VAUGHAN, Ont. – Right before riders of the Yukon Striker plummet down a 90-degree, 223-foot drop, they just hang there, peering over the edge.
Stuck still, way up in the summer air, for a full three seconds to contemplate what it might feel like to scream through the world’s tallest, longest and fastest Dive Coaster. Or three seconds of hoping the thing is up to code.
For the queasy among us, those three seconds can feel like three months, the mind whizzing through a series of what-ifs and shoulda-coulda-wouldas.
Which brings us to fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs and unsigned superstar Mitchell Marner, who scored a thrill bringing his pal, Arizona Coyotes forward Christian Dvorak, to Canada’s Wonderland Wednesday, where they conquered the Striker multiple times.
“I was making a joke that we were being ride warriors there. It’s fun,” Marner beamed Thursday, as he walked the blue carpet at Dave & Buster’s for the opening-night party of his second-annual Marner Assist Fund charity event.
“It’s a nice ride, though.”
Where the business of hockey is concerned, Marner might as well be still hanging way up there at the Toronto amusement park’s greatest peak — feet dangling over top of his city, fate unknown.
And for the card-carrying members of Leafs Nation, the anticipation — even if it all ends with relieved laughter and a photo op — is killing them.
They’ve seen this movie before and fret they know the ending.
They agonized as last summer’s critical restricted free agent, William Nylander, skipped training camp, then a month-and-a-half of the real season and then waited until the Dec. 1 deadline to sign, with only about the time it takes to microwave a Pizza Pop to spare.
Nylander’s false start drew a heap of critics for both player and team, and the forward’s underwhelming performance (seven goals, 27 points in 57 games) only emboldened the naysayers.
Marner has run into that worry. The fans he bumps into at the airport or at Wonderland all want to know when he’ll hurry up and sign already.
“There’s fans everywhere you go, especially here in Toronto,” Marner, 22, says. “It’s been kinda funny joking around with them.”
Except when you proudly post an Instagram video of spinning your first 360 on a wakesurfer, which you gleefully land after five or six failed attempts, and are compelled to shut down comments on the post because of all the contract chatter.
“There’s nothing really good on social media anyways. For me, it’s keeping my phone away, relaxing and kinda enjoying the summer,” explains Marner, aware that nothing he can say to a scrum of reporters will end the constant swirl of speculation and opinionizing.
No. Only his and GM Kyle Dubas’s signatures on a dotted line will do that.
Are we there yet?
“Hopefully sooner than later. I want to be there for the start of camp, so hoping something can get done then. My agent and Kyle are doing it, and they’re going to figure something out,” says Marner, who would go the Nylander route and dodge camp until a deal is in place.
“There’s so much risk with that. It’s just something you don’t want to risk.”
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Marner asserted he couldn’t imagine hosting his charity event anywhere but Toronto, regardless what sweater he wears. This is home, where his family and friends all live and support him.
It was notable, however, that last year’s Marner Assist Fund party featured a guest list filled with Leafs employees (Auston Matthews, Morgan Rielly, Zach Hyman, p.r. folk). Thursday night, Marner was the only Leaf to walk the carpet, although centreman John Tavares is scheduled to participate in Friday’s fund-raiser with the kids.
So as Marner, elusive off the ice as on, defers all contract queries to his agent, Darren Ferris, the rumour mill churns and froths.
Earlier this week, it was suggested Dubas might welcome an offer sheet, just to end this mess and kick back like Don Waddell in Carolina.
Last week it was Columbus kicking tires an offer sheet. Before that, New York’s Lou Lamoriello, the man who drafted Marner to Toronto.
“There’s been no sell,” chuckles Islanders forward Michael Dal Colle, Marner’s longtime friend and major peewee linemate.
“I’m sure it’s been a little more hectic than usual for him, but he’s handled it well. He’s a first-class individual. He’s a great person.
“He’s just treating every day no differently than in years past. Hometown kid. I know he loves playing for the Maple Leafs, so hopefully he gets it done.”
The hearsay of the day can be entertaining when all you have is breadcrumbs and there’s no hockey games on TV, but it’s important to zoom out and realize that Marner is but one of several elite RFAs inching toward August without an arbitration date or an imminent resolution.
Tampa’s Anthony Cirelli, close friends with both Marner and the Lightning’s Brayden Point, reminded the assembled media that there is plenty of time for the teams to lock up their stars.
“I know he loves Toronto,” Cirelli says.
Which would explain why Marner hasn’t signed one of these threatened offer sheets, even though he refused to say one way or another if he’d consider it. Again: Ask Ferris. (Ferris is not speaking publicly these days, and the last time he did, he gave the impression that Marner wants Matthews money.)
Marner did, however, address the trade of Patrick Marleau, a dear friend with whom he speaks daily and will be visiting next weekend.
“He’s still very close to me and my family. He’s meant a lot to us,” Marner says. “Whatever team gets him next year, he’s going to do great for them.”
Though he said it “sucks” to lose Nazem Kadri to Colorado, Marner spoke highly of defenceman Tyson Barrie, with whom he got to know when they won a silver medal with Canada at the 2017 world championships.
“He’s a great defenceman,” Marner says. “He’s got great vision on the ice. He’s that D-man that can get shots through from the point that seem like they’re almost impossible to get through. Another puck-moving defenceman who brings a lot of skill.”
Marner insists he’s not paying as much attention to his contract stalemate as you are. He’ll continue to sharpen his skills, training to improve on his 94-point campaign. Ferris will call when a deal is nigh.
Until then, the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer is heeding this advice, courtesy of his pal Nylander: “Stay relaxed. Stay out of it. Enjoy your summer.”
Get on a boat. Hop on a roller coaster. Jump in a lake.
We might suggest Maple Leafs fans do the same. So often, the anticipation can be more excruciating than the result.