Old met new in Toronto this weekend. Friends and former teammates reunited, joined by their children and grand children. Tens of thousands of fans gathered in the cold to celebrate 100 years of NHL hockey alongside The Great One.
“It’s going to take a few years for all of it to sink in,” Dave Keon, fresh off being named as one of the 100 greatest players in NHL history, said. “The last three months have been pretty overwhelming for me — October (when he was named greatest Leaf) and this weekend. I’m thrilled that I was chosen and it’s a great honour.”
“I still think, I know, that the greatest fans are here,” Johnny Bower echoed of the overwhelming experience. “You’ll have your days where you get booed, I got booed when I had a few goals go in — but I blamed my defensemen for that.”
The weekend was less about the game and more about the event, the spectacle, and the history.
But then there was hockey to be played. Hockey with real consequences in the here and the now. And the alumni knew Toronto needs to do more focussing on that kind of hockey.
“In Toronto, I played here for a while and we had some success and people all remember that,” Keon said of his legacy.
This week, the alumni were able to deliver a message to the team that encouraged them to build, without settling.
“The young players now have to improve and keep improving,” Keon said. “In the next year or two years into the draft and some of the players that they have in the minors: develop them, develop an attitude of competing and not sitting back after having a little success. I think that’s counterproductive, you have to keep pushing. Some of the young players are playing very, very well and I hope they keep it up.”
Head coach Mike Babcock knows the team needs to focus more on success and less on everything else in Toronto, too.
“We've been building this up for three days, so we've got a bunch of kids on our team,” Babcock said. “We have aspirations to be a really good team in the National Hockey League, one that in the summer you know you're going to make the Playoffs. That's not where we're at right now, but we're a work in progress. We like the direction we're going.”
Oftentimes, the team’s youth shows.
“Part of it's because they're all such little kids,” Babcock said in his post-game press conference. “On the way out to the ice tonight, I don't know if you saw those little guys playing in the Tim Hortons game. Some of them thought they were supposed to be in that. It's a young group. I mean, they're going to grow up here together.”
On Sunday, after a slow start and a performance from Bryan Adams below the lights of Exhibition Stadium as part of the theatre, Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha scored a real life goal, one that gave the Detroit Red Wings a real life lead.
The rink, built inside the number ‘100’, was matched by a fan village, rife with branded attractions, just outside the gates.
Inside the Leafs dressing room, TV crews worked to capture the fourth and final episode of a month-long ‘Road to the Outdoor Classics’ show that aimed to build towards the game.
But on the ice the Leafs generated little early. On their best early powerplay opportunity, Mitch Marner came into the play too quickly off the bench to negate the man-advantage with too many men.
The team’s momentum, born out of a four-game win streak, was fading.
It wasn’t until Leo Komarov redirected a Jake Gardiner pass in to tie the game that the Leafs got going in front of the 40,148 fans at Exhibition Stadium, quickly adding goals from Marner and Connor Brown.
Then it was Auston Matthews’ turn, picking up his 19th goal of the season on a pass from Connor Brown.
And with a little more than seven minutes left, and a 4-1 lead, the game was over.
Until it wasn't... and the Leafs blew another in a growing list of blown third period leads, collapsing in the defensive zone as the Wings stormed back with three unanswered goals before Matthews (again) could play hero in overtime to preserve a Leafs win.
After it all, it was the win that mattered.
Out of the weekend, the Leafs picked up their fifth consecutive victory to move past the Boston Bruins in points percentage (1.14 points per game) into eighth in the Eastern Conference and 14th in the NHL.
In that third period, rather than turn to the usual shutdown veterans like Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov, Babcock decided to give Matthews’ line an opportunity.
“They (Matthews’ line) got two goals in the third. I'm giving them a chance to shut out the game,” Babcock said. “Why don't I just put the veteran guys out, because they've got to learn. We had an opportunity here in a big game and we gave them that opportunity.”
Matthews and Marner, despite their Sunday afternoon offensive exploits, have started to learn just how tough it is, as Keon said, to not settle.
“I think it's just part of the whole learning process with such a young team,” Matthews said after scoring one of the biggest goals of his young career in overtime, a moment he called one of the best experiences he’d had in hockey.
The game wasn’t about the big finishing play though. Babcock was hesitant to praise his young star because of the success Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg had against Matthews’ line, picking up three points.
And the 19-year-old rookie understands he’s still got a lot of work to do.
“It's really no excuse, but we don't want to find ourselves in that position much more here,” Matthews said. “Regardless, you don't really want to be in that position that we were in.”
Marner, too, has learned much the hard way this season.
“Obviously giving up leads in the third is not what we want to do, but I think now we're learning how to win those games, and teams come back on us, so that's important,” he said. “But we've got to stop getting in the habit of that.”
Unlike team’s of year’s past, though, Morgan Rielly thinks these Leafs will learn from their mistakes.
“This is different than anything I’ve gone through,” Rielly said. “We have a ton of confidence with the people that we have here and we’re a closer group than I’ve ever seen. That might be because of the age but it’s a great feeling going on right now.
We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure that we keep it going.”
Brown, too, recognizes the problem.
“They score with a second left but we shouldn't have been in that position,” Brown, who said the Leafs have been better at protecting leads of late, added.
Zach Hyman thinks the Leafs, by coming back in the second period while down a goal, are making progress. That’s something they haven’t been able to do, he said. But while the clichéd two points were paramount, Hyman insists the spectacle shouldn’t be ignored. He was in the crowd as a Leafs fan just three years ago at The Big House for the 2014 Winter Classic. To be in an outdoor game now, win or lose, is unforgettable.
“It was a lot colder at The Big House, I’ll tell you that. I remember my toes were frozen just watching the game as a fan,” he said. “It’s wild. Something popped up on Facebook from three years ago with the picture of me at The Big House. Who would have thought? I wasn’t even with the Leafs then, I was with Florida. It’s surreal. It’s hard to put into words.”
Frederik Andersen, who gave up four goals for the first time in 16 games, just wants to hold onto the feeling — the one of victory on a big stage.
“That’s why you play. You want to get the win. That’s been the most fun,” he said. “We’re definitely building something good here.”
Now it’s just a matter of staying good.