TORONTO – Travis Dermott walked into the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room Saturday morning, looked at the starting lineup sheet on the board, saw his number, 3, to the left of Roman Polak’s 46, bolted to his locker and fired a quick text message.
The 21-year-old needed to let Dad know that his childhood dream had come true: He’d made the National Hockey League.
“No one told me directly, but it might’ve felt even better finding out on my own,” said Dermott, a bundle of excitement and nerves and joy. “Your stomach drops.” And then the happiest of realizations: “This is really happening.”
Stories like Dermott’s are old, but they never get so.
Raised in nearby Newmarket, Ont., Dermott was drafted by the local pro team 34th overall in 2015. He so impressed the Leafs coaching staff at training camp this past fall that Mike Babcock would’ve recalled the kid instead of Martin Marincin when Nikita Zaitsev got injured in December had Dermott not been recovering from an upper-body ailment of his own.
Despite missing six games this season, Dermott leads all Marlies D-men in scoring (17 points over 26 contests) and plus/minus (+15) and is a key reason why Toronto has ascended to second overall in the American League. Earlier this week, Dermott was selected to the AHL’s all-star game.
The left-shot defenceman credits his Marlies development — as well as cadre of coaches, teammates and mentors that would take “a half hour to list” — for bringing him to this point.
“You don’t dream of playing in the AHL, right? You dream of being here,” said Dermott, who’s been asked to keep his first outing simple. The pro game is about to come at him as fast as a Brock Boeser wrister.
“You can’t be thinking about making mistakes. You try to go out there and make a positive impact every shift,” said Dermott, who will play his natural left side next to righty Polak. “He’s a good, steady D-man. He talks a lot to me and makes me feel comfortable.”
That Dermott also has a close friend in Connor Brown, with whom he shared OHL bus rides with the Erie Otters, eases his transition.
Seeing Dermott rack up a point per game from the blue line in junior, Brown can ramble off a list of his newest teammate’s attributes: skates well, makes smart decisions, tenacious on the puck, rushes to his check in the D-zone.
Dermott himself aspires to skate, move the puck and jump up in the play like Duncan Keith, a Stanley Cup and Norris champion multiple times over.
“When I played with Travis in Erie, he’s a guy who took his craft very seriously, even at a young age. It’s paid off for him. He’s had a really good year in the minors, and it’s nice for him to get a look,” Brown said.
“He’s going to be a good NHLer for a long time.”
But maybe not quite yet, warns Babcock, who healthy-scratched rookie Andreas Borgman tonight. Let’s see how Saturday’s one-anthem game versus the Vancouver Canucks goes first.
“We’ve known for a long time that [Dermott] is working in the right direction,” Babcock said.
“Is he NHL-ready yet? Can he come in here and make a difference to our lineup? If he can, he’ll get to stay. If he’s not ahead of anybody else, we might as well have a veteran playing and him down there playing 22 minutes and leading the [Marlies].”
The Maple Leafs rank 14th in team defence and are searching for improvement and clarity on their blue line as we near the trade deadline.
Dermott’s personal search of making the bigs — the focus, he says, of “dream after dream” — is now real. And, yes, his mother and father will be in attendance to witness its fruition.
“Of course. They wouldn’t miss it,” the son said. “[Dad] is excited for me. He wants me to just try my best, and I’ll be happy with the outcome.”