Hours before the Growlers lace up to take on the Florida Everblades in game three of the Kelly Cup Eastern Conference Final, Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas fields questions from the assembled media at Mile One Centre.
It’s a rink and a province he’s grown accustomed to from his days shaping the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, who as of press time are undefeated as they roar head on to the Calder Cup.
“It’s awesome,” Dubas says of Newfoundland and the thriving hockey scene here. “The hockey culture, the fans, are very very passionate and there seems to be a very passionate Leafs following that I’ve experienced...they tell you how long they’ve been a Leafs fans and that they’re with you and they’re positive. And I think that’s a very unique thing for our players as well and a positive for our players. And you know the culture of the city is spectacular. People are so friendly and so positive and energetic and it’s a lovely lovely place to be. It’s always fun coming to St. John’s.”
The credentials of Dubas are beyond dispute. A graduate of Brock University with a degree in sports management, the 33-year-old cut his teeth with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, working his way through the Leafs system, including playing a key role in the development of the Marlies, who today are a thriving force in the American Hockey League. He was named the 17th General Manager in Leafs history in May of 2018, and immediately implemented a system whereby the organization focused on growth from the top down.
The formula has thus far been fruitful, with the Leafs finishing with a strong 100 points in the 2018-19 season, with the Marlies currently undefeated in the Calder Cup Playoffs and the first year Growlers 5-1 at home during the Kelly Cup Playoffs, finishing their inaugural season atop the North Division.
“I think if you don’t have support from the top down for whatever initiative you’re doing within an organization it’s not going to reach its full potential,” Dubas said, referencing the organization’s support of their new ECHL affiliate.
“And for us this is an important endeavour because we envision this being a very key point of entry for our development people for both players and staff alike. That wouldn’t be possible without support from the very top of our organization and committing the resources to making this work and then the relationship with Glenn and Dean and ownership. So it’s vital for us that we’re all aligned, which we absolutely completely are. And I think you’re seeing the results of that here this year so far. So it’s been great.”
That culture of winning and developing the next crop of Leafs from the ground up begins in earnest here in St. John’s. From hand-picked coaching staff to prospects and cagey veterans to guide them, Dubas voiced his pleasure with the upward trajectory of the Growlers during their inaugural season.
“I think what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to find good players and good people and good staff that have big time potential that we can bring in and develop,” he says. “When you combine all that together, the talent of the people and their character and you support it and you have a vision and the vision is aligned throughout the organization, you start to see the success that the teams can have. It gives the players a chance to showcase themselves longer every year and develop experience going through the spring.
“I think the credit for that has to go to the players, first and foremost, especially in this league where there’s so much change in players day to day and week to week and throughout the season. I think the job that Ryane (Clowe) and John (Snowden) and now John and Daryl Williams have done here has been remarkable, to keep the team playing to the vision of the organization at large and having the players develop. You see the players that then get called up to the Marlies have success and the players to the Marlies to the Leafs have success. That track is the way that we’re trying to build this out and that’s manifested itself and the success of the club and other players here so far.”
Looking ahead to September, and the Leafs are set to kick off training camp here in St. John’s, complete with sold out, rival-sized exhibition game against the Ottawa Senators, bringing the Battle of Ontario to The Rock.
“It’s gonna be awesome,” the GM says with a smile. “I think the atmosphere at the exhibition game will be unlike any other we’ve probably had and so that’s very exciting for us. We’re very much looking forward to it, even the players are excited about it. I think it’s going to have an outstanding impact on the community and a great time for the community and the area here in St. John’s.”