DETROIT — Jake Muzzin stood on the opposing blue line for the opening faceoff, wearing the blue and white sweater of his boyhood team. This was a guy living out his childhood dream in front of a divided crowd at Little Caesars Arena.
"It’s crazy," said Muzzin. "Obviously growing up in Ontario, a huge Toronto Maple Leafs fan, and you aspire to play for the Leafs one day, and here we are. So it’s crazy to come full circle and hopefully we can make the best of it."
But there’s been a more nuanced side to the craziest week of Muzzin’s life; one we couldn’t see in his 497th career NHL game and first with Toronto.
This has been difficult, too.
Right from the moment he found out he’d been traded to the Leafs from the Los Angeles Kings on Monday night. His wife, Courtney, was out when that news arrived, so Muzzin had to place what he labelled an "interesting" call to her.
The couple is expecting their first child in April and was extremely settled into the rhythm of life in picturesque Hermosa Beach. This move didn’t exactly arrive at the most opportune moment.
"You guys don’t want to know that one. Initial news [she wasn’t happy], no, because she was so comfy in where we were and with doctors and everything like that," said Muzzin. "I don’t know, she just wasn’t happy, but now she is.
"So, all’s good."
If anything, Friday’s game was the easy part for the 29-year-old defenceman.
Paired with Morgan Rielly, he looked rock solid during a 3-2 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings. Steady, assertive and reliable. You’d never have known it was his first game since Jan. 21 and coming at the end of a whirlwind 96 hours.
"He made some good passes, big blocks," said teammate Auston Matthews. "He just played his game and I was extremely impressed with him because it’s definitely not easy getting traded and jumping right into a game, especially after a break like that. He didn’t look out of place at all."
Muzzin actually found the game easier than Thursday’s practice. He relied on muscle memory rather than having to think his way through new drills and routines.
The biggest difference was adjusting to the way Toronto’s skilled forwards blow out of the defensive zone. In Los Angeles, he was accustomed to controlling the puck in small spaces and working it up the ice more methodically with a series of passes.
The Leafs have Matthews, Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Patrick Marleau. They’re often looking to connect for a home run.
"I think it’s a faster team," said Muzzin. "When we send guys they’re going. They’re not slowing down, they’re going. So I’ll have to trust that they’re going to get the puck."
What does that mean exactly?
"Like I can send it and they’re going to get it. I don’t have to kind of wait for them to get open, I can kind of lead them and they’ll get it because they’re fast."
Coming out of the all-star break and bye week, it at times looked like a game played on sand rather than ice. That actually reflected well on the Muzzin-Rielly pairing because Detroit generated next to nothing at 5-on-5 when they were on the ice.
Muzzin finished with a little more than 18 minutes because of the nine minor penalties assessed, but seemed comfortable with the workload. He’s anticipating that it’ll take some time to carve out his niche on a second-place team.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of completing this deal now rather than at the Feb. 25 deadline is that it affords him an extra three weeks to settle in.
"Any time you get traded, your wife’s pregnant, you’ve been in a spot for a long time, won two Cups, I think there’s an adjustment period for sure," said coach Mike Babcock. "The biggest thing — what we’re going to do — is not overload on him, he’s going to get out there and play."
He’ll get another chance to do it Saturday with the Pittsburgh Penguins in Toronto to complete the back-to-back. That meant another new bed for Muzzin after the late-night flight arrived from Detroit.
"Another hotel," he said.
With the shock of the trade already starting to wear off, Muzzin is seeing some positives with his new normal. There’s a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup, which wasn’t going to happen with the rebuilding Kings. And there’ll be more opportunity to see friends and family.
Both his parents and his wife’s parents made the two-and-a-half-hour trip from Woodstock, Ont., to watch his debut — joining a chanting army of Leafs fans in the stands.
It was the kind of thing a kid would dream of while playing ball hockey in the streets of an Ontario town two decades ago. It made for a near-perfect night after a busy week.
"Well it would have been really good if we got the win, but all things considered it was the first game for me in awhile, too," said Muzzin. "It was a little bit of an extra long break there. It felt not bad, some things to pick up on and get better, but for the most part it felt pretty good."