For the 20th time in its 99-year history, the NHL is taking its game outdoors in an effort to highlight its glorious past and connect with the game’s grassroots. And to arbitrarily change the name of the stadium where the game is being played to one that no longer exists because BMO Field is not the ideal place for a game that is being sponsored by Scotiabank. And to charge 400 bucks a ticket.
But that’s a cynic’s view of things and we pledge to maybe try to be a little more glass-half-full in 2017. Actually, there is a lot to like about the Centennial Classic, not the least of which was the fact that the current Toronto Maple Leafs were able to share their dressing room with the players playing the alumni game. It could not have been a coincidence that Auston Matthews had a stall beside Wendel Clark, that Mitch Marner was seated beside Doug Gilmour and Zach Hyman beside Darcy Tucker. To see the current side-eyed young Leafs working the room for autographs is not something you see every day.
The Leafs have never been a superstar-driven franchise. They’ve come close with the likes of Doug Gilmour and Frank Mahovlich, but the organization has never had a true superstar – if your definition of superstar is top-five player in the league for a sustained period of time. But there was still a lot of greatness in the room mixing with what the Leafs hope will be future greatness. Gilmour, Lanny McDonald, Darryl Sittler and Borje Salming are all in the Hall of Fame, while Rick Vaive, Gary Leeman and Dave Andreychuk all scored 50 goals in a Maple Leafs uniform.
“You definitely appreciate the history, you appreciate what goes on here,” said Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly. “I think on a day like today, more than ever, you appreciate the guys who have come before you and what they’ve done for the team, what they’ve done for the city. It’s amazing.”
So much of this is about the spectacle, but the Maple Leafs, who have suddenly thrust themselves into the playoff race with a four-game winning streak, have to be mindful that there are a very valuable two points hanging in the balance. So they walk a fine line between soaking in the atmosphere and enjoying a rare career opportunity and making sure they take care of business once the puck drops Sunday afternoon.
“You can’t get real wound up about the game right now anyway,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock after the Leafs held their outdoor practice Saturday morning. “It just wears you out and it’s a waste of time. We’ll get organized and prepared. Now, when you get out there, do you try to do too much? That’s the biggest feat. Just do your own job and if you do your own job, we have a chance to be great together. You start doing too much, we’re going to look bad together. Taking care of the puck will be my biggest concern tomorrow.”
That sentiment was echoed by Matthews, who is one of nine freshmen who will be on the Leafs’ roster for the game. It will also be Matthews’ first actual game outdoors, since there was not a lot of outdoor hockey being played in Phoenix when he was a kid. The biggest drawing card for this game, the first time Matthews will be seen nationwide in the United States on NBC, is the speed and skill of the young players on both teams. But Matthews and his fellow young guns will have to make sure they keep their emotions in check and play with a little more caution than they would indoors.
“You never really know with the ice,” Matthews said. “The message from the guys who have played in this kind of game before is to just kind of keep it simple. Typically, these games become more of a muck-and-grind, chip it in and play below the top of the circles kind of game. I think just keeping it simple.”
Coming off a pre-Christmas road trip in which they won both games in Florida, the Leafs go into 2017 just three points behind the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division with three games in hand, and two behind the Tampa Bay Lightning with two in hand. Their younger players seem to have grasped the concept of playing with a lead much better and the sense is that the ups and downs aren’t quite as dramatic as they were earlier in the season.
“I like that we’re winning,” Babcock said. “Winning is a fine line and I’m not sure there’s that much difference between what we were going through before we started winning and what we’ve done. We’re three points off where we hope to be and our team is playing better without the puck. We still manage to do some silly things with it. But all in all, we’re in a good spot.”