TORONTO -– For Dan Brown, it was just like the old days. Pile the family in the car back in Etobicoke and drive to the rink for a big game, with his son Connor playing a big part.
The well-respected minor hockey coach has made the trip hundreds of times, often while driving Connor, whom he coached from Tyke hockey all the way through to minor midget on a Toronto Marlboros team that had 14 kids get drafted into the OHL and seven of them get drafted into the NHL.
The difference was that this time, Connor was doing the driving and the rink they were headed to was the Air Canada Centre. The team was the Toronto Maple Leafs. Brown still lives at home, although he’s taken over his older brother’s bedroom. But the roles have reversed a little bit. When you’re son’s playing for the Leafs, he does the driving.
“Connor was really worried about traffic heading downtown and we wanted to get to the game early because of all the pre-game festivities,” said his father. “So he said ‘hop in.’”
They got there in plenty of time, and Connor didn’t waste much time either as he opened the scoring at the 2:14 mark of the opening period, becoming the first Leaf other than Auston Matthews to score this season. It was a goal that a whole community could celebrate. As big an enterprise as the Leafs are, to many people they remain simply their hometown team.
“For him to get a chance to play in this game? We haven’t said much around the house but it’s pretty special, really. And to score It’s icing on the cake," said Brown’s father.
His son was followed on the game summary by another young local product as Mitch Marner of Markham scored the first goal of his NHL career by ripping a snap shot low blocker past the Boston Bruins' Anton Khudobin from outside the circle in a bit of a throwback goal for the No.4 pick of the 2015 draft.
Two local kids making a big splash, and the Leafs were on their way.
The night was about history. Big, thick dollops of history. Hockey franchises don’t turn 100 very often and the Toronto Maple Leafs are quite right in celebrating it.
Their 4-1 win over the visiting Bruins began with a retirement ceremony for the Leafs greats whose numbers had only been previously honoured by the team. It was well done, overdue and moving.
But it also provided a chance to revisit an odd quirk in the franchise’s often quirky history: the Leafs have more players from Timmins, Sweden, and Saskatchewan to have their numbers retired – two from each of those locales – than from Toronto, which is represented by only Charlie Conacher who last skated for the home team in 1938. The greatest Leaf of all, Dave Keon, came from Quebec, albeit just over the Ontario border in Rouyn-Noranda.
As the Leafs make their slow turn from competitive irrelevance to slow-cooking contender, it’s at least interesting that they are icing five players – Brown, Marner, Zach Hyman, Peter Holland and Frank Corrado -- from the Toronto area.
“People have vested interest,” said Dan Brown. “The people I sat with are interested in that I’m Connor’s dad and want to know where I’m from and they think it’s a great story. It’s meaningful for everyone around. I think the current administration thinks that, but they’re going to take the best players every single time … but right now, I think this franchise and this market is looking for every little thing.”
It’s something that Leafs president Brendan Shanahan – himself a product of the Toronto minor hockey scene – is happy about, though not because it’s a strategy that’s been executed, even if local roots are a consideration as they try to restore pride in the jersey.
“I recognize it, it’s great,” said Shanahan. “But it’s not something we’re trying to do or intending to do. But if we’re getting up to the microphone at the draft and there’s a GTHL player there and we like him, that’s great. But if the best guy available is from Czech Republic, we’re taking the Czech guy.”
But for Brown, being a Leaf means something. There’s not a hockey player in the world that wouldn’t be happy to crack any NHL roster. But cracking the roster of your hometown team carries added weight.
“It’s such a hockey mecca and there are so many good talented players coming out of the [GTHL], I know from my standpoint -- and I know the other guys feel the same. [You] feel a little more proud to be a Toronto Maple Leaf, just watching them play growing up and being from the area,” said Brown, who played seven games in the NHL last season as he earned a late call-up after an injury-plagued season in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies.
“We had Leafs jerseys left, right, and centre at home," he said. "We just know how big the Leafs are in this city and how bad the fans want to win here and we want to be part of that. To have your hands on it and be able to push in the right direction is great.”
Whether having nearly a quarter of your roster from the Toronto area ends up being a blip on the radar, or a trend (or not) remains to be seen, but making the Leafs a desirable destination for elite local hockey players is a worthy undertaking.
While the Leafs haven’t iced a lot of local talent lately, there has been a lot of local talent from the Toronto area. There are five former No.1 overall picks from Toronto still in the NHL. The Leafs tried to land one – Steven Stamkos – in free agency this past summer but failed in part because they were still too far from contending to be a match. Will that be the case if the New York Islanders' John Tavares is available as a free agent in 2018? Will the Leafs become a welcome spot for key veteran role players with Toronto ties looking to find a place they can win at the end of their careers?
It’s an interesting subject. The NHL is so competitive that any advantage needs to be exploited and the Leafs would be unwise to not play up their local connections as no other team comes from a region that produces more talent.
On the night the Leafs began their second century as a franchise, it worked out perfectly.