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Maple Leafs’ outdoor practice shows the lighter side of Toronto’s hockey ecosystem

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Photo credit:Arun Srinivasan/ The Leafs Nation
Arun Srinivasan
17 days ago
Toronto is often characterized as a singularly intense hockey market with legions of fans obsessing over minutiae, scorching players for not living up to their standards, while Scotiabank Arena is often a study in paranoid grandeur.
During a deceptively cold Thursday afternoon, you can witness the lighter side of the city’s hockey ecosystem as the Maple Leafs hold their annual outdoor practice at Nathan Phillips Square. Thousands of children have proudly skipped school to see their favourite players with handmade signs and are utterly disinterested in trade rumours or salary cap permutations. Adults are looking for autographs and what you get is a more earnest portrait of the Maple Leafs’ fan base.
Maple Leafs captain John Tavares revealed the team took the TTC to practice. I asked Tavares if the outdoor practice showed a lighter side of the team’s fervent supporters.
“I think it’s an incredible market to play in,” Tavares said. “You love the game, you play the game at its highest level, a fan base that has so much passion and obviously wants the team to do well so bad. It naturally creates expectation and people want to see us succeed because they love the team so much.
“I think you try to feed off that and enjoy every aspect of it. Days like today, anytime you show up at practice, obviously playing at Scotiabank (Arena) the support we get is remarkable. I don’t see it as any kind of burden, it’s just a remarkable opportunity and never take it for granted.”
It’s only natural to think back to what Mats Sundin said last week, about the weight of playing in Toronto and the privilege of having diehard fans to play in front of. There are clear parallels to Sundin’s answer and in between the rigours of a normal NHL season, it’s clear that Tavares is embodying every bit of what the captaincy means, nearly five years after inhering the coveted ‘C’.
The outdoor showcase was more than just the Maple Leafs. PWHL Toronto, the city’s entry into the Professional Women’s Hockey League holds a skills competition before the Maple Leafs take the ice and for the legion of fans assembled to see Tavares and Co., there is a dedicated wing of fans looking to see Carly Jackson, Blayre Turnbull and the rest of their heroes. The Passion That Unites Us All extends far beyond the reach of the Maple Leafs, it is truly a uniting force amid a fractured political climate.
PWHL Toronto forward Rebecca Leslie embraces the pressure of playing in a hockey-mad town with the team looking to improve upon a 3-5-1 start.
“I think for us, we’ve just embraced the community,” Leslie said. “We’ve had a ton of support from the younger generation of girls at our games. It’s fun to be in a tough community where they just want their teams to do well, so for us, we’re just trying to do the best that we can and our past few games have really shown the type of team we’re going to be this season.”
After the skills competition ends, the Maple Leafs take the ice to raucous cheers. Getting a glimpse of Auston Matthews is the closest thing that shrieking truants will get to Beatlesmania and the 41-goal man himself is far and away the most popular player among the attendees, with John Tavares and Mitch Marner holding a distant second place share. After a brief, truncated skate, players are split into three teams for a modified scrimmage, consisting of four, seven-minute games between Team Ontario, Team Europe and Team North America.
Matthews scores the first goal of the scrimmage while starring for Team Europe — for all intents and purposes, we suppose he’s taking his one-year stint in Switzerland as canon — while J Balvin and Skrillex’s In Da Getto blares over the speakers. William Nylander adds an insurance goal, before Mitch Marner counters for Team Ontario in the dying seconds. Team Europe proceeds to defeat Team North America 2-1, punching its ticket to the final, then Noah Gregor and Nick Robertson help North America eliminate Team Ontario.
Toronto isn’t immune to bleak opportunism and Mayor Olivia Chow greets the crowd to a mixed reaction of tepid applause and outright boos. Chow, wearing a custom No. 23 jersey – in an apparent nod to the year she inherited the mayor’s office, she evidently isn’t a Matthew Knies super fan – panders to the crowd with a contrived story about how she became a hockey fan. Chow takes some photos before departing back to her office. It’s par for the course, especially when a team with such widespread, polarizing support participates in a public space adjacent to City Hall. And now, off to the final!
Nylander races away and gives Team Europe a 1-0 lead and if this were an ordinary game, perhaps you’d see some of the players furiously back-checking but it’s a practice after all, no one wants to get hurt before Saturday’s game against the Ottawa Senators. Team North America pulls its goalie but it’s too late as Arizona native Matthew Knies notches the insurance goal for the victorious Team Europe. It was a dazzling display of skill, even if defense was optional.
Maple Leafs forward Ryan Reaves met with the media after the practice ended. Reaves joked that he hopes Sheldon Keefe was watching as he notched a goal and an assist, before sharing his own appreciation for the fans.
“Hockey is alive and well in Toronto and the support that comes out for a practice like this is unbelievable, something you don’t see in any other city,” Reaves said. “It was great, a lot of kids here, obviously. A lot of fun, a lot of support for a really good event.”
“It’s fun, this is a great event, every time you come here,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said after the practice. “It seems to never fall on a great spot on the schedule. You’d like to get a day off and all that but this is a nice time to come out and see the engagement from the fans, the love and support from the fans, and to get outside and play hockey.”
Matthews, Nylander, Knies and a handful of other players are hounded for autographs as they leave the square, heading out for the weekend. If you want to catch Toronto’s version of The Beatles, you’d better hound the bus! Several players brought their own kids and dogs onto the ice and out of respect for their privacy, we’re not going to name them. In a hockey-mad market, it’s the least we could do.
Toronto is the world’s largest and most passionate hockey market and sometimes, that passion manifests itself into trade proposals, venomous rants against the star players and suspended rage. And yet, during a freezing Thursday afternoon, the city has come alive to see the PWHL Toronto and the Maple Leafs, a portrait of the lighter side of Toronto’s hockey ecosystem.

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