Bright Lights, Big Pressure
by Stephen Knight
The dream of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre will be a lot closer for the team's prospects come next season.
It'll be a short cab ride instead of a cross-country flight. As most Leafs fans know, the team's top farm team, the American Hockey League's St. John's Maple Leafs, will play in Toronto next season under a new name in the one-year-old Ricoh Coliseum on the grounds of Exhibition Place.
"A lot of the guys are excited about it," says Baby Leaf Matt Stajan, who spent last season in the NHL, scoring 14 goals and 27 points in 69 games as a Maple Leafs rookie.
Stajan agrees with the notion of added pressure playing down the street from the big club. "I think so. It might make it a bit easier to move into the media frenzy that Toronto can be, but you always have to be focused, wherever you are," he says. "You have to be consistent and bring your 'A' game each night."
There are several benefits to having the farm team in the same city as the big club. The team will drastically reduce its travel costs as well as encountering fewer logistical problems when facing call-ups due to injury. Coaches, scouts and other team officials will be better able to keep tabs on the progress of players and, of course, the AHL players themselves will encounter the buzz and excitement of playing in one of the National Hockey League's best hockey markets.
"We see this as an opportunity to move our AHL franchise closer to our NHL team, which will enable us to better develop and monitor our young and talented players," Leafs general manager John Ferguson said at the time of the announcement in August. "We're excited to bring Leafs AHL hockey to Toronto, so hockey fans can see our team's future players compete."
But with the excitement of playing in a big-time hockey city also comes the pressure of constant media scrutiny as well as having the big club's coaching staff down the street or in the stands.
"I think it will help development," says Paul Dennis, Player Development Coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs. "They'll be under the microscope more. More pressure means increased anxiety, but it increases their focus. [The farm team next season] may be two minutes down the road, but it could be two years in terms of development."
One of the benefits of having Leafs prospects develop in Newfoundland -- the farm team has been on The Rock since 1991-92 -- is that it is a distant port where players can focus on developing their skills with somewhat fewer distractions than playing in a larger city.
When the Baby Leafs move to Hogtown, it will mark the closest distance between farm team and the blue and white since the AHL's Newmarket Saints played north of the city from 1986 to '91.
"The nice thing is they'll be close to the Leafs and be able to see what it takes to take the next step," says Barry Trapp, Director of Amateur Scouting for the Toronto Maple Leafs. "I think it will give them extra incentive."
Trapp says the media fishbowl and the distractions of big-city life won't be a problem for Leafs prospects.
"All athletes like to read good things about themselves and these young men are all professionals and [media scrutiny] goes with the territory," he says. "A lot of them are used to it from playing with Canada's national junior team so we see it as a positive move."
"[Media pressure] is part of learning your trade," says Baby Leafs coach Doug Shedden. "If you're going to be in the NHL, you have to get used to it."
Fans looking to get a preview of some future Leafs in action or renew the spirit of the Battle of Ontario can catch the St. John's Maple Leafs against the Binghamton Senators, the top farm team of the Ottawa Senators, Dec. 1 and 3 at Air Canada Centre, beginning at 7:30 p.m.
-- Stephen Knight is a Toronto-based writer and editor