Day Two of Toronto Maple Leafs Training Camp in beautiful Paradise, Newfoundland and Labrador really kicked off in the wee hours of Day One with the Leafs announcing that prized winger Mitch Marner has signed his contract for the 2019-20 NHL season and is en route to Paradise.
So needless to say, when I arrived at the Paradise Double Ice Complex bright and early on Saturday morning, the buzz was REAL.
With reports that Mitch and Day One absentee John Tavares (his wife had a baby just days before – congrats Tavares family!) would be arriving on the Rock on Saturday, the morning line stretched as far as the eye could see as fans bought into the excitement brought on by the exciting news.
While Marner and Tavares didn’t arrive until later in the day and missed the on-ice sessions, fans enjoyed another great day of hockey, autographs and rink fries. (Side note – hockey arena’s always seem to have the world’s best gravy.)
While the national hockey media clamoured to file stories about the Leafs’ newest signee, I was on the hunt to speak to some former Growlers remaining at camp.
The first guy on my list to speak with was Kelly Cup Finals Game Six hero Giorgio Estephan.
I made my way to the media availability tent (yes – tent. The media area is outside and it’s great!) and watched politely as the wonderful Leafs PR staff shuffled players out to the waiting media.
I watched Jason Spezza catch up with some reporters he hadn’t seen in a while. Goaltender Michael Neuvirth, on a try-out contract at Leafs camp, shared his camp experience with a handful of writers and seemed pleased with the weather, which he was told could by abysmal. All the while, a group of players who were preparing to take the ice came outside en masse to play soccer and warm up.
I poked fun at Hudson Elynuik for not lasting long in his game of two-touch, even though he insisted he wasn’t even playing. Sure, Hudson.
All of the above took place over an hour-long stretch. All other media had recorded their quotes and had already moved back inside to the media centre to file their stories.
But where was Gio?
The Leafs PR staff chucked with me and assured me he was coming.
Sure enough, ten minutes later, a smiling Estephan emerged from inside, sporting a smile and a pretty nice t-shirt with a fancy floral pattern on the pocket.
I rolled my eyes at him and playfully ribbed him for making me wait.
“Bals, c’mon. I was watching scrimmage.”
We caught up about his summer, his day in Edmonton with the Kelly Cup, his first two days of camp and his expectations for the upcoming season.
As our interview concluded and he hopped into an idling SUV waiting to return him and his posse to the team hotel, my eyes caught a peculiar glimpse of blue perched right in the middle of a rolling green hill just outside the Leafs training camp compound.
A group of three or four fans, presumed to be unlucky ones who weren’t able to secure tickets to the day’s festivities, decided to make the best of their situation and set up lawn chairs and settled in to watch from a distance – pretty savvy if you ask me.
Content to watch from afar, this small but passionate group cheered for every group of tracksuit-laden Leafs to emerge through the back doors, proving that Leaf fans on the Rock truly bleed blue and white. It was so cool to see that passion.
I returned inside and began my search for another Growler – the officer himself, defenseman Alex Gudbranson.
I was surprised to see him absent from his on-ice session in the morning and sought out to find him. The ever-helpful Leafs PR crew informed me that due to a (hopefully minor) injury, he did not skate and was therefore unavailable to the media.
Disappointed but understanding of the situation, I began to head back to the media centre to start in on this very blog. As I walked through the concourse, my strides were halted by a huge band of fans, clamouring around a player signing autographs.
I craned my neck, expecting to see one of the Leafs’ many all-stars scrawling their names onto a sea of jerseys.
Instead, it was our boy Gudbranson, happily signing away and chatting with everyone within earshot.
It would have been easy for him to have slipped out the back and returned to the hotel early, but instead he stood there FOREVER and signed for literally everybody who asked. I love to see guys connecting with the fans the way that he did and I can tell you, he made a lot of people very happy.
And I have to say, it was the fans who made me the happiest on Day Two. In a building full of some of the best hockey players in the world, I’ve never had more people stop me in the hallway to say hello, say they like watching and listening to Growler games and chat about the Growlers’ upcoming season and recent success.
One young man even stopped and asked for a photo with me, stating he was getting photos with all of the ‘media celebrities’ in attendance. I asked him if he knew the definition of the world celebrity as I happily leaned in for a selfie.
That’s been the best part for me over my first two days at Leafs camp – the fans. Watching kids and kids-at-heart alike staring joyfully at their autographed jerseys will never stop filling me with glee. Hearing an older gentlemen marvel at watching Hayley Wickenheiser run through drills was one of the coolest thing ever.
All of that makes me even more excited for tomorrow, when the Leafs are hosting a Community BBQ for fans in the parking lot of the Double Ice Complex. If tomorrow is anything at all like the first two days, I think a lot more fans, and in turn myself, are in for another day full of memories, laughs and hockey on Sunday.
Is it tomorrow yet?