Leafs legends inspire current players


TORONTO — With Curtis Joseph at his side and Felix Potvin across the room from him, Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen wore a star-struck look on his face Saturday while he registered the history around him.

One by one, Maple Leafs legends of the past filed in and sat next to the present-day Toronto players in the home dressing room at BMO Field on the eve of the Centennial Classic, a moment in time as surreal as it was special.

“Just trying to soak it all in right now,” said Andersen. “Obviously, the two points Sunday are huge for us. But this is one of opportunities you don’t get all the time. Playing for this franchise and having all these guys sit next to you, it’s pretty amazing.”

To cap it all off, some members of the 1967 Stanley Cup champion Maple Leafs squad also walked into the room to mingle with Leafs past and present, the generational trifecta a perfect tribute in this the organization’s 100th birthday year.

“When that ’67 team walked into the room, everyone was like, ‘Oh my God.’ There’s three generations right there. It was awesome,” said 1970s Leafs great Lanny McDonald.

“That’s what this game is all about. I don’t care if you played five years, 10 years, in some cases 20-plus years… This means something,” added McDonald. “It means a lot to all different generations. (Maple Leafs coach) Mike Babcock and (team president) Brendan Shahanan are brilliant, to have their current players hanging out with the guys that won the Cup in ’67.”

William Nylander went around the room getting a stick signed by some Leafs alumni, including Doug Gilmour, who played with Nylander’s father, Michael, with the Chicago Blackhawks in the late 1990s.

“I remember when William was this big,” Gilmour said, his hand lowered near the floor. Connor Brown approached legend Darryl Sittler for an autograph. Mitch Marner went around the room getting a stick autographed too.

“A lot of these guys in this room (had) a big impact on this city and this team,” said Marner, 19, who was born four years after Gilmour led the Leafs on that ’93 playoff run to the Western Conference finals against Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings.

“Growing up, obviously watching Toronto, a lot of these guys did so many great things for this team and this city,” added Marner. “I’m pretty lucky to be in the same dressing room as them. You get in a dressing room with this many great players you’ve got to take full advantage of it.”

And what did a certain 19-year-old from Scottsdale, Arizona — the savior of the present-day Leafs — think of the scene around him?

“It’s really special to have these guys around,” said Auston Matthews. “I mean, these are the guys who have paved the way for us. There’s a lot of history in this franchise, and a lot of it is due to these guys who are here in the locker room. It’s special to be around them, to listen to some of their stories and just get a sense of how big of an honor it is to wear that Maple Leaf on your chest.”

Matthews’ stall was next to Wendel Clark‘s. Both players were first overall draft picks for the Leafs — but 31 years apart.

“It’s nice to talk to him and sit down and meet everybody,” said Matthews.

Borje Salming was next to Morgan Rielly. Marner next to Gilmour. Matt Martin beside Tiger Williams. You get the drill. Somebody put some thought into this.

“It’s pretty spectacular,” said Marner of having his stall next to Gilmour.

“It’s a nice concept, just the way we’re all sitting next to each other in the room, the present day players and the former Leafs,” said Potvin, scanning the room as he talked. “Obviously, after 100 years, Toronto has a great tradition. It’s really fun to see everyone here today.”

Potvin said he spoke with Andersen and told the Dane how special playing in Toronto can be. “I told him how incredible this city is when you’re winning,” said Potvin, who backstopped the Leafs’ back-to-back trips to the conference finals in ’93 and ’94. “The other sports are fine, but hockey in this city when you’re winning? It’s unbeatable.”

The former Leafs can see the light at the end of the tunnel with this young squad, which is led by Matthews.

“They play an exciting brand of hockey,” said Joseph. “I know. I watch them a lot on TV.”

And isn’t that the point of this weekend — the alumni game on Saturday setting up Sunday’s real NHL game, the stars of the past reminding the young Leafs of today what it all means.

“It’s an unbelievable opportunity for our franchise,” said Babcock. “We have a lot of great players who have gone before these guys. We’re hoping to restore our franchise to its rightful place. We’re working on that. When you get to rub elbows with those guys and see the pride in the uniform and being a Leaf and how important it was to them, I think it’s a great message for our young guys.”

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