LONDON, Ont. – Same rink, same city, same dressing room and even the same stall.
Mitch Marner is back at Budweiser Gardens this weekend, the site of so much of his OHL wizardry the past three seasons, where he routinely made the kind of eye-popping plays that only hockey’s true sorcerers can conjure up.
The circumstances are entirely different for the London Knights superstar. He’s not in town wearing London Knights colours, the club he led to the Memorial Cup last season while earning seemingly every individual honour possible in junior hockey.
He’s back in London for the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie tournament; a three-day exhibition series against prospects belonging to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators.
It’s not the NHL, but it’s not junior either. On the Leafs 31-man roster alone there are 12 picks taken in 2015 and 2016, a reminder that many are chosen but few make it to where they dream of going.
For Marner the weekend is the first step in a month-long race to prove to the Leafs brain trust that selected him No. 4 in the 2014 NHL Draft that he’s got nothing more to learn in London.
Marner loves his adopted hometown. He’s happy to be back. He’s looking forward to playing at Budweiser Gardens again in front of fans he’s raised out of their seats so many times before.
“It’s a special place for sure, obviously,” said Marner after a late Thursday afternoon practice in preparation for the baby Leafs opener against Ottawa Friday night. “I’ve lived here the last three years and it’s been a lot of fun to play here and it’s going to be fun playing in front of these fans again. Hopefully it’s pretty packed, they love their hockey here.
“Three years playing here I know the ice pretty well, I know what the bounces are like and I just have to make sure when I get out there I use that to my advantage.”
But he’s eager to graduate to bigger and better things. He was the first first-round pick of the Leafs rebuild and already he’s fallen behind a little bit. Marner can’t help but notice that 2016 No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews has carved out a place for himself on the 23-and-under Team North America roster, alongside Marner’s former OHL rivals Connor McDavid and Aaron Ekblad, both first overall picks who established themselves in the NHL as teenagers.
“I’ve been watching a lot of it,” he said of the World Cup and Team North America in particular. “They’re going to cause some problems for people. They have so much speed and skill.”
Does he envy his peers, already out competing at the highest levels of the sport? Would he have liked a chance to compete for a roster spot?
“It would be pretty special, obviously,” said Marner. “But a lot of those guys are first-line NHLers so hopefully one day I get a chance to do that [play in a World Cup] but right now my mind is focused on what I’m doing here [in London] and making sure I play my best in these games.”
Marner’s goal is to bring to the professional game the same confidence and play-driving wilfulness that has been his signature ever since he took the ice in minor hockey as a prodigy out of Thornhill.
It’s the age-old challenge that has faced countless aspiring rookies before him: Is he better off trying to go out and drive the attack against grown men and some of the best in the world and making the inevitable mistakes that will follow? Or should he take the safer route and simply try to fit in, not take risks and hope the opportunities will come?
The message from Sheldon Keefe, who coaches the Toronto Marlies and will be running the rookie camp, is simple: Learn the structure, learn the systems, do the right things and then be the player you were born to be.
“The biggest thing for skilled players, I think, is how quickly does the game slow down for you? The NHL game is incredibly fast, it’s way faster,” says Keefe. “But even though it is faster some players can get out there and they can think the game quickly, they can make plays, they remain confident and they are themselves. Those are the elite, the players that step in and do that.
“[But] if the game is taking a little while to slow down for you, you need to focus more on the structure, the systems,” said Keefe. “Be a guy who does everything right and allow that skill to come out within the structure over time.
“Learn the structure, learn the systems and then be yourself, let your skill come out, do what got you here.”
This is Marner’s second chance trying to make the Leafs from the OHL. A year ago he feels like he didn’t go for it enough; didn’t allow himself to take the calculated risks needed to create plays out of thin air, his specialty.
He’s determined that it will be different this time around. He says he’s physically stronger than he was a year ago, although he’s still one of the smaller players in the Leafs system at 5-foot-9 and about 165 pounds, but having played it safe once he’s ready to play the game the way he always has and the way few can.
“I feel more comfortable with the puck and a lot more patient with the puck,” he said. “I just need to make sure when I come into the games I play the same way and I’m not stressed and can play my game.
“I want to make the right play every time I have the puck.”
If he can pull it off beginning in London and continuing on when the main Leafs camp begins next week Marner will give the big club’s decision makers something to think about.
If Marner can display the kind of wizardry he routinely did during his OHL career his NHL apprenticeship will be ready to begin and this will be his last weekend he plays hockey in London for years to come.