TORONTO - Wayne Gretzky was breaking the hearts of Maple Leafs fans at the same he was inspiring one of the team's future players.
The Great One was the star of a memorable seven-game series in 1993 as the Los Angeles Kings got past Toronto and advanced to the Stanley Cup.
It was a time when interest in the game was growing in California and Robbie Earl was just getting started in organized hockey near Los Angeles.
Earl was raised by grandparents who had previously lived in Toronto and exposed him to hockey at a young age. But Gretzky's presence also played a part in developing his interest.
"It definitely blew up when he went there," Earl said Tuesday before playing his second NHL game for the Maple Leafs. "I'm sure that was the reason why he went there and it obviously helped.
"It had an effect on anybody who wasn't into hockey. Obviously, a lot of people in California back in the day weren't that huge into hockey. When Gretzky went there it was huge. I had my own introduction because of my family but it was definitely a big impact that Gretzky was in California."
Earl became hooked on the game almost immediately and decided to leave his home in California at the age of 14 to pursue his dream of playing the sport professionally. He spent time with the Penticton Panthers of the British Columbia Hockey League before joining the U.S. national junior program in Ann Arbor, Mich.
It was there that he first played under coach Mike Eaves, who later coached him for three seasons at the University of Wisconsin. He's one of the men Earl credits most for helping him reach the NHL.
"Americans don't have the luxury of what Canadian kids have, obviously to grow up in such a hockey hotbed," said Earl. "Every step of the way, I've had great coaches, great development, great people guiding me."
The onus will largely be on Earl to determine where he goes from here.
The 22-year-old forward got into his first NHL game on Saturday against Ottawa and provided a spark, creating several scoring chances and registering an assist on Carlo Colaiacovo's winning goal. He was singled out by Don Cherry on his "Coach's Corner" segment during the first intermission and by several of his teammates after the game.
Earl only found himself in the Maple Leafs lineup after the team had several forwards go down with injuries. As those players start returning from the injured list in the coming weeks, he'll likely find himself back in the American Hockey League unless he can convince coach Paul Maurice that he belongs in the NHL.
That won't be easy. Maurice believes that it takes players roughly 100 games to establish their place.
"There's a period of time where it's all adrenaline and you are very, very happy doing the simplest things you possibly can on the ice," said Maurice, adding that young players often experience a drop off after a couple weeks.
Those guys must show the organization that they can sustain their energy level and performance over time.
"Before we assess that they're here and they're going to be great players or important parts, it takes at least a year before you get a sense," said Maurice.
Earl understands that it won't be easy, which is only fitting because it's never been that way.
He wasn't selected until the sixth round of the 2004 NHL draft and felt that teams were underestimating his potential by letting him fall so far. After leading the Badgers to the Frozen Four title in 2006, he turned pro and had to develop into a more defensively aware player at the AHL level to get a chance with the Maple Leafs.
Now that he's wearing an NHL jersey, Earl is ready to keep working.
"It becomes a grind and it becomes hard work," he said. "But I don't ever see it becoming a chore."
It is, after all, the only thing he's ever hoped to do.
"I've always wanted to play in the NHL since I was a little guy watching Gretzky and Tony Granato and all them," said Earl.