Toronto Maple Leafs Mats Sundin is bundled up during practice at a newly refurbished outdoor hockey rink. (CP PHOTO/Aaron Harris)
"It was too bright out there," said the rambunctious right-winger. The NHL team's annual outdoor practice was held amid difficult conditions with gusting winds driving the chill factor into the -20s, a brief snow squall and a glaring sun. Head coach Paul Maurice ordered his men off the ice after 45 minutes.
The 250 children who got an hour out of school to bundle up against the cold loved every minute of it, and the players did, too. It was a refreshing break from routine for the Leafs before they resume their pursuit of the eighth and final NHL playoff berth with a home game against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night.
"Those are true, young Leafs fans who don't get the opportunity to be in Air Canada Centre for our games," Tucker said of the adoring throng decked out in white Leafs T-shirts with the club emblem in blue on the front and "Fan 1" on the back. "All they care about are the Toronto Maple Leafs - not how many goals you've scored.
"It's a special feeling being in an atmosphere like that."
It reminded Tucker of his boyhood days on Alberta ponds.
"As players, we're spoiled by the facilities we get to use in the NHL," said Tucker. "This brings things back to your roots."
Tucker made a surprise return to the lineup Saturday, when the visiting Buffalo Sabres beat the Leafs 3-1. He hadn't played since Jan. 1 because of hairline fractures in his left foot, but he's ready to go now.
Teammate Tomas Kaberle is not. The Czech defenceman, considered by many to be Toronto's most valuable player this season, suffered a concussion in that late hit to the head from New Jersey's Cam Janssen last Friday.
"He's not responded as well as we'd hoped for but he hasn't regressed either," said GM John Ferguson. "It's still a little early to tell how long he'll be out but we're hoping he'll be back within a week or 10 days."
Pavel Kubina skated Monday but the defenceman's broken finger doesn't allow him to properly grip his stick so he's doubtful for Tuesday. He could be back for the home-and-home weekend set with Ottawa.
Centre Kyle Wellwood's recuperation from hernia surgery is going well and "he could be back in the next two or three weeks," said Ferguson.
Centre Mike Peca, who broke a leg in December, has vowed to return before the last schedule game, but Ferguson doesn't think that's possible.
"Our expectation is that he won't be back before the end of the regular season but would be ready for the first round of the playoffs," said Ferguson.
The Leafs have lost more man-games to injuries than most other NHL teams and the figure is "well over 250" according to Ferguson's math.
"We are very pleased with the play of those who have stepped into the breach," he said.
The practice was held at a west-end Toronto facility that has been refurbished as part of a legacy program established last year by the team and Home Depot. The players wore hoods under their helmets that could be pulled up to cover the chin, mouth and nose. They arrived in full equipment on a bus and changed from running shoes into skates at the site.
Children, waving small Maple Leafs flags, began chanting captain Mats Sundin's name during pre-practice ceremonies. When it was over, Nik Antropov gathered pucks to hand to children before leaving the ice, and some of his teammates did the same.
"We have a huge game (Tuesday) and a little break in the routine is all right," Sundin said before getting back on the bus. "It was tough conditions out there with the wind and everything but it's great to come out and meet the fans."
"It was a good way, with the pressure we're under, to have some fun," said Maurice.
They'd love to have more fun by beating the Capitals.
The Leafs have 16 games left, and every one is crucial now.