ETOBICOKE, Ontario — The kids stood with their cheeks pressed up against the glass doors, gazing into one of the four rinks at the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence.
“You can’t go in there,” one of them snapped as a few people tried to pass through. His protection over what was on the other side of the door was with good reason: beyond that barrier skated the stars they watched every week on TV. To cross that barrier would be crossing a threshold that to these young players, gathered for a minor hockey tournament called the PlayStation Platinum Cup, was far too wide.
But in actuality, one hometown player in particular, was living proof that for these young hockey players, the NHL doesn’t have to be that far away at all.
Mitch Marner, the 19-year-old Maple Leafs rookie from the Greater Toronto Area, has been dazzling the league this season with his playmaking abilities. He's been on a tear as of late, scoring 12 points in his last 11 games, including two assists in a 4-2 win over the Washington Capitals on Saturday, and he nearly added a goal to that total on an impressive breakaway chance. He's now now tied with Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine for first in rookie scoring in the NHL and Marner’s No. 16 jersey has increasingly joined fellow rookie and 2016 top draft pick Auston Matthews’s No. 34 as commonplace outside the Air Canada Centre.
Marner grew up as a diminutive winger, constantly being told that he was too small to play professional hockey. The way he has quickly adapted to the pro game after a successful Memorial Cup-winning career with the OHL’s London Knights serves as inspiration to young players throughout Toronto.
In the hockey-mad market, young players such as those on the Leaside Flames Atom A team, playing for that Platinum Cup, see Marner as living proof that not just playing in the NHL but suiting up for your hometown team is a goal that can be reached.
“They especially look upto the young players who are local to Toronto,” says Paul McHardy, one of the coaches on the Flames.
There has been a serious injection of local talent on the Leafs this season, with Toronto-area-born forwards Connor Brown, Zach Hyman and Marner all earning regular spots on the big-league club.
It is Marner who, ironically enough given his smallish size, sticks out however. McHardy says that Marner is one of the favorites among the Flames and his approach to the game has inspired a number of the young players.
“There’s a couple guys on the team that don’t have the biggest stature but sometimes they’re out there during the games and they’re the biggest grinders, working hard to go get that puck,” he says.
Marner has used his size to his advantage this season, quickly avoiding defensemen to create space and allow his linemates to find better positioning as well.
It wasn’t so long ago that Marner himself was playing in similar youth tournaments. Now, he towers above the kids that play in them and has become an influence to a new generation of players looking to enter a new NHL, where speed and skill dominate over size.
“It kind of flies by your head a little bit,” Marner said of how he has become an influence to local players so early in his NHL career. “Obviously you want to be a player that makes other kids want to play hockey.”
And not just play hockey, but play hockey in a similar vein.
McHardy gathered a collection of his players and when asked what they admired about Marner’s game, their answers came quick like wildfire.
“He gets open.”
“He’s young, fast and a goal-scorer.”
“He’s small and he’s smart.”
The answers came fast but varied. So many young players see something different and remarkable about his game.
The only consensus reached was whether Marner made them believe they could play for the Maple Leafs one day: a resounding yes.
For so long, there was a lack of local players on the Leafs. Perhaps by design, players like Marner have once again instilled a sense of local pride in the blue-and-white.
Many are surprised by how successful Marner has been in his first quarter season in the NHL. But not the man himself. As he stood in his stall at the Leafs’ practice facility, while just over 200 feet away the kids waited for another glimpse of him, he offered advice on how to bridge the gap which can sometimes seem infinitely wider.
“Growing up,” he said, “there was always a lot of people always saying I was too small so you want to make sure that these kids know that, no matter what people say about you, don’t stop playing the game you love.”