Maple Leafs’ Gardiner may meet similar fate to ex-teammate Bozak

Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner, right, congratulates goaltender Frederik Andersen after an NHL hockey game against the Colorado Avalanche. (David Zalubowski/AP)

ST. LOUIS — There was only one thing Jake Gardiner wanted to do with the only night his Toronto Maple Leafs would spend in this city all season long.

Drop in on old friend Tyler Bozak.

“Check out his house and say hi to his kids,” said Gardiner, of how he intended to cap a busy Monday that included practice in Glendale, Ariz., and a two-plus-hour team flight to St. Louis.

Bozak was a constant from the moment Gardiner arrived in the NHL until last July 1, when the 32-year-old centre signed a free-agent contract with the Blues. They were together for seven up-and-down seasons in all, growing close through the grind while the Leafs shuffled numerous players in and out and went from Ron Wilson to Randy Carlyle to Peter Horachek to Mike Babcock behind the bench.

They’ve kept in regular communication throughout their first year apart, too.

“He was just a great locker-room guy,” said Gardiner. “Kept it light, was always chirping somebody, very sarcastic. Just a good friend to me and a lot of the other guys.”

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Four years his elder, Bozak was a mentor who experienced some major milestones first — becoming a father to son, Kanon, in 2015 and daughter, Blake, in June. Gardiner became a first-time parent in September when his son Henry was born.

Even last season, watching Bozak play out the uncertain final year of his contract knowing deep down it would probably be his last in Toronto, Gardiner took a few useful mental notes.

The 28-year-old defenceman finds himself in that exact same position today.

“We never really even talked about it, that’s kind of how he was,” said Gardiner. “If he was thinking about it or talking about it, it wasn’t around the locker-room, which I liked. He just wanted to focus on his business with this team and kind of going from there.”

There’s no question it was difficult on Bozak, who penned a heartfelt letter to Toronto after signing his $15-million, three-year deal with the Blues. Like fellow veterans James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov, he was forced out by a combination of the team’s salary cap concerns and its growing stable of young players.

A similar scenario may well play out for Gardiner this summer, although no doors have been closed. The Leafs would like to keep him, but are going to need to make an off-season trade or two to clear the necessary space to pay going rate.

Gardiner wants to stay, but is trying to follow Bozak’s example and not have it become a distraction at a time when Toronto is trying to chisel itself into a Stanley Cup contender.

“I’m sure there’s some emotions when you play for a team for so long (and leave), but not during the year,” he said. “Just play the game. If it’s coming back here, it is, and if it’s not it’s something — you know, we’ll see what happens.”

The one benefit of playing for a top team is not having to sweat out these final days before the Feb. 25 trade deadline like other pending unrestricted free agents. At least he’s not going anywhere now.

After dinner with the Bozaks, all Gardiner had to worry about is Tuesday’s game at Enterprise Center to close out the longest road stretch of this or pretty much any other Leafs season.

This trip has been about both business and bonding for the organization. The gruelling 12-day, six-city tour included amateur scouting meetings and a rookie dinner for the players in Scottsdale — a long-celebrated NHL tradition observed by every team during a break in its road schedule.

On the ice, the Leafs experienced the highs of a comeback win in Montreal and a dominant performance in Vegas, plus the frustration of a 56-shot loss to the Rangers and a 21-shot stinker against the Coyotes on Saturday night.

In between, they spent some time by the pool, and at the casino, and eating meals together.

“There’s so many good memories, so many things you develop over the course of a season in times like these,” said John Tavares, one of the newest Leafs. “You’re spending all day with each other, so you pick up on everyone’s habits and who they are, not just as players but as people. This is what makes being part of a team, part of a group, special.

“The journey you go on.”

Life moves fast in pro sports. The games come and go, as do the teammates and friends. Gardiner points out that he and Nazem Kadri “are the last two” remaining in Toronto from the start of this decade.

“The longest-serving Leafs, I guess,” he said.

There’s no longer much institutional knowledge inside the dressing room walls of everything that happened before the Shanaplan. A time with a different cast of characters, different inside jokes and mostly different results.

However, it’s safe to assume some of things were bound to be unearthed again over bread and a few laughs in the suburbs of St. Louis on Monday night.

“I’m sure we’ll reminisce on some memories,” said Gardiner. “It’s always fun playing ex-teammates.”

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