It’s been a long wait, but hockey finally returns to us this week in the form of the 2015 Rookie Tournament. With the Maple Leafs taking a “flamethrower to this place” in many respects, they have become a franchise reborn. There is possibly nobody more representative of that rebirth than Toronto’s 4th overall selection in this summer’s NHL Entry Draft, Mitch Marner. As if to script, he’ll lace ‘em up for his first game action in Blue & White at Budweiser Gardens, home of his junior club, the London Knights. It’s Marner’s sanctuary, and where he has kept doing what he’s done at every turn.
Marner turns doubters into believers. I should know, I have been converted for quite some time now. From the earliest stages of minor hockey and on until today, he’s constantly had his ability to play based on stature brought into question, but each time he puts the conversations to rest. While the biggest challenges lay ahead in the National Hockey League, there is nothing telling me this trend of proving people wrong, or right if you know him, won’t continue. I understand patience and cautiousness are the new themes in town. This is a marathon, not a sprint and there is certainly no rush to assume his role as an on ice leader here in Toronto. It’s wise to proceed with trepidation in a city that has been proven guilty on several occasions of overvaluing its stock. In the case of Mitchell Marner however, I’m not sure if most realize what we potentially have with this guy.
Perhaps we do and are just afraid to say it out loud. I don’t think we need to be scared to say things like Marner reminds me of Pavel Datsuyk. Nor should we be rattled when comparisons are made to some of today’s most gifted stars. You’ll even hear Gretzky’s name somewhere in the sentences to follow and before anyone flips their lid, you can’t deny there are striking similarities. This isn’t an attempt at overselling or hyping up another one of our own, it’s more about being honest and forthright about his capabilities. In an average draft year, Marner is a top pick, a 1st overall caliber player.
In my opinion, one I feel strongly about, the Maple Leafs have never drafted anyone as talented or with as much star potential. I would also make the argument the gap between “McEichel” and Marner is not as wide as the general consensus may think. If anything the space lies within their physical attributes, which may alter as we go forward. Don’t confuse what I’m saying here, Connor McDavid is the best hockey player I’ve ever seen at his age. The lack of separation in my eyes only serves further to my point on just how incredible Marner could become, and quite frankly, already is. Listen, am I more a fan of Mitch’s than a writer today? Absolutely I am. I can’t imagine anyone familiar with his game and constitution not being one. I have a one-year old boy and I’m already stitching Marner on the back of his first Maple Leafs sweater. When I write about or watch Marner, he draws out the hockey passion inside me that lives in all of us. He encompasses all the traits that make this Canadian pastime great. Likely why I’ve written about him as much, this being the 3rd story I’ve done on Marner, all in all about 15,000 words trying to let people in on what I’ve seen out of him. Sometimes though, words, no matter how many or how spirited, are just that. They are merely words. Seeing…now seeing is believing.
This was the opportunity afforded to LeafsHub.com for two days in August. Enamored already with his game, after it was made official at the draft and we heard the name Mitch Marner come out of Mark Hunter’s mouth, I quickly made my desired intent to Mitch’s camp in the hopes of doing a piece that explained to Toronto and Leafs’ fans everywhere just who Mitch Marner is, on and off the ice. What to expect from him in every facet. When we were invited to watch “Coach Rob” Desveraux train Mitch Marner and teammate Christian Dvorak, my job became much easier.
Corey Connolly and Peter Baracchini of LeafsHub.com entered the lobby of the Ajax Community Centre, where they were met Paul Marner, proud father to Mitch. Introductions were made, a few laughs shared, and everyone sat down to watch what many never get the chance to see, a dream hockey experience watching elite hockey talent and how it gets crafted, up close and personal. Every once in a while when covering hockey you stop what you’re doing, take a breath, and you let yourself be a kid and enjoy it. This would be one of those days for our website. After the Zamboni finished its last lap, an 18-year-old Mitchell Marner stepped onto the ice with “Coach Rob” and teammate Christian Dvorak. The two players casually stretched before the coach started barking at them to get skating. “Let’s Go!” And out of the cannon they came.
As practice got going, Paul Marner made his way over to see if the boys were enjoying the show. For Connolly, a firefighter in Burlington and social media manager here at LeafsHub.com, this was his first live viewing of Marner, though no stranger to the rink. Connolly has been to the MasterCard Centre on many occasions for camps, practices and such, taking notes on professional hockey. You’ll find him at Ricoh many nights covering the Marlies for the site. During the session on day one I asked Connolly for his personal opinion, one I’ve grown to trust. “Well you only get one chance to make a first impression and I’ll tell you this, I am not big on blowing smoke where it doesn’t belong, so for me to say what I saw was truly something unique, I mean that. Here’s a guy who can just fly out there, but more than that his edge work is off the charts. At full speed he made cuts that I don’t think I have ever witnessed. Actually (laughs), the first one caught me off guard a bit, a little hard to comprehend. What’s more is he fell twice during the drill and call me crazy but I think skate technology simply couldn’t support his footwork. I had a smile on my face during all of the skating drills, to be honest. I knew I was watching an elite skater. Several times Peter (Baracchini of LeafHub.com) and I would just look at each other and mouth “WTF was that.” I’d seen video of his skill but to see it in front you, its jaw dropping.”
“Well you only get one chance to make a first impression and I’ll tell you this, I am not big on blowing smoke where it doesn’t belong, so for me to say what I saw was truly something unique, I mean that. Here’s a guy who can just fly out there, but more than that his edge work is off the charts. At full speed he made cuts that I don’t think I have ever witnessed.“
Baracchini, who also made the trip was already quite familiar with Marner’s game. He recently wrote a glowing recap of his performance at the World Junior Showcase and saw the same skill on display in Ajax as he did in Calgary. “At the WJ Showcase you witnessed his ability to keep the puck down low by using his skill to his advantage. That’s what was on display here today, very smooth, sharp, and generates a lot of speed. Exceptional edges, especially during spread eagle exercises. Certainly makes you take immediate notice, along with his shot. It’s deadly accurate, a precision shooter.”
“The one thing that did surprise me, even with advanced scouting, was the shot on this young man.” added Connolly. “Yes it is accurate, but it’s a rocket as well. He will catch goalies off guard with how quick it gets off the stick and the velocity it carries. Mitch Marner is no one-trick pony.”
LeafsHub.com weren’t the only people in attendance for the private workout in Ajax. Wally Jaroslawski sat in the stands that day doing what he’s done many times before, keeping a keen eye on Mitch. He’s watched Marner’s growth every step of the way. His son Troy played on his line in Pee-Wee and the relationship goes beyond that. You talk to Wally and you quickly realize he knows two things exceptionally well. The game of hockey, and Mitchell Marner.
“I’ve been watching Mitch since he was a young boy, and I remember seeing him first at the Memorial Rink in Brampton. Mitch was playing AAA with the Malvern Vipers. He was on the ice every second shift and owned that puck, a year younger and going like crazy. We had Mitch in Vaughan, I was a coach previous on that Vaughan (Kings) AAA team, and I’d watch this guy and I’d tell anyone that would come and listen, this kid at that age had crazy edges. I’d never seen anything like it. I used to stand over in the corner and watch all the games and Paul and Bonnie (Marner) would end up coming over stand by me, and my Troy played on his line one year and it was unbelievable to watch. I would tell my friends, “come watch this kid. This kid is going to be in the NHL.” He was playing a year younger, always playing up. His edges, I swear to God, he would slide in the corner it was almost like he would slide on the yellow rail there and leave guys standing in the corner and dunk it in the net. I’d be in the corner watching and it was incredible.”
Jaroslawski reflects back fondly, excited to share the stories of a younger Marner he most cherishes.
“I remember three major things when we played. The one time when we were the ranked fourth in North America in Pee-Wee, we were playing Elgin – Middlesex (Chiefs) up in the London tournament and we had three men in the box. We were two men short for more than five minutes. Mitch played at least four and half of those minutes. And the team we played was crazy. Mitch went through guys twice with two men short, he was going double through them and scored a hat-trick. It was something to see. I couldn’t believe it! I went, “Oh my stars.” There was this one time, we go to practice and our coaches had five guys in the neutral (zone) and five on the bench. We had Mitch for the last half-hour grab the puck behind the net and go through our guys like pylons and then switch the five guys. For a half-hour straight, not one of our guys stopped him. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it. He has that skill like I’ve never seen in anybody else. It was quite special.”
Clearly, he’s seen it all with Marner, following him through the minor hockey ranks. Including the obstacles he’s faced when it comes to his frame that still carry on to this day. We wondered if Wally ever had those same concerns.
“We were up in a Hamilton tournament and we played Brantford in the pre-lim game and we beat them like 9-1. This is pee-wee. And they were a pretty rough team and they were really going at him, trying to kill him. And Mitch was a tiny guy. He was like, I don’t know, four-foot-seven/nine, 86/96 pounds. I’ll never forget, we get into the final and somehow Brantford makes it. Well they come out, and other teams try to hit him and they would send guys, but this team ran for him. They sent three guys like robots after him. They were playing no puck, they were going to maim him. And I’ll never forget, it was on those boards over there (far right side), I was standing behind the glass with Paul and Bonnie, I remember they came in one here, one here, one here (making a line in mid-air with his hands) straight on. He wasn’t going to get out, the big behemoth guys, they smushed him and he scrunched out the bottom between the three guys. Mitch popped out like a little weasel. He went skating backwards like Eddie Shack trying to get away from everybody and there was a melee going on. The refs stopped the game and Mitch looked like he saw a ghost. I thought, ‘Wow! You know what… He’s done.’ It was a pretty scary moment. That was the turning point. He set up the winner to Daniel Desousa later that same game and we won the championship.”
“It showed me there that he had the guts. I thought he would fold the tent. Because you always heard the rumors he’s too small. This kid is crazy. And I’m so happy that he will be playing with the Leafs. I’m a Leafs ticket holder and I’m tickled pink to watch him. I think Craig Button said it the best, there are tons of guys that can skate and work hard and have great skill, But what excites him, is the one guy that actually gets him, he’s exciting to watch. He will pull the fans out of the seats. He’s going to be a special player in the NHL. He’s a good kid too and he really loves the game, it’s hard to get a guy like that that truly loves the game.”
Along the way, Jaroslawski has sat back while Marner kept making more believers. How does he manage to regularly change the tune of his detractors?
“People that see him for a year, like Lindsay Hofford who I coached for in pro hockey with Peter Zezel. Lindsay got to see Mitch and he helped Hunter, it’s hard to get by the size thing. And Hunter took the risk, via Lindsay and now after a guy like Hunter gets a year of Mitch under his belt, he’ll take him again every time. Once you see what he does and that he plays both directions. Maybe he doesn’t have the size to fight guys off, I know he’s getting stronger in the summer and once he does, wow. His commitment to both ends too is crazy. His defensive play, his positioning, he easily slides in third man high. It’s effortless. His brain is incredible. And Connor McDavid is a great player, they’re just different players. Connor could always skate by guys. Mitch used his brain and continues to do that. Hockey fans are going to be in for exciting times, regardless if he’s on your team. He’s that kind of player.”
“Hockey fans are going to be in for exciting times, regardless if he’s on your team. He’s that kind of player.“
Day two began with another greeting from Mr. Marner as the boys, with the addition of our photographer/graphic designer, took their positions on the bench to record this session on film and undeniably in their hockey memories for eternity. Before Mitch steps onto the ice he says hello to a few kids from the previous practice before he willingly takes some pictures. Connolly describes Marner as polite, affable, and eager to please dealing with the fanfare. Something he should get used to, Connolly has a feeling he knows where the manners and likability stems from. “The nonsensical talent on display, as impressive as it is, I’m a bigger fan today than I was before for a different reason. ‘Hockey Dad’ is an absolute unknown these days and to be greeted and the way we have been, it tells you something. It tells you something about how Mitch has been raised and It felt like we were friends with the Marner’s for a decade. That’s what I’m taking away with me at the end of these two days.”
When the whistle blew it was all business just like the day before, with Marner performing crisply through drills. The focus of the day is more on endurance and the pace is pushed very hard. A standout skill of the second day to note was Marner ridiculous knack for receiving a pass from just about anywhere. He easily kicks an errant pass from his skates to the blade of his stick like not many others. At the NHL level, when you get a chance to see guys in practice, most are capable of doing things to amaze. Marner though takes it to a whole different level. As he skates his posterior off during this training it is evident he enjoys himself on the ice, that he wants to be there. As the day wrapped up the crew were again left shaking our heads in disbelief and amusement with what they had been invited to witness.
He had a gymnastic spring board and they would skate from the other blue, full tilt, and then jump on the spring board, fly up in the air and land maybe at the red or the blue and Rob would slide the puck from behind the net and there would be a goal in the net. You would have to worry about crashing into the boards, never mind stick handling. It would be crazy stuff he was doing.
The man responsible for cultivating this innate talent with out of the norm type training, goes by the name “Coach Rob” to the junior stars he was motivating and working with today. Robert Desveaux, owner/instructor of 3 Zones Hockey, has taught Mitch his entire hockey life and deserves a great deal of credit for the player before us. ”Coach Rob” is a serious hockey man, a general on the ice and takes what he does very serious as all great instructors do. But today he let his guard down to talk with us about Mitch, his prized pupil. We thank Rob for permitting us to sit in on his private session and we sat down with the teacher who knows Marner possibly the best to ask him to tell us why we should all believe.
LH: “How did you start training Mitch Marner?”
RD: “I started my own hockey school 15-years ago. I think it was in my second year I was running a program on this particular ice surface, it was a skill development program which I still run. I had this gentleman, named Paul Marner, call me nine/10 times trying to get me to bring out his four-year-old. I said, ‘How did you find out about me?’, he said, ‘Well I’ve been watching Tyler Seguin and I hear you work with him,’ I said, ‘Yes I do, but your son is not a Tyler Seguin.’ So I said no, and then he bugged me and bugged me and then he came by and saw me and he finally convinced me to let his little guy on the ice. I said, ‘bring him.’ So he brought him one day and I was over the boards and I said, ‘Where is he?’ He put his hands down, lifted him up and said ‘Here!’ And I went, ‘Oh my God!’ So he passed him over to me and I said ‘Go around the rink,’ and he went around the rink once and I said, ‘He’s in!’
“That’s how good he was at the age. The discipline, work ethic, all that kind of stuff he was just phenomenal. So once after a year or so in camps and classes, I decided he’s somebody that I would like to put in privates. And I pick and choose who I put in privates, I really do. Parents were spending a lot of money, so I wanted them to get their money’s worth.”
LH: “From when you started teaching Mitch in the school, to now, how big of an improvement has he gone through?”
RD: “100 percent. His biggest skill is his brain, as far as I’m concerned. He can think on his feet, he makes decisions as quick as anybody can make them. He’s Gretzky-like when it comes to that. That was really his biggest thing that I noticed about him was his brain. His skills are off the charts, but we just worked and worked. I see a kid that’s good I keep working his edges, I keep working, I keep working his puck-handling, his ability to think, give him multiple things to do, not be one-dimensional be five-dimensional and the improvement went from A, B, C, D, just kept going higher and higher and it never stopped. Every day I saw him, he improved and he never EVER quit on me. That’s rare.”
LH: “Because some people just fall out of love with the game?”
RD: “Yeah, they get bored, they don’t want to work as hard because they want to go home, but Mitchell. I’d say to Mitch, ‘Hey Mitch, need a break?’, ‘No, I’m alright’, ‘Mitch, can I have a break?’, because I get tired too because I like working with him. I beat up on him quite a bit in the corners. It was him and I one-on-one so I’m the one he did one-on-one’s against, so he’s up against a pretty good hockey school instructor trying to beat me and go wide and we just built on that and I told him this is what you need to do and just all the skills. Younger kids nowadays need skills. Skill development is the most important thing, they need that. They really do.”
LH: “Aside from his hockey IQ, his edge work is something everyone mentions with Mitch. Does he still impress his teacher?”
RD: “Phenomenal. I’ve never seen anybody better. His spread eagle ability, his spinning, his judgment of what to do and the ability of picking up the puck is second to none. One of the skills I teach the most and which I think is the weakest skill in hockey, is passing. And have you ever watch him pass the puck? We work with passing with these kids non-stop and I’m always preaching to them pass. Stick on the ice, pass the puck.”
LH: “And we saw that at the World Junior Showcase. The passes he made were high end, world class.”
RD: “All year last year in London. I’m just watching, I got the Cogeco and I watch it because I don’t want to go to London and watch him all the time. I’m going, ‘Oh my god, look at that pass he made,’ and I worked his backhand and I tell the kids learn your backhand pass. Because he can skate up the ice and flip the puck in the air, unbelievable. Every skill he’s got is off the charts. Every skill. I would have to say he is probably the most skilled player in the world. As far as I’m concerned, there’s not a lot of players that can do what he can do. I mean, you’ve just seen him, he’s off the charts. And the attitude is amazing. You can see him out there, he’s still a kid. And I tell him, I don’t know if you know but Paul brought him back to me in October when he was in his slump. And I spent the first half hour, I just spent being a kid with him, ‘Come on remember what we used to do when you were six, seven or eight?’ and started giggling and laughing and pushing him around and dropping the gloves and bringing him back to that. They all need to come back to that. No matter where they are in life, they need to come back to where they started. Where did they learn all this stuff? What did they do to get to where they are? And it’s having fun. Have Fun.”
LH: “Assessing your student, what can Mitch improve on?”
RD: “My biggest thing and I text him after every game, shoot. Shoot the puck more. We were working on him this week on shooting off the crossover. I just told him out there let me see your backwards and his backwards is still really good. He can play the point on any power-play, because he can skate backwards and he can play a one-on-one.”
LH: “Defensive Zone coverage, especially nowadays is really important. How does Mitch fare in that department?”
RD: “He’s amazing. He is bar none, the best defensive player in the OHL right now. I would have to say. He understands the game, he knows how to find positions. If somebody leaves a position, he is there to cover that position. His stick is amazing, he strips people of the puck all the time. Have you ever seen a kid back-check like him at that age? He’s scary! I love that about him. That’s so important. I don’t care how many goals he gets. I just want him to be a complete player. He’s a 200-foot player. A lot of players aren’t, but he is. His defensive ability is amazing.”
LH: “For Leafs fans that aren’t sure or familiar with Mitch Marner, what can they expect from him?”
RD: “I truly believe that Mitch will one day bring them to possibly winning a Stanley Cup. I think he’s that good if they build around him and bring the right people in to build around him. You know what they’re missing? They’re missing somebody exciting. Yeah, Phil Kessel is exciting going down the wing and putting it top shelf, but that doesn’t happen very often. If you watched him in the World Juniors, that one penalty kill? That’s exciting! He can hang onto the puck and he makes everyone around him better. I’ve never been a Leafs fan, but I am now.”
Now that we have spoken with the teacher, it was time to take a few minutes alone with the student, Mitch Marner. Mitch had just completed a strenuous workout and we appreciated him sharing a few minutes to go one on one with LeafsHub.com.
LH: “It’s been a busy off-season for you with the on-ice/ off-ice work that you’ve been doing this summer. What’s the training you’ve been doing like?”
MM: “It’s been hard. Obviously you want to make an impact on Toronto as soon as possible. That’s my goal, I’ve been training hard to try and do that and just trying to do whatever it takes to make the Leafs this year.”
LH: “When you are in the gym, you work on a bunch of exercises; strength, balance and all that. Is everything you do transferable onto the ice?”
MM: “It’s very important. Whatever you work on in the gym it shows on the ice. It’s the most important thing is making your body off ice as prepared as it is to be on ice. That’s every kids dream is to play in the NHL and I think everyone is willing to do what it takes.”
LH: “Yesterday and today you were working on edges and speed, is that a strong aspect to your game?”
MM: “For sure. I’ve been working on edges and speed since I was four and to me that’s the most important thing to my game. There’s always room for improvement and out here (the rink), I feel I can do that the best.”
LH: “You attended the rookie camp in Collingwood and also the World Junior Summer Showcase in Calgary, what were those experiences like in helping your development?”
MM: “It’s very important, playing against Russia and playing against Czech, those are two great teams and hard competitors, especially in that time of the year kind of getting back into game shape it’s nice to get onto the ice and do that. Coming out here it’s as close as it can be to be playing a game.”
LH: “You’re known for the speed and skill, what is an underrated aspect to your game that people may not know about?”
MM: “Hopefully my defense. That’s what I always try and improve on is playing shut down defense, skating backwards when needed and being a guy you can depend on in both ends and that’s the most important thing to my game.”
LH: “The Toronto Maple Leafs went through a lot of changes this year especially in the coaching staff. Mike Babcock and everyone want a team first mentality, how would you buy into that?”
MM: “Just trying to do whatever it takes to win a hockey game. I think that’s what every hockey player would say. Everyone wants to win. Nobody likes to lose, it sucks to lose and whatever it takes to win. That’s what it means.”
LH: “The Rookie tournament is coming up as well as training camp, obviously with the impact you had at the Junior Showcase and the Collingwood camp, you’re going in with a positive mindset?”
MM: “Yea, for sure. It’s another tournament to show what you got. As hard as it is it’s fun too. It’s back to playing hockey games and that’s the best thing as a kid is to go out there and play hockey. Everyone misses it in when they get into the summer time and it’s a lot of fun to get back.”
Fun. Not something any of us following the Maple Leafs have had in recent years. It’s easy to forget why we tune in, why we play, why we encourage our kids to play. Mitch Marner reminds me every time I watch him. You know, I spoke with Mitch last week and it wasn’t for any interview, he’s going to have enough of those shortly. I only called to wish him the best and not to worry about expectations or any of what awaits him in Toronto, the hockey media capital. It was an unnecessary gesture as Marner assured me there’s only one thing on his mind, what he was born to do. He just wants to go out there and enjoy himself playing the game he loves, as a proud member of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.
At the beginning I stole a line from a blind Al Pacino when I said Shanahan has taken a “flamethrower to this place!” Now, from the ashes of a scorched earth, a new hope has arisen. During the time I spent working on this story I kept hearing that same Oscar award winning movie speech in my head, the same sentences over and over. It speaks of integrity and a responsibility to be makers of men, creators of leaders. I couldn’t help but think of not only Mitch, but all of us. Us the fan, us the media, us who’s blood drips blue. The world we live in has changed and so has the way we follow hockey. Never before has negativity been so alive and accessible, and it’s entrenched itself as part of our hockey community in Toronto. Let’s rip it from our existence, and let’s start with Mitch Marner. Yes, there will be pain. And yes, it shall take time to build and grow as both a group and as individuals. Men are in place here now, real men like Babcock, Hunter, Lou, Kyle, to oversee that growth. Lend a hand in the process and raise this young Leaf up as one of your own. The chance is here to finally do this thing right, a chance to regain our pride. It’s not only up to the Maple Leafs, nor is it only up to Mitch, it’s up to all of Leafs Nation. “You hold this boys future in your hands. It’s a valuable future, believe me. Don’t destroy it, protect it. Embrace it. Care for it. It’s gonna make you proud one day, I promise you.”
“When I saw a guy like him (Mitch) and his love for the game, that’s what probably got me the most, the pure kid in him and the love for the game. He loves hockey. You get guys that play and they play for this thing over there, or that money or that thing, or stardom. This kid loves the pure game. It’s hard to get guys like that. Because the money takes over and other things take over. He loves hockey and I get a joy out of watching him play.” Wally Jaroslawski
“He’s a great kid. If anybody ever said ‘What’s the best thing about Mitch Marner?’ I say he’s a great kid. If you were here yesterday and at the end of the session, both Marner and Dvorak were on their two knees picking up pucks, that’s what it’s all about. Giving back to what they got. They’re respectful. They’re dedicated. They’re honest. They’re polite and that’s what you want out of any human being, regardless of what they do in life. Mitchell’s the best. He’s just an amazing young man and I hope the best for him. I love working with him. And for him to comeback now, he doesn’t have to come back to me. I don’t tell him to come back. He just comes. He does because he wants to see Coach Rob. That makes me feel good in my heart, that he respects me that much.” Coach Rob Desveaux
This coming weekend in London, and all those wintery Saturday nights in Leafs Land for many years to come …. remember. Seeing will be believing.
Written by: Jude MacDonald
Practice Notes by: Corey Connolly — Interviews by: Peter Baracchini
Photos and Images by: Mike Beverly
Edited by: Matt Pedias
Published by: Steven Andrews and Steve Kopac
A Leafs Hub Collaboration