It was Tuesday and I had just arrived home from the morning skate before the Toronto Maple Leafs hosted the Florida Panthers later that night. My buddy was on the phone and he asked who I thought would win.
Â“Panthers,Â” I told him. Â“I'm gonna say 4-1.Â”
I wound up being right. After the first 20:28. (Florida went on to demolish Toronto 7-3.)
Lucky guess? Probably. But I'd like to think some of it had to do with the same reason I gave my buddy before the game: The hometown factor.
You see, nine Panthers were born in Ontario, tying Florida with two other teams (Los Angeles and, surprise-surprise, the Leafs) for first in the league in that department. And it's no coincidence players who grew up gazing at Maple Leaf Gardens ice suddenly find that mysterious Â“extra gearÂ” whenever they return. (That gear disappearing, of course, upon their signing to wear the Blue and White.)
Gregory Campbell, Chris Gratton, Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss, Gary Roberts, Bryan Allen, Ric Jackman, Mike Van Ryn and Alex Auld all hail from the province and coach Jacques Martin appealed Â– successfully, as it turned out Â– to their softer side in the days leading up to the game. Martin gave them nearly three full days to spend with family and friends in Toronto, flying in Saturday night immediately after they doubled up Boston 6-3. He gave them a full day off Sunday. He delivered the gift the league's schedule-maker made for them.
This was a rested and happy Panthers team, intent on leaving their families and friends with the best possible result during a magical time of year. Looking back, I should've bet the non-mortgaged part of the house they were going to win.
Â“Everyone gets excited to come here Â– especially at Christmas time,Â” said Panthers blueliner Bryan Allen before the game. Â“My family isn't coming down (to Florida) this year, so this is my chance to see them and hang out with them. It's definitely exciting.Â”
His teammates agreed.
Â“We've been here the last two days, and we've been kind of spoiled,Â” said center Gregory Campbell. Â“We had a day off on Sunday and guys got to go home and visit their families. We play so much in the NHL and not a lot of guys get the chance to spend a great deal of time with their families.
Â“The guys who are from here are very fortunate and we all look forward to coming back. I'm sure everyone who is from the area and who grew up a Leaf fan is really excited to come here and play them.Â”
Returning home in late December is especially significant for the team's local players, including Gratton, the 12-year league veteran from Brantford, Ont.
Â“Christmas time is a great time of year, especially in the NHL and in Canada,Â” Gratton said. Â“There's a lot of hockey played, including the World Junior Championship, and it's just a special time. Until you come back to Canada, you don't realize how huge hockey really is. And the guys are enjoying it.Â”
For a team that even after the victory over the Leafs had just a .333 winning percentage in its first 36 games, the Panthers were in a noticeably lighter mood, which Gratton said was a direct result of the city they were visiting.
Â“When you come back to Toronto, there's always some extra joking around,Â” he said. Â“Who played against who in minor hockey and junior hockey, who was the best team. It's just a hockey environment and it's fun for us to be around that.Â”
With so many mini-entourages to look after, tickets aren't easy to come by for the players. But union types reading this story will be happy to know the tickets the Panthers do get are split up the old-fashioned way.
Â“The guys who've been around the league a little longer usually get the first shot at tickets,Â” Campbell said. Â“So there's a battle in our room to see who gets them. But it's always nice to come out of the (dressing) room and see the families. An exciting atmosphere, for sure.Â”
That exciting atmosphere usually comes to a post-game climax, long after the grand majority of attendees have gone, in a corner of the arena where friends and family wait for the players to meet them.
When I'm sitting in the press box typing up game reports, I like to glance across the and watch the interactions that take place there. The visitors usually are subdued if the Leafs won the game, quietly shaking hands and taking a few solemn pictures with the NHLers; but if the home crowd goes unhappy, it can be near-delirium for some of the guys, with everyone wearing grins as wide as Garth Snow's old goalie pads.
In this moment lies the crux of this microcosm of extra effort. NHLers know all to well the sacrifices made to create an NHLer from scratch. It should be no wonder they strive that extra bit harder to impress the ones who sacrificed for them.
Â“They are the people who supported us throughout our careers,Â” Campbell said. Â“For them to be able to come to Toronto, the Mecca of hockey, and watch us play, well, I know my family is excited and I'm sure everyone else's is as well. It makes you want to play well for them.Â”
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