The poetry wasn’t quite perfect.
Under such a scenario, patrons of the Air Canada Centre would have walked out into a rainy March night in a much more enthusiastically celebratory mood, having witnessed a local Toronto boy score the winning goal in a game that clinched a playoff spot for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Or even better, utter delirium after seeing that same lad pot the winner in Game 7 of a playoff series. Or beyond that… no, we don’t talk of Stanley Cups in these parts, so let the imagination cease to roam there.
Still, even though the Leafs won’t even participate in the playoffs this year, and the game meant pretty much nothing, it was rather fun to watch it all unfold Thursday night at the ACC. Three Toronto youngsters – Zach Hyman, Frankie Corrado and Connor Brown – all figured prominently for the home side in a rollercoaster game between the Leafs and Anaheim Ducks, with the babyfaced Leafs registering a wild 6-5 triumph in overtime.
Hyman assisted on Nazem Kadri’s game-winning goal. Corrado and Brown, meanwhile, each scored their first goal wearing blue-and-white. They got to enjoy that feeling that truly, one can barely imagine. Young men who grew up in these hockey-crazed parts and played in the monstrous Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) and then felt that moment when stick connected to puck, the twine was dented, the ACC crowd roared, the horn blasted.
Nope, can’t quite imagine what that would feel like.
“Pretty cool. Definitely a relief to finally get one,” said Corrado, who last scored a goal as a member of the AHL Utica Comets, Vancouver’s farm club. “Just happy I didn’t go a full calendar year without scoring a goal in organized hockey.”
Corrado, the patient one, has been with the club since being claimed on waivers last fall, but was scratched 28 times until finally getting into a game Dec. 18.
Hyman, acquired in a trade with Florida last summer, arrived in the NHL right after the trade deadline, while Brown showed up four games ago.
“This is a huge stepping stone,” said Brown, who tied the game with 4:23 to play after Anaheim had erased a 4-1 Toronto lead with four consecutive goals.
“But it’s not somewhere I want to stop. I want to try and run with it.”
The larger question, needless to say, is whether it matters. Does having a Toronto boy on the roster, or a few of them, make a darn difference in terms of developing a winning team?
Head coach Mike Babcock, who won a Cup in Detroit with a mixture of Swedes, Russians, Czechs and the odd Canadian, quickly threw cold water on that idea.
“If we can have ‘em, great,” said Babcock,. “But we’d like to have the best players. So I don’t really care where they come from.”
It’s worth noting that local lads have never been a big part of Toronto’s NHL effort. Most of the stars over the eons have come from other places, even if it was to attend St. Mike’s and then graduate to play for the Leafs back in the days when there was no universal draft.
Tim Horton was from Cochrane, Ont., Frank Mahovlich from Timmins, Dave Keon from Noranda, Que., George Armstrong from Sudbury. Turk Broda was from Brandon, Johnny Bower (we believe) hailed from Prince Albert.
Ted Kennedy was from Port Colborne, and Syl Apps was born in Paris, Ont. Really, Charlie Conacher stands almost alone as a Toronto youngster who grew up to star for the hometown side.
So maybe it doesn’t matter a whit, just like Babcock says. In today’s NHL, you can’t spend much time examining birthplaces, and great players come from places that weren’t even hockey countries back in the days of Broda and Kennedy.
Even Brendan Shanahan, who is from these parts, would trade any of his Toronto-born for Patrick Kane, Erik Karlsson or Anze Kopitar. Of course he would. But there can be value in poetry and mythology when it comes to sport, and perhaps what really matters here is collecting a group of hockey players with great passion for the sport, great determination to train and make all the sacrifices, but also some kind of belief that playing for the Leafs matters a little bit more than playing for many of the other franchises.
“You want guys who are competitive and passionate,” said Hyman, one of five boys born to a Toronto realtor who controversially once owned more than 90 GTHL teams.
“If it’s a Toronto boy who wants to play for the Leafs, that’s great. But we have guys from all over the world who are passionate to play for the Leafs, as well. If you have the right attitude, it doesn’t matter where you come from.”
Certainly, over the decades the Montreal Canadiens profited from being able to recruit Quebecois who saw playing for the legendary team as almost a vocation, or a calling. The man behind Anaheim’s bench on Thursday night, Bruce Boudreau, is unapologetically still a Leafs fan after growing up in the city, playing junior for the Marlies and managing to play 134 NHL games for the Leafs when they weren’t farming him out to Dallas, or Moncton, or Cincinnati, or St. Catharines, or Newmarket.
“I watch a lot of Toronto games,” he said after the morning skate.
But in the past decade, this hockeymania has almost been twisted the other way, with a narrative developed that says Toronto boys don’t want to play for the Leafs, don’t want the pressure and the press, and would rather be stars away from home.
When it comes to the notion of the Leafs trying to recruit Steven Stamkos as a free agent this summer, you’ll hear over and over the claim that he’d never want all the noise and nonsense that would go with being a Leaf.
Not surprisingly, these Leafs newbies don’t feel that way, just as London junior superstar Mitch Marner didn’t recoil in horror when his hometown Leafs drafted him fourth overall last June.
“I can’t imagine not wanting to play for the hometown team, not wanting to play for the Leafs,” said Hyman, who kicked the puck over to Kadri for the OT clincher.
Corrado said other NHL teams seem to profit by having Toronto area players.
“You look around the league and you see so many GTHL guys, Toronto guys, doing well, and why not have some guys playing at home? We grow a lot of great talent here and it’s nice to see the Toronto boys playing at home and representing the city and the team,” he said.
With the Leafs having won five out of six and threatening to move out of 30th place, there’s a certain mad irony to all of this, with Toronto boys playing hero while the organization imagines the possibility of getting to a prime drafting position to allow them to acquire an Arizona kid who’s been playing in Switzerland this year, Auston Matthews. Or either one of two dynamic Finns, Patrik Laine or Jesse Puljujarvi.
“I’m like everybody else. I’d like to pick first,” said Babcock. “But I also want to win every night, too.”
There is no moral at the end of this story. You look for great hockey players, you try to build a winner in an league where it’s incredibly hard to win.
But if a franchise approaching its 100th birthday can find an edge with a smidgen of locally-bred talent, why not?
Why not embrace the local angle?
Why not try to create a little poetry one day?