By Dan Robson in Toronto and London, Ont.
By Dan Robson in Toronto and London, Ont.
Sure, he’s got the best dangles in junior hockey, but the Maple Leafs prospect is still working to shake the criticism that he’s too small for the NHL.

The most anticipated homegrown prospect the Toronto Maple Leafs have had in decades stepped on the ice after a group of seven- and eight-year-olds working on defensive skills finished their morning practice. Mitch Marner had only an hour to skate before the next pack of novice and tyke players would arrive for afternoon lessons at 3 Zones Hockey School in Ajax, Ont. He set up on the goal line and at the instruction of the school’s director, Rob Desveaux, began to pirouette down the ice. “Turn! Turn! Go!” Desveaux shouted, following behind as Marner spun twice on his right skate then switched to his left before spinning twice again. “Turn!”

Marner continued, progressing in 720-degree one-legged spins down the length of the ice and back. A brief bag skate followed the drill, then a series of shooting speed and release exercises, all with Desveaux correcting and challenging as though the CHL Player of the Year were some young kid trying to make a rep team. Marner had just come from an upper-body workout session at the Leafs’ practice facility, where he’d been training all summer. He dripped sweat as he chugged a bottle of water at the bench during a brief break. He let out an exhausted curse, smiled and headed out for the next gruelling drill set up by the grey-haired, 60-year-old Desveaux. “Ah, this just sucks!” he said, skating to centre ice. Marner wore a white practice sweater with the logo of the team that drafted him fourth overall in 2015 on the front, the team he’s dreamed of playing for since he was a boy growing up just north of Toronto. Now on the edge of that dream, he fired a puck on a Shooter-Tutor while wide-eyed kids coming in for the afternoon session packed against the glass to get a look at him. Marner was doing everything he could to finally break into the NHL. But will it be enough?

Doubt has chased Marner throughout his young career in hockey. It’s almost laughable for a kid with his natural scoring ability, but as he fast-tracked through levels in the game, he always ran up against others’ concerns that he was too small and too weak to make it all the way to the pros. Despite being one of the top minor hockey players in Ontario, the undersized forward fell to 19th in the OHL draft in 2013. He became a junior-hockey superstar with the London Knights, leading the powerhouse franchise to the Memorial Cup last May. He scored 44 points in the OHL playoffs alone. Still, Marner’s complete domination of junior hockey hasn’t quashed doubts about his NHL readiness. The Leafs have offered him no assurances that he’ll be on the roster this fall. But as Tor­onto enters a new era on the ice—centred around 2016 first-overall pick Auston Matthews—the locally grown right-winger is confident he can be a key part of the franchise’s suddenly promising future. And if he’s going to get there, it’ll be with the skills that have carried him past every doubt he’s faced before.

Two years ago, Marner carried his bag toward the London Knights bus convinced that his career was over. It was the first year of his eligibility for the NHL Draft, and his talent seemed to have vanished when he needed it most. He’d scored a single goal and notched four assists in the first 10 games of the season, and after losing to the Erie Otters that night in October 2014, Marner’s pointless streak had reached four games. Meanwhile, two players he’d grown up being compared to had lit his team up in the 6–2 Otters win. Connor McDavid—the consensus No. 1 pick and most touted prospect in a decade—scored a goal and added two assists. Dylan Strome, McDavid’s linemate, had a goal and an assist, which gave him an astounding 30 points in the same amount of time it had taken Marner to score five.

Marner met his father, Paul, before he reached the team bus for the four-and-a-half-hour trip from Erie, Penn., back to London. “Dad, I suck,” he said. “I’m so embarrassed for you and Mom. I’m no good.”

The words nearly broke Paul Marner. He knew his son had misplaced the joy he’d had every time he stepped on the ice since he was a toddler. And he knew there was only one place where Marner could rediscover what he’d lost. Paul followed the Knights’ bus through the night and met the team again in London. When Marner walked off the bus, Paul told his son that, together, they were heading home.

Marner went back to his childhood home in Thornhill, Ont., that night and stayed for several days, missing practices and meetings with his coaches’ blessings, allowing his mind to escape the maelstrom that the sport had become for him. Paul and Bonnie Marner didn’t speak to their son about hockey during those days they spent together, except to remind him that there was life and love beyond the game. Marner sat on the big, comfy couch in the living room, next to the family’s chocolate Lab, Winston, and their white ragdoll cat, Burbank. He watched movies and played video games. He hung out with his older brother, Chris, who’s one of his closest friends. Marner wears No. 93 because it’s the year his brother was born—and because Doug Gilmour was one of his dad’s favourite players. Everyone close to Marner says family is the most important part of his life. He keeps the initials of his mother, father and brother written above his stall in the Knights dressing room.

Just being home helped centre him, but Marner still needed to rediscover the magic that had allowed him to tally 46 assists and 59 points as a 16-year-old rookie with the Knights, and fuelled the expectation that he’d go high in the NHL Draft. So he returned to the coach he’s worked with since he first learned how to skate.

Marner was four years old when his father first took him to Desveaux, who was training a young Tyler Seguin at the time. Desveaux usually won’t take kids on until they turn six, but Paul knew his son had unique ability. Initially, Desveaux refused to work with him. “Every dad thinks his kid is a superstar,” he says. But Paul was persistent. Finally, Desveaux agreed to assess the young Marner’s talent at the rink. When Paul showed up, Desveaux asked him where his son was. Paul reached behind the bench and pulled Marner up. “He was that small,” Desveaux says. “I didn’t even know he was there.”

Thirteen years later, Marner carved into the familiar ice at the spartan Ajax Community Centre. It was his only on-ice session during his brief sabbatical from the Knights. Over the years, Desveaux had become part of Marner’s close-knit circle, practically a member of the family. Marner had even lived with his coach’s family for a brief time when the Marners needed a regional address to allow him to play in the Greater Toronto Hockey League. “I want you to get back to the roots we started with,” Desveaux told Marner as the two took the ice. They skated around the rink together a few times.

“What’s going on?” Desveaux eventually asked.

“I don’t know, coach Rob,” Marner said. “I don’t know what’s wrong.”

They ran through old drills they used to have fun with, battling one-on-one for the puck, knocking each other on their asses. After the first hour, Desveaux had a long list of bad habits Marner had picked up through his first season in London. Marner was shooting off the wrong foot, his stride and crossovers were off, his hands were too low and his stick was off the ice. They stayed on the ice for a few hours, working on fundamentals with a couple of Desveaux’s instructors.

Watching from behind the glass, Paul and Bonnie saw their son drift back into the joy he’d shown playing minor hockey. They saw the smile he’d worn when he pretended to be Sidney Crosby playing mini-sticks in the corner of the Garnet B. Rickard Recreation Complex in Bowmanville, Ont., where he’d go to watch his older brother play. The pressure was gone. He was home, having fun, playing the game he loved. “There’s no problem here, Mitch,” Desveaux told Marner after they got off the ice. “You just have to get back to normal.”

“While other young pieces of the team’s future mostly trained out of town, Marner’s development was carefully curated and monitored.”

When Marner returned to the Knights, he scored 29 points in his next 10 games—13 goals and 16 assists. He had four hat tricks and two five-point games in November. He went on to finish second in Ontario Hockey League scoring with 126 points in 62 games. Strome led the league with 129 points in 68 games, while McDavid had 120 in 47 games.

The Marner family flew to Miami for the 2015 NHL Draft with the hope that the Toronto Maple Leafs would select Marner. The team’s interim GM, Mark Hunter, had chosen Marner for the Knights with the last pick of the first round in the 2013 OHL draft. Privately, the family worried that Arizona would take Marner with the third pick, after McDavid and Jack Eichel were selected first and second. When Strome’s name was called third, there was a loud cheer from a section of the crowd where family and friends of the Marners were seated. They knew then, before his name was even called, that Marner was coming home.

A season later, expectations had grown exponentially. London Knights highlights showcasing his playmaking ability became required viewing for Leafs fans eager for something to cheer about. With 116 points in 57 games, he was named the OHL’s most outstanding player.

On May 5, Marner’s 19th birthday, he notched a goal and an assist, helping the Knights win the first game of the league final over the Niagara Ice Dogs. After the game, Bonnie and Paul waited outside the locker room. When their son emerged, they told him that just a few hours earlier a fire had engulfed the family home in Thornhill, Ont. They had been informed while en route to London for the game. Video of the blaze was already online and had made the local news.

Marner’s first question was about the pets. Burbank and Winston had been rescued, but the damage to the home wasn’t fully known. The Marners had taped every one of their son’s games when he was growing up, often poring over the footage afterwards looking for ways he could improve. There were photographs and medals, Team Canada sweaters. All of it could be gone forever. Marner hugged his parents tight, shocked by the news. He managed to crack a baffled smile while watching the footage on his mother’s phone. It was devastating. But everyone who mattered was safe.

A short time later, dressed in a shirt and bowtie under a blue suit, Marner walked into the lobby at Budweiser Gardens, where a row of fans waited for him. He signed autographs and smiled for a few photos then walked over to where his family, his billets and a few other friends waited for him. He gave out several hugs, as he is prone to do, and gave a second to his mother.
The Knights went on to sweep Niagara and win the OHL championship, with Marner winning the award for most valuable player in the playoffs, scoring 44 points in 18 games. Marner was named the CHL Player of the Year a day before the Knights beat the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies 3–2 in overtime to win a thrilling Memorial Cup Final, giving London its second national championship in franchise history. Marner had an assist in the win, extending his playoff point streak to 20 games. He had 14 points in four Memorial Cup games, and was awarded the Stafford Smythe Trophy as tournament MVP.

The hardware spoke for itself. Heading into the biggest off-season of his life, Marner had just accomplished pretty much all a player can in junior hockey, size be damned.

Much has been said about Marner’s slight frame, but watch him in the gym and strength doesn’t seem to be an issue. At about six feet tall and 165 lb., he back-squats multiple reps at 375 lb. He worked with his performance coach, Dan Noble, from his eighth-grade year at The Hill Academy until the Leafs took over supervision of his training this summer. Noble likens Marner’s body type to that of a defensive back in football—tall, lean and fast. While Marner needs to put on muscle mass, Noble says, it needs to be done intelligently without loading up for the sake of appearances.

Marner went to the Maple Leafs rookie camp this summer intent on answering any lingering questions about his size and strength. He battled hard in the corner during a drill with Matthews, pinning the 215-lb. centre against the boards several times as the two struggled for the puck. It was a step outside Marner’s usual skill set, but he showed he could grind just as well as the 2016 No. 1, whose spot on the Leafs roster this fall is a near certainty.

Marner also dutifully attended the team’s development camp, working four to five days a week under close supervision. While other young pieces of the team’s future—like Matthews and William Nylander—mostly trained out of town, Marner’s development was carefully curated and monitored. He put on muscle, most noticeably in his arms, but while signing autographs for a pack of kids after his hour-long skill session with Desveaux, Marner looked more like a skinny 16-year-old than someone on the verge of playing in the NHL. Still, Leafs coach Mike Babcock dismissed concerns about Marner’s size while watching him play at the World Junior Summer Showcase in August. “To say Mitch has got to put on a bunch of weight to me is ridiculous,” Babcock told reporters. “All you have to do is get stronger.”

That and continue to play the game the way he first learned when he was four. The way he’s been playing it ever since.

Marner scribbled his name for a few more awestruck kids outside the dressing room. Then he slung his Maple Leafs bag over his shoulder as a group of tykes and novices circled the freezing-cold rink. He walked through the community centre lobby like any other camper, past the snack bar and out the sliding doors into the hot, grey afternoon, and tossed his bag into the back of his blue and white Ford F-150. Marner climbed in and set out on the long road heading toward Toronto.

Photo Credits

Steph Martyniuk; Darren Calabrese/CP; Dave Chidley/CP