Press Box School’idge: Lessons Learned vol. 1


Is it just me, or has the hockey season passed us by far quicker than usual? It seems like I just finished making arrangements for the home opener against Hamilton (which, might I add was a win) and here I am already looking back at the season that was.

It was an absolute blur of call-ups and injuries. The bright young stars that comprised the frat-pack line (Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson and Viktor Stalberg) all found their way up to the Leafs. Carl Gunnarsson, the player I was most keen on going into the season, left the Marlies early on for the big club and never looked back.

Joey MacDonald, James Reimer, Adam Munro and Andrew Engelage were all considered the Marleis #1 goaltender at one point or another. MacDonald joined the Ducks, Munro left for hockey’s Siberia (seriously, he left for the KHL’s HC Sibir team) and Engelage developed his game further with the ECHL’s Reading Royals.

I have witnessed the first professional hockey league goal of several up-and-comers including Philippe Paradis and said goodbye to familiar faces like Jiri Tlusty. Kris Newbury, who still holds many of the Marlies all-time records, returned home only to light the lamp for the bad guys and Justin Pogge showed with a strong winning effort that Toronto would not define his career but rather act as only the beginning.

Since this season has been quite the series of unfortunate events, all of which I tried hard to keep you informed of, I have decided that instead of reviewing season bench marks I would rather share with you the lessons I have learned while becoming acquainted with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. Lessons that I would not have picked up on from listening to John Bartlett on The Fan 590, watching the two I-swear-they’re-still-in-high-school hosts on Rogers Tv or even attending the game in person.

So here it is, this is what I am taking away from a losing season. My lessons learned while spending time in the stands, the back offices, press box, behind the bench and eventually in the locker room.

Hockey’s a Business, Not a Relationship

I knew this. I have heard players talk about it when they see old friends leave the team or after they duke it out with a new foe. But here lies the crucial difference between knowing something and experiencing it first hand.

If you have followed my tweets, blogs or video blogs throughout the year, you will know that in the height of the Marlies goaltending issues I was pulling for Munro. Early in the season after the Leafs called up MacDonald (and later Reimer), Munro received a Pro Try-Out (PTO) contract with the Marlies allowing them to use his services without making any long term commitments (it is the “friends with benefits” principle put to work in the hockey world).

Munro left it all on the ice. And after MacDonald’s return and Reimer’s injury, Adam steadily outplayed Joey Mac. Munny was great with the media, took time to greet and speak with fans, and wanted nothing more than to stay in the blue-and-white.

Time dragged on, no contract offer. Even more time dragged on, still no contract offer – instead just extension after extension of his PTO. Much like the girl in the “friends with benefits” scenario often does, Adam realized he deserved better – he packed his things for Siberia and joined the KHL.

Hockey is not a relationship. And though he might be a “good guy,” the Marlies have business to take care of. Up first is winning, followed closely by developing top Maple Leafs talent.

I did not like it when it happened, but I had to learn ‘don’t take it personally, it’s just business.’

You Are Only as Good as Your Fans

It is surprising that within a city that deifies the blue-and-white, immortalizes past captains and religiously fills the Air Canada temple – the Toronto Marlies are among the bottom third in attendance in the AHL.

The same fans who shrieked when members of the frat pack departed the Leafs after training camp, could not find the $10 to spend in order to see them play at the Ricoh.

Is it really that big of a stretch to think an energetic crowd creates a forum in which the players yearn to overextend themselves, a place that they know they will be greatly rewarded for their accomplishments but also widely exposed for their failures? The proof is there; during the school day games, the nationally broadcasted tilt versus Abbotsford and the highly attended bouts with the Bulldogs, the Marlies came out ready to play and more often than not left the rink with a win.

And it is not just Toronto. When you peer at the league’s stat sheet, the top three most attended teams (Hershey, Manitoba and Chicago) all made the playoffs with two of them leading their division. Conversely, two of the bottom three teams in attendance (Springfield, Binghamton and Lowell) completely missed the playoffs, Springfield placing last in the league with only 66pts.

Toronto’s AHL organization cannot expect lasting success on the ice before creating a pattern of success in the stands.

Leadership is the Most Underrated Attribute in Hockey

We live in a sports world where the media dissects every quantifiable attribute a player possesses. Originally it was simply height, weight and wing span. Now we are indulged with lengthy reports regarding the rate at which oxygen is absorbed into a player’s blood stream. But what is never recorded on any stat sheet is a player’s ability to lead his team through adversity.

It was not until this season that I realized how influential it is to a team to have one man in the dressing room step up and declare that he is willing to take the weight of the game, the road trip, and ultimately the playoffs, on his shoulders.

For the Marlies, Ben Ondrus is the man. He will fight to be shifted as often as possible, part of every power play, every penalty kill, in every do-or-die situation. But even Big-Ben experiences injury, and during his absence the Ricoh regulars watched as a new leader arose.

Hamilton became that name everyone recognized. I watched as a fan shelled out hundreds of dollars for a game worn Hamilton practice jersey, and on a separate occasion listened as another predicted Ryan would score a hat-trick.

By the end of the regular season Hamilton led the team in goals, was among the top five in both assists and points, and could consistently be found on the ice during a game’s final minute of play.

Don’t talk to Hamilton about adversity. He missed 33 games caused by a surgical procedure to correct an irregular heart beat. Ryan became the heartbeat of the Marlies and when he was on, the team was hot.

Leadership can not be predetermined, it can not be measured, and it is rarely ever commented on – but it alone can trump the opposition’s overall skill, speed and agility.

All for One and One for All

The Three Musketeers will forever be one of my favourite tales; I even have an early print on display in my place. It delights us with the moral that a few with pure intentions will defeat an army of those with a crooked motive. Toronto Marlies = The Twenty-Three Musketeers, well… minus the muskets.

To help explain I will bring you back to my highlight game of the season, November 27th versus Binghamton. Late in the 2nd rookie goaltender James Reimer leaves his net to retrieve a slow moving puck and is greeted not by incidental player contact, but by an all out walloping from the Sens forward. It was a high hit sending Reimer crumpling to the ice and eventually leaving him out of the line-up for ten weeks. As he lay on the ice, Oreskovic metes out his own form of justice against his teammate’s attacker – the mitts are dropped and the haymaking commences. All the while (albeit a span of only a few short seconds) a Bingo forward realizes the whistle has not been blown and pops the loose puck in an empty net. To the dismay of a screaming coach Eakins, the refs announce that the goal stands (which still to this day does not make a lick of sense).

Hockey players have a special way of coming together as a group for a fallen teammate, and revenge is always sweetest best when dished out on the scoreboard.

Marlies enter the third period, down two goals and missing Reimer. Stalberg leads the pack with a quick talley, and the team follows suit with two more soon after. The Ricoh was alive, expressions of excitement creating the theme song to victory. A third frame that could have been disastrous ended up not only bringing the boys together, but also bonding the crowd with the bench.

The Marlies won 5-4 in regulation, and though nursing a high ankle sprain, Reimer was all smiles as he limped out of the dressing room knowing full well that the win was for him.

Players have Feelings Too

It often seems like the media will ask the most atrocious questions in hopes of brow beating the player into a Tortorella worthy reaction. Since when did this approach become responsible or accepted journalism?

“So you didn’t know your elbow came up and hit him in the head?”

Need I say more?

This season I decided to take a non standard approach, you know, one with a little integrity. This is how it worked out for me.

As the final minutes wound down in the game versus Binghamton mentioned earlier, I made my way to the area surrounding the dressing room and was met by a brash welcome by the Marlies media rep. He took a stand similar to the NHL’s boring “won’t confirm, won’t deny” policy in regards to Reimer’s injury and quickly ushered me aside. But as the players slowly filed out, James Reimer tossed me a smile knowing already that I wanted to talk.

You see during a night a few weeks earlier when Reimer was blasted for five goals, I opted not to ask him the typical “are you disappointed with your effort” question, and evidently James remembered.

Aside from team doctors and probably the coach, I believe I was the first to know the details of the injury and the expected six week recovery. The Fan590 reported that ‘more tests would be conducted in the morning.’

Through the season many of the guys in the dressing room offered honest sentiments in regards to their game play, their opponents and their place in the standings and never once did I need to change my approach.

So though I may not be a Berger or a Brooks in terms of my level of reporting, at least I am neither a Berger nor a Brooks with the players – and I think that counts for something.

It has been an incredible season. I experienced a lot and learned even more. I am appreciative to the members of the Toronto Marlies and MLSE for the access that was granted. I will be spending the summer updating the Leafs prospect reports as they pertain to the Marlies.

Stay healthy, keep in touch, and I’ll see you on the links.