A few weeks ago, the Leafs opened their 2019 training camp with a visit to St. John’s, Newfoundland. The players, team staff, and a contingent of media personalities descended on our small city, and by all accounts from those involved and the many other fellow fans I spoke with, it was a fun and productive weekend, capped off by a less-than-stellar performance in the team’s first preseason match against Ottawa. I was lucky enough to attend open practice all three days, scout some prospects, meet some members of the media and team staff, and attend other events throughout the weekend, and the entire experience was nothing short of amazing.
Before we begin, I just want to touch on a personal thing that will hopefully contextualize some statements coming later. For the past several years, I’ve dealt with bouts of depression, anxiety, and a general feeling of aimlessness in my life, despite having goals and dreams, they always seemed just out of reach. This year had been particularly miserable for that, several personal and professional setbacks that put me into a very dark place and even caused me to lose my love of hockey for a while. The story that follows is not just a simple scouting report from a hockey training camp or just a commentary on what the fan experience is like at an event such as this. Instead, it is the story of how one weekend reinvigorated my passion for the sport of hockey and quite possibly saved my life in the process. So, without further ado, here’s my story of life inside an NHL training camp.
After a restless night and an early wake-up, I didn’t think I’d make it to the opening practice sessions. I’d read on Twitter that some fans had started lining up overnight, and the first impression I got while browsing that morning was that the line seemed close to full (the rink in Paradise has a maximum capacity of 1500 or so). Then I saw this tweet:
Immediately, I jumped out of bed and drove to the Paradise Double Ice Complex. I was joined by a friend in line, we got our tickets and just after 9:40 am, we entered the building, grabbed a coffee, and found a place along the boards to watch the early practice session on Rink 2. Up first was Team Salming, which was probably the most interesting of the three practice groups, boasting notable guaranteed NHL players like Matthews, Nylander, Johnsson, Muzzin and Barrie, as well as many fringe players and notable prospects.
After a warm-up and some quick line rush drills, the group moved across to Rink 1, the larger of the two in terms of spectator space, where the full practice began. Once their time on the ice concluded at 11 am, focus shifted again to the other rink, where Team Clancy (Kapanen, Sandin, Andersen among the most notable inclusions here) had a practice scheduled before taking part in the day’s scrimmage. While grabbing some lunch at the in-arena cafe I ran into and got to have a brief conversation with, Chris Johnston of Sportsnet, which was a highlight of the day for me. Team Clancy and the third squad, Team Bailey (Players of note include Rielly, Ceci, Spezza, Kerfoot and Moore) took part in the scrimmage to finish off day one.
I realized as I was leaving the practice facility that despite the lack of sleep, and the aforementioned rough times in my personal life, the day was the most fun I’d had in a long time. My problems completely melted away for a few hours and I felt genuinely happy for the first time in months. One thing was certain, I had to come back tomorrow.
The second morning, I was up bright and early, I was determined to be there the entire day, and despite arriving at the arena several hours early, I nearly didn’t get in. I believe I got the last available ticket. Keep in mind, this was Saturday, so kids and adults alike were free to spend the day inside a chilly rink. That, plus the Marner news breaking the night before meant that it was a popular destination that morning. Practice for the Matthews squad had already begun by the time I got inside and settled away.
The actual on-ice product was much the same as the previous day, the groups came out one by one, ran drills and line rushes, some special teams work was put in, and a scrimmage between the Matthews and Kapanen groups. While I was invested in watching every minute I could, I mostly spent that day conversing with fellow fans and any members of the media who had a minute. I left the facility that afternoon with the same feeling of happiness, and the beginnings of a plan formulating in my head for the next day, as well as the days ahead.
As I took my place in line, further back than either of the previous days, I was thankfully told by both a friend who was ahead of me and by a team staff member that they were determined to get everyone in line inside the building for the final day of open practice. I breathed a sigh of relief and looked forward to getting inside and picking up some breakfast at the cafe. The proceedings went similarly to the past two mornings, though this time there was an air of excitement among both the fans and a group of media members that I found myself standing among. The reason for the excitement? Mitch Marner and John Tavares were about to take to the ice for the first time.
Again, a similar schedule to the previous days. the individual groups practised one by one, two of them had a scrimmage and there were opportunities throughout the day to get autographs or pictures with various members of the team as they moved throughout the facility. I’ve never been much of an autograph guy, so I neglected to ask on the few opportunities I got. I did, however, get several pictures, including one with Kyle Dubas himself after a brief conversation that I extremely appreciated.
Following practice on the final day, the team hosted a community barbecue and rally for the fans just outside the rink. I only stuck around for a while because it had already been a long day, and I had plans that evening to attend a live podcast recording hosted by James Mirtle and Jonas Siegel of The Athletic. It’s only been a few months since I decided to start writing and pursue a career in sports journalism, so this event was the icing on the cake, another opportunity to speak with respected members of the media and ask them advice about how to go about making this dream a reality. All in all, it was a perfect end to a fantastic weekend.
The drive to pursue a career in sports journalism is one that is still fairly new to me. However, during those few short days at camp, I felt like my entire life had suddenly come into focus, that I’ve found a place where I truly belong. More than anything I’ve attempted in my life, I finally feel like I know what I’m meant to do for the rest of my life, and that’s just a great feeling. So in conclusion, I just want to send out a sincere thank you to everyone I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with over the course of those three amazing days, special mention to Chris Johnston, Jonas Siegel, Mark Masters, James Mirtle, and Kyle Dubas, as well as the entire Toronto Maple Leafs organization. Through your kind words and actions, you’ve inspired me to keep going when times get tough, helped refuel my love of the game, and lit a fire within me to chase my dream, a flame that won’t be easily extinguished. Thank you again, and I’ll see you all for Training Camp 2020.