The Town of Paradise was abuzz on Friday as the Toronto Maple Leafs rolled into town to kick off Day One of their on-ice activities for 2019 Training Camp.
When I rolled into the parking lot at the Paradise Double Ice Complex at 7:00AM to begin my day, I was surprised (not really) to see hundreds of fans lined up outside, some who have been there camped out for hours, to get their hands on the hottest ticket in Newfoundland and Labrador.
After assisting the Leafs’ media team and volunteers with setting up the media room, I was left to my own devices for a short period before the doors opened to the public. I took the opportunity to explore the newly transformed rink in Paradise, and oh man, the Leafs, Paradise town staff and other officials did a fine job transforming the arena into Leafs Headquarters – Rock Edition. Everything was organized to a tee; the floors were perfectly spotless, the ice was crisp and firm and beautiful signage was draped on every wall and surface.
As I was walking to grab my umpteenth cup of coffee of the morning, I caught eyes with a familiar face many Leaf fans will recognize.
Paul Hendrick of the Leafs on-air media team called me over to say hello, leaving me, frankly, shocked. I had met Paul briefly during the IceCaps’ run to the Calder Cup Finals in 2014 when LeafsTV came to St. John’s.
He was as warm and friendly as I remembered and shockingly to me, he remembered every detail of our previous encounter and some details of my career path since we had last chatted. It was very easy to see how he has become one of the most respected on-air personalities in the business. It was wonderful to exchange pleasantries, even for a few short moments.
As our chat concluded, Leafs players began to trickle into the concourse, eventually ending up in the upper level to get the heart pounding before taking to the ice for the first on-ice session of the day.
That’s when I heard a scream from across the arena.
2018-19 Growlers’ defenseman Kristians Rubins, with a smile on his face as big as it was on June 4, bear hugged me, nearly tackling me to the floor. Behind him were a handful of other Growlers, including Scott Pooley and Matt Bradley, all expressing the same sentiment – that they were pumped to be back on the Rock.
As I dusted myself off and finished our quick exchange, it was time to take in the first on-ice sessions.
As the doors opened and fans starting pouring in as a blur of blue and white, I split away from the crowd into the lesser populated of the two ice surfaces at the aptly-named Double Ice Complex.
On this sheet was an army of blue and white coaches tracksuits and all of the goaltenders in the Leafs organization, from rookies all the way to Frederik Anderson.
In one of those blue jumpsuits was Growlers head coach John Snowden firing pucks against Anderson. I chuckled as he fanned on his first one and smirked before following up with a nice crisp shot that eluded Anderson.
I took some photos and grabbed a few clips of video before fighting the crowd back to Rink B, where the first full practice group was taking to the ice.
This group was popular for many reasons. A handful of former Growlers, including Kelly Cup playoff MVP and local boy Zach O’Brien, diminutive speedster Semyon Der-Arguchintsev and celly-happy Scott Pooley, paired together for line rushes.
Plus some mustachioed fella named Matthews.
As I bounced around the arena, trying to differ the angles on my photos, that first group was exiting the ice, meaning the first media availability session was soon to begin.
While the masses of national media were focused on Auston Matthews and William Nylander, the wonderful Leafs PR staff were quick to shuffle the former Growlers players directly to me for quick interviews. I call them interviews but really they were short recorded convos of us reliving the glory moments of days gone by and sharing the excitement to have such a great organization like the Leafs back in St.John’s and the serendipity of it all.
I was still smiling from catching up with the likes of the SuperNewfs, Zach O’Brien and Marcus Power, when I had perhaps my most memorable encounter of the day.
I was working on this very blog, gazing over the parking lot, when a larger-than-life presence entered the building.
The voice of hockey in Canada, Bob Cole, decided to pop by to take in the festivities.
Fans were quick to recognize and swarm the Canadian broadcasting icon and myself, in my position as Growlers broadcaster, sheepishly stood among them.
As I assisted fans in his presence with their cell phones as they scrambled to take a photo with their unexpected special guest, I took advantage of a brief moment and introduce myself to Mr. Cole and explained my role with the Growlers and my admiration of his work. He was gracious with his time and thanked me for our chat as I then helped him to his car.
The rest of the day was spent battling the crowds, shuffling between the ice surfaces, trying to catch a glimpse of different Growlers before burying my head in my computer in the media room, trying to blend in with the ‘real media’.
Not to get sappy and/or corny, but Friday truly was a day in Paradise.
I got to catch up with numerous Growlers fans and season ticket holders and share stories from the day and from games gone by. I got to witness one of the best hockey teams in the world strut their stuff in my hometown. I got to catch up with Growlers skaters and gush about our short offseason from winning the Kelly Cup. I got to share this day with my family as my wife and my father were volunteering onsite.
And the best part? I get to do it all again tomorrow. With that in mind, if there is something you want to see or questions you want me to ask or players you want me to talk to, please let me know! I’ll be live-tweeting all week from my personal account on Twitter @GrowlersBallard so be sure to send me a message and I’ll do what I can! Until tomorrow!