guy was out of position and why. By AAA, Marner was critiquing film of his own games with the same comprehension.
Paul sometimes had to shake his head. “How are you even thinking about that stuff?” he wondered.
What prevented Marner from becoming the next McDavid, a young star hyped and celebrated without mercy, were concerns over his size. As his peers grew, Marner lagged behind, and though he has bloomed now to a size better suited for the NHL, for a long time he was greatly underdeveloped. Many evaluators saw a stunted kid whose capacity for stardom was not worth their waiting.
He fell to the bottom of the first round of the 2013 OHL draft, where the Knights grabbed him at No. 19. In London, Marner has excelled – last season, he had 126 points, second-most in the league – and his measurables off the ice have improved, too. When he was picked by the Knights two years ago, he was just 5-foot-7 and 125 pounds. Now, Marner stands nearly six feet tall, lists at 160 pounds and, by his dad’s estimation, may soon grow to 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds.
Where Marner’s size once dogged him, he can only hope now, as he nears a height and weight more appropriate for the pros, it can be his asset. Marner has proven an incredibly elusive player (“He’s like trying to grab a fish in the water,” said one NHL scout), and comparisons to Patrick Kane and Claude Giroux aren’t difficult to find.
Before he tests his professional chops in 2016, Marner will debut to a wider audience in Finland. For Team Canada, and for the Leafs when he reaches Toronto, what was once a big worry over his size may prove to have been a small matter all along. “I can’t say enough good about him,” said the NHL scout. “I go to games, and you just kind of throw your arms in the air. You’re like, ‘Holy s---, all he does is make plays.’ ”