By Rolf Sturm
Whenever the word “free” is followed by anything having to do with MLSE, take note: It’s a situation that doesn’t come up very often for Leafs’ fans.
In a somewhat surprising gesture, MLSE threw open the doors to an NHL hockey-starved public on Thursday.
Yes it was just a training camp practice. But as an olive branch to fans whose patience was sorely tested by the draining, soul-destroying lockout that only lawyers could love, it was at least something. They also threw in free coffee, hot chocolate and popcorn (who eats popcorn at 10 AM?) plus a few giveaways in the hopes of rebuilding some of the goodwill lost during the 113-day lockout whose PR damage has yet to be determined on the eve of a 48-game season.
With the Leafs’ marketing department giddy with largesse, they continue to roll out the freebies. Season ticket holders get to go to Monday’s home opener for free while another 1,000 tickets will be handed out around town and through the media. MLSE wants to take advantage of the warm, glowy feelings and give something back while the mood is bright and happy in anticipation of the NHL’s return. But honeymoons end and if the Leafs go 1-7 out of the chute, the suits may need to work a bit harder to keep up interest.
The freebie gestures may not be enough to bring back supporters but it’s at least a step in the right direction in appeasing the league’s largest and longest suffering fan base.
Now the open house wasn’t the sell-out many predicted with some media saying it would draw as much as 10,000. In fact more than ½ the lower bowl was empty with a crowd of about 3,500 giving ample room to migrate to the best seats in the house – a treat most fans wouldn’t come within yelling distance of at game prices.
I happened to be in a location where the media hoards had gathered and though it was only a practice, I counted at least a dozen cameras. No surprise really. It’s Toronto and it’s been months since anyone’s seen NHL hockey.
The entertainment factor while not riveting was however, interesting. Coach Randy Carlyle lived up to every ounce of his reputation as a stern task-master putting players through a series of up-tempo drills that left some panting. This was training camp after all and the idea partly at least is to determine who is, and isn’t, in shape.
To my eyes, they all looked pretty swift and competent but I don’t go to many NHL practices as a rule. As your hockey-playing scribe notes, being this close brings an appreciation for the incredible athletes they truly are. The speed, power and skill that were on display nearly wiped from my mind the fact no pundits picked the Leafs to finish higher than 11th in the east. But that’s a story for another day.
Today was a day to enjoy watching some elite athletes get put through their paces. I was impressed. A few that caught my eye were Nazem Kadri (who’s since made the team. This is it, Naz. It’s now or never – don’t blow it.)
Also first-round draft pick Morgan Rielly looked composed and confident at just an astonishing 18 years old. Wisely he was sent back to the juniors; there’s really no need at the moment to wreck another prospect’s potential ala Luke Schenn again. His time will come.
Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel looked like they’re ready to pick up where they left off before Lupul got hurt. They were sharp and quick and though it was only practice, man can those boys snipe.
Off-season acquisition James van Riemsdyk is still recovering from a bruised foot so wasn’t in top form. The lanky JVR should be a decent addition on wing to the second or third line depending on what Carlyle does with match-ups.
As for goaltenders James Reimer and Ben Scrivens, while looking OK at practice, fans and coaches will have to cross their fingers they’ll bring their A-game every single night or the Leafs will be in deep trouble before Valentine’s Day. Or until Dave Nonis pulls the trigger on Roberto Luongo.
Stay tuned. The fun’s just beginning.