OTTAWA – Matt Martin has always made an effort to develop routines with the teammates he turns into friends.
It’s just his goofy pre-game smelling salts ritual with pal Mitchell Marner—a well-orchestrated, sinus-shocking ballet of playful shoulder bumps, alarming headshakes and secret handshakes—went viral.
“Me and Mitchy, it started one game [last season] where I was using smelling salts and I just put it under his nose. He wanted it the next game, too, and then it grew into what it is now. The handshake came after. The bumping back and forth came after that. It keeps growing. It’s part of our routine, and it’s something we enjoy,” Martin explains.
“I don’t know if it really does much, but once you start doing something, it’s hard to stop. It makes you feel like it’s game time. Time to go.”
The whole scene, God’s gift to gif-makers, is incredibly silly.
It’s also incredibly important.
“Absolutely,” says Martin, Marner’s chemically imbalanced pusher. “It’s part of that bond. It’s part of coming together as a group.
“We don’t have any distractions where guys don’t like each other off the ice. We don’t let anything come between us. Everyone’s tight. At some point or another, everyone goes to dinner with everyone else. You don’t see that often in the NHL.”
How tight is the Marner-Martin bromance?
Well, the two wingers can be seen bickering over breakfast in 2016’s Road to the Outdoor Classics documentary because Marner watched the movie Sully without Martin after they’d agreed to see it together.
Outsiders have described the connection between a 20-year-old playmaker and a 28-year-old enforcer as father-son, husband-wife and brother-brother.
Describing Martin, Marner uses the word family.
“Now that we’re on the same line, people are seeing it more,” Marner says. “He builds a lot of character in our team, especially for us young guys. He’s a lot of fun to have in this locker room and a lot of fun on that bench. He keeps the excitement level high at all times.
“He’s a person I count as a really good friend now. Kinda like a family. He’s gotten really close with me and my family.”
Skating alongside a close friend serves as a silver lining to the cloud of Marner getting dropped to the Toronto Maple Leafs fourth line this week in favour of Connor Brown.
Though Marner enters Saturday’s Battle of Ontario slotted 10th on Toronto’s stacked top nine, Martin tells us that his buddy has handled the demotion with maturity.
“He took it well in terms of how he handles it publicly. I can imagine it’s not easy for him. He’s an elite player,” Martin says.
“He’s not down. He’s not pouting around the rink, which is an impressive thing for a kid. I’ve experienced that in the past with young guys: When things don’t go their way, they fall into their own little world and pout their way through it. He’s energetic.”
After getting as much as 18 and a half minutes of playing time in the opening week, Marner has seen the two lightest workloads of his season since the line demotion: 12:49 at Washington and 11:21 versus Detroit.
He won’t say it, but Marner is burning for more shifts.
In Period 1, he’s buzzing off smelling salts (“It’s a waking-up tool and clears your sinuses”). In Period 3, he’s geeked off his second-intermission Red Bull.
“I’m a pretty energetic guy. Most people know that,” Marner says.
“You just want to get out there and help your team win. If you don’t, you want to be the guy on the bench who stays positive and helps the guys out. That’s what I really learned from Marty. Some nights he doesn’t get played too much or as much as he wants. It doesn’t matter. His positivity stays the same.”
Marner’s small step down the depth chart comes in the midst of a mini three-game scoring drought. Through seven contests this month, he’s never had a night on the plus side of the ledger. (As a point of comparison, in his rookie year Marner finished with an even plus/minus and only once endured a point-less streak that reached four games.)
“Today, you got Marner on the fourth line. That’s not a fourth line,” scoffs Ottawa Senators coach Guy Boucher. “Whoever plays against them is going to have a lot to deal with because of their speed. Whoever plays against them on defence matters. It’s difficult to play a slower guy against that line.”
Science tells us that hauling smelling salts won’t enhance your performance; it’s essentially snorting high-powered Windex.
Just as logic dictates that Marner won’t last long on his friend’s line. Still, there is chemistry at play as the duo gears up for Saturday night in Ottawa.
“He keeps talking about getting me a goal tonight,” Martin smiles.
“Mitchy’s an important part of this hockey team. We need him. If we reach that goal we want to reach and win a Stanley Cup, he’s going to be a huge part of it. No question.”