TORONTO – There have already been plenty of Instagram-worthy moments for little Kanon Bozak inside Air Canada Centre. But this? This was something different.
“He’s never been able to stay the whole game because we never play in the day,” said proud papa, Tyler, of the two-year-old boy decked out in a No. 42 Maple Leafs sweater with “Dad” across the back. “This is the first time I’ve been able to bring him in the room after a game.”
Kanon’s first order of business?
Greeting the man of the hour, Mitchell Marner, from behind a crowded semi-circle of reporters. That halted the question-and-answer session immediately, and it wasn’t entirely clear which of them was more excited to see the other.
“Kanon!” said Marner, who had just turned the page on a frustrating scoring drought while helping the Maple Leafs emphatically welcome the start of their second century.
The future arrived with an 8-1 dismantling of the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday afternoon that gave everyone playing hooky from school plenty of opportunity to stand up and cheer. And, according to Mike Babcock, it offered the Leafs a chance to playfully rib the 20-year-old who is basically a little brother to all of them.
The head coach couldn’t help but chuckle at some of the chirps he heard while they walked through the tunnel towards the dressing room.
“Mitchy, you were really good in the first. You’ve got your classmates here and you’re trying to impress them.”
“First time you’re playing a game that wasn’t after your bedtime.”
All in good fun – and some much-needed fun, we should note, for a road-weary group that had seen the goals dry up while dropping three straight games.
Marner had suffered the most with an unthinkable 33-game stretch where he’d scored only once. No wonder he went bounding into the glass to celebrate after driving into the Hurricanes zone and beating goalie Scott Darling at 5:33.
The shot of confidence went straight to his legs.
Marner played the rest of the game like a man possessed – spinning off Justin Faulk in the corner and sidestepping Marcus Kruger before setting up a Tyler Bozak goal and connecting with James van Riemsdyk and friend/father figure Patrick Marleau on two others.
“I thought Mitch was really going,” said Babcock.
“If you’re a goal-scorer and you haven’t scored in a long time, it starts weighing on you,” he added. “I don’t care what anyone says. If you’re a young person, you can’t help it. You’ve got to look at [your phone]. You get used to getting beat on.”
Marner largely seemed to take his drought in stride, reasoning that he, Bozak and van Riemsdyk continued to generate enough chances to eventually find success.
Still, his re-emergence as a dynamic presence couldn’t have come at a much better time for a team still without Auston Matthews because of injury. It also seemed fitting as the organization began to cast its eyes forward from centennial celebrations – turning the “100” around to show “001” and dressing today’s young stars in retro Toronto Arenas sweaters similar to the ones worn back on Dec. 19, 1917.
“It’s pretty wicked to wear those jerseys,” said Marner.
Fortunately, there are several worthy candidates for fans looking to put a player’s name on the back of one. These Leafs have come a long way since a 30th-place finish two seasons ago and that was always going to be key to making celebrations like the “Next Century Game” ring true.
They are currently 21-13-1 – a full 11 points clear of the Atlantic Division’s playoff line – and starting to restore faith in a city that officially celebrated “Toronto Maple Leafs Day” on Tuesday.
“We lost a generation of young fans that are wearing Penguins hats now or L.A. Kings hats now or Chicago Blackhawks hats now,” said Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, appearing on Sportsnet’s pre-game show. “So the solution was not a marketing solution. The solution was ‘let’s get the team better.”’
That starts with better players.
Marner and William Nylander, who also shone against the Hurricanes, fall into that category. Matthews is the centrepiece and eventual captain. The group of under-25’s includes Morgan Rielly, Connor Brown, Kasperi Kapanen and more.
On Tuesday afternoon, a crowd that skewed noticeably younger packed the building to watch them. There were viewing parties for 10,000 students across the city, and at Sick Kids Hospital, among other venues.
Marner and friends were sure not to waste the opportunity to mark the occasion in style.
“When your birthday falls on a Tuesday, you start thinking about ‘well, how do we want to celebrate this?”’ said Shanahan. “Today was really about the next generation of Maple Leafs fans.”
At the don of a new century, the future looks pretty bright.