After his breakout rookie campaign with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mitch Marner hit the gym nearly every day this summer hoping to improve his arsenal for his sophomore season. With the permission of the Leafs, Marner returned to the Hill Performance Centre north of Toronto, where he’s trained since he was a teenager who faced endless doubts about his size and ability to make it to the game’s highest levels.
One morning, as Marner was chasing back squats with 42-inch hurdle jumps, Doug Gilmour dropped in to see him. He shook his head in disbelief at the power the 20-year-old right winger displayed.
Marner wasn’t even alive when Gilmour was in his prime. He was only six when Gilmour retired in 2003. But when Marner started with the London Knights, he chose No. 93 in tribute to the player his father had always told him to model his game after.
Marner grew up watching highlights of and hearing stories about Gilmour’s unique mix of skill and grit. During his rise from the CHL to the biggest stage in hockey, Marner has drawn comparisons to the elder 93.
Like Marner, Gilmour faced doubts within the hockey establishment about whether he was big enough to compete at the game’s highest level. (The Hall of Famer was drafted 134th overall by the St. Louis Blues in 1982.) Both overcame those doubts to become premier playmakers in the game.
Gilmour told Marner that he was impressed with the way he’d managed his first season in the Toronto spotlight.
“For me expectations were low,” Gilmour told Marner, recalling his rookie season in St. Louis. “I just wanted to fit in, and I wanted to make it.”
Marner faced a lot more pressure a lot more quickly. But far from being overburdened by expectations as a fourth-overall pick for a marquee franchise, Marner seemed right at home in his first NHL season.
“I think growing up in the Toronto media market, [I] kind of know what to expect,” Marner told Gilmour. “You really see the love of the fans. And it gets hot and cold every once in a while — but it’s a great city to be part of.”
Marner sipped on a blue-coloured protein shake as they spoke, and complained to Dan Noble, his longtime athletic-performance coach, about how it tasted. Gilmour pointed out that, in his day, a protein shake meant a can of Ensure. He drank as many as three a day. It only came in Vanilla, he said, and it tasted like chalk.
A lot, of course, had changed in the decades that separate the two Leafs stars. Marner’s daily off-season workout regime with Noble focused on developing his lower body — both to generate power and acceleration, and to make sure he’s prepared to handle the grind of an NHL season. Gilmour’s off-season workout — perhaps just as rigorous, but certainly not as sophisticated — involved running up and down hills at Christie Pits Park in Toronto.
This off-season Marner packed on muscle in his legs, gaining about 10 pounds as he filled out his lower body.
“I’m just trying to create space on defenders,” he said. “And people backing off [on] those first few steps.”
But he’s been careful to not focus on gaining weight as a goal. Gilmour, who was 152 pounds as a rookie — about 10 fewer than Marner — warned him of as much.
“I tried to put weight on, but I got on the ice in August and I felt like crap,” Gilmour said. “So had to lose that 10 pounds that I put on. You have to be strong, but I tried to do it too much, and it didn’t help my game.”
With Marner’s playmaking ability, he’s certain to be compared to Gilmour throughout his years with the Leafs. But Gilmour is quick to point out at least one difference between them.
“He sees the ice. That was my game,” Gilmour says. “[But] I was different…. I would do stupid things on the ice. I was out there to hurt people at times.”
For his part, Marner said he viewed Gilmour’s propensity for meanness as a hallmark of his trademark competitiveness, which is something he tries to emulate.
“Every time he stepped on the ice, he was the same person,” Marner said, admiringly. “He never changed.”
Gilmour has been watching Marner since he competed in the same league as his sons in minor hockey. Later, as general manager of the Kingston Frontenacs, Gilmour watched Marner with frustration as he played for the Knights and danced through his team.
“My biggest thing is compete level — and he’s done it the same way throughout his minor hockey to junior,” Gilmour said, noting that they shared an underlying motivation. “There’s the naysayers [who] said, ‘You’re too small, you’ll never do it.’ It makes you work that much harder.”
“Yeah, there was a lot of that,” Marner said. “There were people who wouldn’t let me play for teams because of my height, and I was too small, or stuff like that — agents saying I was too small and wasn’t going to make it. So, it was just motivation for me hearing that stuff.”
Later, as Marner sipped his protein shake, Gilmour reflected on the exhilarating run of the 1992–93 season, when Maple Leaf Gardens overflowed with excitement and expectation. He can feel the same energy growing in Toronto again, he said — but this time with a team that is younger and more skilled than his iteration had been.
“Now they have to add to it,” Gilmour said before Marner went back to his training session. “These guys are going to get better and better, so it’s fun to watch. It’s exciting again…. They’re doing it the right way.”