A herd of hockey writers waited outside the makeshift dressing room at BMO Field for what felt like ages. The Toronto Maple Leafs had already finished their outdoor practice in advance of tomorrow’s Centennial Classic against the Detroit Red Wings and the writers were eager to gauge their excitement for the annual New Year’s Day game. Still they stood, slowly becoming frustrated by the wait.
But when the doors finally opened, even the most hardened of writers were taken aback.
Interspersed in the dressing room stalls between each of the current Leafs were scores of franchise veterans set to play in the upcoming alumni game, and very few of the Leafs were sitting, anticipating the media’s questions. Instead they sat, often star-struck, at the players they perhaps had grown up admiring and engaged in conversations about the game of today and that of the past.
It was with good reason: players were placed beside those of similar styles of play or with some connecting factor. There was 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews beside 1985 No.1 pick Wendel Clark. Perennial goal-scorer James van Riemsdyk sat beside the Leafs' first 50-goal scorer, Rick Vaive. Russian defenceman Nikita Zaitsev sat beside fellow Russian defenceman Dmitri Yushkevich. Morgan Rielly, who could evolve into one of the better Leafs defenseman of all-time, sat beside Borje Salming.
And perhaps the most fitting pair was one that has drawn constant comparisons: smallish forwards Doug Gilmour and Mitch Marner.
“These guys in this room had a big impact on this city and on this team,” said Marner, himself a product of the Greater Toronto Area.
Marner, like many of the young Leafs, could be spotted moving from player to player to get his stick signed. “Growing up, obviously watching Toronto, a lot of these guys did so many great things for this team,” said Marner. “We’re pretty lucky to be in the same dressing room as them.”
“We had no idea,” Gilmour said of the decision to pair up players. “It’s pretty cool how they put everybody up.”
For all the comparisons that Marner has drawn to Gilmour throughout his exciting young rookie season, the dais still wasn't used an opportunity to pass on any wisdom.
“I’ve known Mitch since he was 12 years old,” he said. “I don’t need to offer him any advice. He’s doing great.”
It was a classy touch by the Maple Leafs, who, in their current incarnation, are trying to distance themselves from the failures of the recent past. But they still want to connect this young Leafs team to the prestigious teams of yesteryear.
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity for our franchise. We’re looking to restore our franchise to it’s rightful place. And we’re working on that,” said Leafs head coach Mike Babcock.
“You see the pride they have in the uniform and being a Leaf and how important it was for them, it’s a great message for our young team,” he added.
Rick Vaive took an opportunity to keep the mood light when interrupting a van Riemsdyk scrum to answer the question posed by a reporter about what the best part of the day.
“Meeting me,” Vaive said with a smile.
“I played with his kid (Rochester Americans forward Justin Vaive) in Ann Arbor,” added van Riemsdyk. “It’s special to be able to share these types of games with people that have paved the way for us.”
In a scene that brought out smiles all around, it was almost difficult to remember that there was an actual NHL game to play tomorrow.
“We’re treating it like a big game, because it is," said Rielly. "We need these points in the standings. They’re a team in our division that we’re going to be competing with down the stretch.”
Nevertheless, surrounded by some of the greatest Leafs to ever play the game, today’s group had no connection to the franchise's losing seasons of the past. They were simply able to smile.
“When game time comes tomorrow, we’ll know what’s at stake and we’ll know we have to do win the game,” said Rielly. “But for now, we’re having fun, we’re enjoying it."