"Living in the moment is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.” — Ted Lasso
Mitch Marner, a kid at heart, is doing his best to resist the roller coaster.
There is so much the Toronto Maple Leafs superstar could be looking forward to in the future: a chance to realize his Olympic dream; another outdoor game on the schedule (“You feel like you’re back on a pond again with your buddies”); bustling arenas (“It’s been too long without fans”); and his wedding with longtime girlfriend and brand-new fiancée Stephanie LaChance, to whom he popped the question on Lake Muskoka this summer.
And there is so much Marner could let haunt him from the past: the fans’ aftertaste from his testy contract negotiation and all those post-season disappointments, the fifth and most recent one to Montreal stinging most vicious.
But nether mindset — I gotta make Team Canada’s top six! I gotta make up for the collapse! — will help him now.
“I'm a pretty emotional guy,” Marner told 31 Thoughts: The Podcast this week. “So, obviously, when we’re winning games, it’s a great feeling. I think everyone's having a great time. Obviously, when you're in a downslope of losing, emotions do hit. Maybe you’re trying to find that way of getting back into the winning mode.”
Presentville is where Marner is trying to live, a town far away from those dangerous outposts of Hope and Dwell.
The public carwash that is NHL Media Day and the all-star winger’s promotion for this weekend’s Marner All-Star Invitational, his annual interactive fund-raiser for youth, can feel like a gauntlet. Lots of questions. Lots of disappointed ears listening.
Yet Marner refuses to turn the week leading up to training camp into an apology tour. Pucks that hit the seats never get tossed back over the glass.
“The past is the past. There’s nothing we can do now,” Marner told reporters at his charity dinner Thursday night. “Everyone has come in ready to go ... It’s exciting times.”
Because Toronto’s post-season ended with silent sticks, and because Marner failed to find the net in either 2020’s Columbus series and 2021’s Montreal tilt, a portion of the city has turned on the 24-year-old.
Maybe these angry fans forget that since Marner pulled on the hometown sweater in 2016, no Leaf has scored more points in the regular season (358) or the playoffs (25). Or maybe they don’t care, because hockey has always been about team success.
Whatever the case, if Marner dared open a Twitter or Instagram app this summer, he’d see his surname trend regularly as keyboard warriors threw barbs his way. You’d think an Andrei Svechnikov extension would have nothing to do with Marner, and yet every story circles back to the magnet of the hockey universe.
“It’s tough. We play in a big hockey market, right?” Auston Matthews told 31 Thoughts: The Podcast, when asked about how Marner handles the criticism.
“People really care. It comes with pros; it comes with cons.”
Marner credits Joe Thornton for exemplifying an even-keel mind state. That ability to ride -- not fight -- the emotional waves of a season. Experience helps. So do blinders.
Marner says he’s learning to block out the haters. He’s leaning on his friends, family and teammates. Just because the Leafs are all vaccinated doesn’t mean that a bubble still doesn’t exist.
“I’m not really focusing on it. It’s outside noise. Nothing you can do about it,” Marner said.
“I know what comes with this. I’ve always known what comes with this. I always wanted to be here, and I’ve said that since Day One.”
With doubts outside the organization mounting, Matthews and Marner turned to each other.
The linemates called to check in regularly during the off-season. The conversations were a mix of business and personal. They’d share both vacation stories and offensive-zone clips, delivering constructive criticism and analyzing situations where they might bail each other out. Find a hole. Create another opportunity.
“Just making sure the other guy knows that we’re there for each other,” Marner said.
So determined was the duo to enter camp in top form that Marner planned to jet to Arizona and train with Matthews in August -- until Matthews’ wrist surgery altered his course to the Montreal BioSteel camp instead.
Helping Marner turn the page is the fact that the Maple Leafs have this back. The bet is that confidence is contagious.
Yes, president Brendan Shanahan and GM Kyle Dubas were presented with offers to dismantle their star nucleus, but those discussions didn’t get too far.
“It would’ve made us different, but it wouldn’t necessarily made us better,” Dubas told The Bob McCown Podcast this week. “I have an incredible amount of belief in the core group.”
Through a storm of skepticism, there is a direct line of endorsement in the Leafs’ plan from president to GM to coach to players.
“I look at a guy like Mitch, who from the moment he could put on skates, he was saying he wanted to be a Maple Leaf,” Shanahan told Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun this week. “He’s a great teammate, a great two-way player, is an elite all-star who will likely be an Olympian, and all he wants to do is deliver here in Toronto.
“Yeah, he’s disappointed and frustrated. We all are. That reflects the mood of the entire team.”
Training camp doesn’t open until Wednesday, yet the entire roster has been in Toronto training together for weeks now. Dubas figures this is the earliest the Ford Performance Centre has been full heading into a training camp.
The boys are bonding. Pushing. Living in the moment so they can be ready for the next one.
“It’s really just nice to be back,” Marner said, “joking around, chirping each other, and having fun on that ice.”