Why the Maple Leafs kept Roman Polak

Maple Leafs defenceman Roman Polak talks about the organization's support and his ability to remain positive everyday as reasons for his return to the ice.

TORONTO – How often before re-signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday did it cross Roman Polak’s mind that his National Hockey League career might be done for good?

“Basically every day,” says the big, friendly, no-BS Czech defenceman.

“They weren’t saying anything. That’s the toughest part — if they’re quiet.”

Polak’s right leg got crumpled something ugly by Washington’s equally bruising blueliner Brooks Orpik during an attempted zone entry in Game 2 of the playoffs in April, necessitating surgery and months of rehabilitation. (“I should’ve just done my job: dump it in, get off,” Polak, decked out in cast and crutches, quipped during the Leafs’ locker cleanout day.)

Since that incident, the unrestricted free agent had been living in a dull, painful purgatory. What ails the lower body can creep north to a man’s upper body.

Leaving his wife and two young children in the Czech Republic, Polak signed a professional tryout with Toronto heading into training camp and moved into a hotel room.

The 634-game veteran and Stanley Cup finalist was released of his tryout after one underwhelming pre-season contest, but he never stopped practising with the team (and without) at the MasterCard Centre. Polak’s nameplate was never removed from his MasterCard Centre stall.

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With no assurances from Toronto’s coaching staff or management that a job was waiting upon good health, how long would the 31-year-old be content to sit around his “tiny hotel room,” six times zones west of his family, a sure job in the Czech league, and (possibly) an Olympic look?

How long could he be happy playing the unpaid intern?

“That’s a tough question. I could’ve waited a little longer if I’d seen interest. I could’ve waited another two weeks or something. But I don’t see interest around the league, I’d probably just leave,” says Polak, who could not travel with the team on road trips and found nothing to fill the void.

“I couldn’t live a single life again. I’m so used to having kids around and family and everything. When you’re alone, it’s just boring. Boring. I hate it.”

Did any other NHL clubs come knocking?

“Doesn’t matter now.”

It doesn’t, now that Toronto inked Polak to a one-year, $1.1-million contract (pro-rated to a $990,000 salary) based on a 235-pound, box-out body, a D.C. Comics pain threshold, a right shot and trust on a skeleton penalty kill, and a mutual loyalty.

Polak joins sturdy but unproven rookie Andreas Borgman on the Leafs’ third pairing Monday versus the heavy Los Angeles Kings, supplanting a healthy Connor Carrick to the analytics crowd’s dismay. (Rookie D-man Calle Rosen was loaned to the AHL Marlies Monday and depth centre Eric Fehr was placed on waivers.)

“It says a lot about who he is. He believes in himself. To come back from the injury shows a lot about his character,” says Zach Hyman, who would run into Polak at the Leafs training facility in the off-season and saw firsthand how diligent he was in rehab. “During the summer, you want to be at home with your family. He came here and worked on it. It’s paid off.”

Patrick Marleau appreciated Polak’s toughness and good-natured dressing room energy when the San Jose Sharks rented him for their 2016 playoff run to the final, but the veteran sees the loyalty going both ways. Polak, you’ll recall, re-signed with Toronto in the summer of ’16 after getting traded for futures, and the Leafs supported him long past the expiration of his previous deal.

“It says a lot about the Leafs, too. He was hurt last year playing for them, and they made sure he got the proper [medical] attention,” says Marleau, who can’t recall seeing a player hang around to earn a deal after getting cut. “He’s a good team guy. He’s a guy who comes to the rink and has fun.”

Polak’s role, now that he has one, entails all the not-fun stuff.

The Leafs have relied almost exclusively on the pairing of Nikita Zaitsev (5:04 per game, up from 1:43 in 2016-17) and Ron Hainsey (5:43) short-handed; Morgan Rielly (1:37) and Borgman (1:03) have been tapped only occasionally in that role.

Polak led all Leafs in 2016-17 with 2:54 of penalty-kill usage.

“If we get [Zaitsev’s] minutes up too high, he’s going to end up hurt,” coach Mike Babcock says. “If you won’t play the other guys, and you keep feeding the same guys out there, those guys get worn down.”

Polak’s size, style and veteran status have, temporarily at least, given him an edge over Carrick on that third unit.

Carrick, 23, has seen his average ice time drop from 16:20 in 2016-17 to a Frank Corrado-esque 14:05 this fall. Monday will mark his third scratch on nights he believes he can skate. Does his usage tumble into Josh Leivo territory in light of Polak’s return, or does Babcock base his roster on each night’s opposition?

Ottawa had no trouble getting to the Leafs crease during Saturday’s loss, and the nasty, physical Kings play a brand of hockey that aligns nicely with Polak’s debut.

“We’re not heavy on the back. We’re not mean back there,” Babcock says.

“Whether you’re Carrick or you’re Borgman or you’re Rosen, when you stand next to Polie or Ron Hainsey or someone who tells you what to do every second you’re on the ice, it’s a comforting feeling.

“It helps you become a better player. It’s nice to break in when you play with somebody who has some experience and knows what to do when you’re out there.”

On a personal level, the contract has boosted Polak’s spirit. His family has made plans to move back to Canada. Dad won’t have to rush back to his hotel room after an unpaid practice to FaceTime his kids he hasn’t seen in six weeks before they fall asleep in Europe.

Oh, and he gets to play a real hockey game again.

“Great,” says Polak, twice, smiling wide. “Can’t wait.”

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