The coach, the captain, and the superstar all had something to say about hockey’s loss before they fielded questions about their own.
Funny how quick the big things — perspective, legacy, family — can make a couple of mid-season points shrink into the blip they are.
Moments after stepping off the Vancouver ice in defeat, 3-1 by the Canucks, the Toronto Maple Leafs learned that Walter Gretzky had passed away. He was 82 and roundly beloved.
Sheldon Keefe, John Tavares and Auston Matthews each took a moment to pass along their condolences to the Gretzky family.
Like so many Ontarians who grew up hanging around the boards, whose lives are steeped in the smell of used gloves and rink fries, Keefe had met Wayne’s dad a few times. But one stands out.
Walter visited Pembroke with the NHL Old-Timers when Keefe was coaching the Lumber Kings, and the two made for a small time to chat.
Walter always made time to chat.
“The lasting memory I have of that is just him sitting around for what seemed for hours throughout the game, signing autographs and taking pictures with everybody that wanted one, and chatting with anybody who wanted to talk too,” Keefe recalled.
“It was pretty cool to see someone of his stature, what he means to the game, what he’s brought to the game, and to be all the way out in Pembroke, Ont., and taking part in an event like that for people that wouldn’t normally get such an opportunity.”
Tavares, too, met Walter when he was a wee rink rat. His memory can’t quite pin down the year or the place, because hockey’s dad was always around the rinks, immersed in the hockey community. Still, Tavares remembers how Walter made him feel.
“Just his graciousness, big smile, and obviously a passion for the game,” Tavares said. “Just a very gracious man, from what I remember as a kid.”
Slotted in its proper place — below the fold, and well below Walter’s endearing smile — the Maple Leafs’ defeat holds even less meaning.
Build a seven-point lead over your division. Reel off a 10-game point streak. Shut down the most electric player in the game (since, well, Walter’s son) for 180 straight minutes. Do all that, and you can afford the odd letdown.
The Maple Leafs arrived late in Vancouver to play their second game in two nights, third in four nights, and fourth in six nights — over three time zones.
Start your third-string goaltender in a matchup like this one, even against the Elias Pettersson–free Canucks, and it’s easy for the NHL’s No. 1–ranked club to write this off as a schedule casualty.
Jake Virtanen — traded a zillion times in the comments section and call-in shows — opened the scoring early by driving to the net around Justin Holl. Pierre Engvall knotted the score at one after taking an Ilya Mikheyev touch pass and driving to the slot.
But Virtanen struck again in Period 2, whipping the winner past Michael Hutchinson off the rush from a cringe-inducing angle.
“As I was going down into the post, I saw his wrists open up and knew he was coming high. From there, I just slipped off the post a little bit,” Hutchinson explained. “It was just a little bit of a mess for me.
“An unfortunate goal at an unfortunate time of the game.”
What didn’t help was Auston Matthews pinging posts or a rested Vancouver side starting Thatcher “Bubble” Demko, who turned away 31 of the 32 shots Toronto funneled his way.
“Demmer’s a great goalie. He’s big, takes up a lot of space, and I think ever since the bubble in the playoffs last year he’s really come into his own,” said Matthews, who knows the California native on a personal level. (Aside: Would either Sun Belt product have picked up a stick had Walter not convinced Wayne to go to L.A.?) “He’s an awesome guy and really great person. He played really well tonight.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to tip your hat.”
With Toronto’s own top two goalies both considered day-to-day as they recover from lower-body injuries, the positive news for Saturday’s rematch is that Frederik Andersen will be available.
You can bet the Maple Leafs will have more jump in their legs. Just as you can bet that game, on Hockey Night in Canada, will begin with more tributes to and memories of Walter Gretzky.
Let them flood like a backyard rink. Sometimes you gotta tip your hat.
“It’s a terrible loss of a great man that gave so many terrific things to our game, to our sport,” Keefe said. “Certainly leaves a legacy behind that we will never forget.”