Tyler Bozak embracing role as ‘dad figure’ on young Maple Leafs

Tyler Bozak talked about the energy Mitch Marner and the other young players bring to the ice and what it’s like having to keep up with them.

TORONTO – In case Tyler Bozak wasn’t already feeling old enough inside the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room these days, linemate Mitch Marner recently referred to him as a “dad figure.”

Talk about time moving fast in the NHL.

At least the moniker somewhat fits in Bozak’s case, both because of the mentorship role he’s tried to assume on a young team and the fact he’s now settled in to life as a father.

His son, Kanon, turned one earlier this month and the Leafs centre has gained a new perspective since his arrival.

“I think I’ve had to grow up a lot quicker than I thought I was going to have to,” Bozak said Monday in an interview. “You can say you’re always ready to be a dad or a parent, but it’s not real until it actually happens. So it’s been a big change, but it’s been absolutely unbelievable.

“[His birth] was the best moment of my life, obviously, and the last year with him has been the most fun I’ve ever had.”

The cameras recently captured a loving moment between the two – with Kanon intently watching warmup in his mother’s arms at rinkside, and Tyler giving his son a big smile from the other side of the glass.

Bozak was sure to save the video and is trying to savour those moments. Kanon loves being down by the ice prior to the game but doesn’t usually last at Air Canada Centre beyond the first period before his bedtime arrives.

“It’s fun to see him in the corner there,” said Bozak. “It makes you realize that there’s more to life than just hockey. You’ve got your son there smiling at you, and just watching, and it makes you feel pretty good.”

After surviving one of the most tumultuous stretches in Leafs history, there is a lot for the 30-year-old to feel good about. He’s currently playing on the team’s most productive line with Marner and James van Riemsdyk and has earned coach Mike Babcock’s trust as an effective faceoff man.

Whenever the Leafs need to win a big draw, the odds are fairly high that Bozak’s number will be called.

During games, he can usually be seen sitting next to Marner on the bench. Often, they’re going over positioning or game strategy. Occasionally, like during a win over Florida last week, he’ll jokingly remind the rookie not to start singing when the play stops – lest he want to create another stir on social media.

“We’ve had a lot of fun with each other,” said Marner. “He’s kind of like a dad figure to me. I always joke around with him like that, and he’s been a great help on and off the ice. Leading me, and kind of teaching me how to be a pro.”

It’s a job that Bozak is now qualified for.

He’s the longest-tenured player with the organization – having dressed for 453 games since signing with the Leafs as a college free agent in 2009 – and one of four men that Babcock has designated to wear an “A” this season.

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Over the years, he’s experienced some of the best and worst that come with playing in this city. The team’s seven-game playoff series with Boston in 2013 remains a personal highlight.

Seeing three coaches and two general managers fired – not to mention dozes of teammates, including former roommate/close friend Phil Kessel, shipped out of town – hasn’t always been easy. There have also been periods where his own future in Toronto seemed uncertain.

“I’ve been told [my time is ending] a few times – mainly by the media and fans and stuff,” said Bozak. “But I never really thought about it too much. It’s something that you just go out there and play your game and whatever happens on that side of the game happens. It’s a business.

“I mean I’ve seen so many people come and go that you never know if it’s your time.”

To emerge on the other side of that, and see so much hope and enthusiasm sprouting around him, is gratifying. He is one of the few players in the dressing room with the perspective necessary to fully appreciate how unique this season has been so far in Toronto.

Bozak is also on pace to crack the 50-point barrier for the first time in his NHL career – a reminder that the contributions from him and fellow veterans Nazem Kadri and van Riemsdyk are being overlooked because of the exciting crop of rookies.

Yes, life is pretty good.

And on the occasional day where things don’t go quite as well at the rink as he would like, Bozak only needs to go home and see Kanon to put it behind him.

“He’s walking now, running around, so it’s only getting better,” he said. “It’s exciting times. I’m just real excited to start communicating with him and stuff like that, but it’s been a great experience so far.”

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