I needed an escape. I needed one desperately and I needed one fast. I was easily at my lowest point as a fan. Writing stories for a brand new Leafs website and of all years to start, we got this one. Taking time away from our families and friends to give an honest effort while trying to get this site off the ground and juggle careers. It was becoming increasingly difficult to justify the investment based on what the team was giving back. I would be lying if I didn’t tell you I considered throwing in my Maple Leafs towel and laptop in Year One. I had my fill of the 2014/15 version of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I longed for a better day. I longed for the days when we had a number 93.
As the season got worse and worse, something called “Tank Nation” was born. As ridiculous a concept as I thought it was, maybe this was my out. I could find serenity perhaps if I started watching junior hockey closely again. The more I began really looking at the young men who could be selected high in the 1st round of this year’s Entry Draft, the more comfortable I became with the Leafs spiraling. Before I knew it, I was tweeting out pictures of a superimposed Dave Nonis driving a tank. I told the guys at the site my attention was leaving the current roster and that I’d be putting the majority of my time towards stories on the top prospects in the 2015 draft class. I wanted to get out to the rinks, and before anyone else, I wanted to see a kid who was wearing #93. I wanted to see Mitchell Marner.
So I got myself a press pass and a notebook and away I went to watch Marner play in person for the first time. It ended up being one of those magical type nights. I had a great talk with Tie Domi, who I’d grown up with as a Leaf and was an obvious thrill meeting. I had a post-game conversation with Dylan Hunter for purposes of a story I very much enjoyed. A solid evening, I remember how good it felt to be away from the scene with the Maple Leaf and around hockey’s youth. All super, but what stands out above all else about that night was Mitch Marner, hands down. I wrote a piece called “Will Hunter Connection Make Marner a Leaf.” If you’ve read it, you know the impression he made on me and we’ll echo that throughout.
That’s how this interview and story you’re reading got started in a roundabout sort of way. I then went on to do pieces with Dylan Strome and Noah Hanifin, also experiences of a lifetime. In those two particular stories, I was lucky enough to talk with both Dylan and Noah, with the help of both Erie and Boston College to whom I am grateful. What I considered the worst year I’d gone through as a devoted member of Leafs Nation has morphed into a wonderful season to remember. Having the opportunity to learn about these players on the ice and a little bit off the ice is well, it was pretty damn cool. It seems only fitting that it’s come full circle. After talking with the other two, I felt I needed to do the same with the player who started me on this path and in many ways rekindled my love and hope for the Maple Leafs, Mitchell Marner.
Now here we are, just hours away from the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. The reports are submitted, the rankings are finalized. The mock drafts are complete and the scouting meetings with management have concluded. The stories, they are written. For Marner and Toronto however, perhaps the story has just begun.
The ties between Marner and the Maple Leafs are well documented. Recently the Maple Leafs hired Lindsay Hofford formerly of the London Knights, a man who has known Marner since the outset of his minor hockey career. In Toronto, this is Mark Hunter’s draft. He’s been down this road and took a relative chance with the 19th pick in the OHL draft to select the tiny Bantam. When I say he took a chance, that’s a comment reserved for those who don’t know Marner the best. How could Hunter use a 1st round pick on a 120 pound kid who may never be able to handle the OHL? Sound anything like the script of present day?
Since he was a child, Marner has heard he’s not big enough and he has always shrugged it off. There has always been doubt, even ridicule over his frame as he watched while his peers grew while he did not. Though he’s not as small as people let on, he has seen delayed growth and could again. He’s still had to overcome questions about his size time and time again. Not from everyone, mind you. Those who’ve seen his level of talent, they know what he can do. He continues to prove them right every time. With Marner, the more you see, the more you learn, the more you see his athletic brilliance. The more you believe. For the people who are closest to Marner, they believed right from the start.
One of the first to be wowed by Mitch is someone he calls Coach Rob. Coach Rob took some convincing as well, a relatively quick sell. Coach Rob Desveaux has had Marner since the ripe old age of 4. Paul Marner, father of Mitchell recalls how the relationship began. “My older boy Chris was playing rep at the time and somebody asked me at the arena if I’d seen Tyler Seguin play. And that if I didn’t I needed to. I hadn’t even heard of him but I stayed one day and watched him for the first time. His team won 14-1 and Tyler had 8 or 9 goals. I said “Who is coaching this kid?!?” So I found out and got a hold of Rob Desveaux, who was Tyler’s development coach and told him about Mitch who was only 4 at the time. It’s funny and we are good friends now, but Rob really gave it to me. He said wouldn’t take kids until they were 6 or 7 years old. He ripped me pretty good.” Paul laughs, “Do you know how many parents I get telling me their kid is going to be in the NHL and I don’t take kids at 4, I take them at 6 or 7. He pretty much yelled at me for a good while (laughs), but I kept pleading Mitch’s case.”
“I told him, I am not a babysitter.” recalls Desveaux. “These kids are here to learn and that was the rule. I didn’t take anyone at his age.”
“We reached an agreement in the end,” remembers Paul. “I could bring Mitchell down to the rink and put him on the ice, but if he couldn’t cut it and I wasted Rob’s time, he would put Mitch at center and I’d have to walk out and get him. After a few spins around the ice, Rob skated over to me and says, “He’s in.”
Rob has worked with and seen thousands of kids, but he’s only ever seen one Mitchell Marner. “He’s just an amazing thinker. I’ve never had anybody who could see the game like him. I remember I had his brother Chris, who was a ’93 so Mitchell was 5 or 6 years younger, for a private lesson. Mitch would correct Chris’s mistakes during drills and show him how I wanted it done. “No, Chris. Like this.” At times he would go to a position on the ice before I told him, anticipating where I’d want him for the drill I hadn’t even begun. It was always that way. Mitch does things that we’ve developed that just amaze me. Like the backhand. We’ve done so much work there and now I see him deliver a back hand saucer pass from behind the net to center ice, on the tape. It’s just wow. And I’ve had lots of kids, Tyler Seguin even, but Mitch is the best. But Mitch is Mitch, he’s just humble and cool,“Hey, Coach Rob. Sure Coach Rob.” He’s just a good person and he plays the game right. He understands it on a level I’ve never seen. He doesn’t stay out too long even though he doesn’t really tire, Mitch doesn’t change on the back check, things like that. Mitch always makes the plays he’s supposed to make. He’s gone through a lot of crap about his size and not being big enough all the way through and he’s never complained. The night he lost the scoring title in the OHL he just said “It’s okay Coach Rob. I’ll win another scoring title some time. I’m just happy Dylan won.” But that’s Mitch for you.” I asked Rob about Marner’s incredible stamina, as he finished 2nd in the fatigue testing at the Draft combine. “We would be doing drills and I’d say “Need a break, Mitch? No, Coach Rob. Need a break Mitch? No, Coach Rob. Yeah, well I do. That’s what he is though. He’s a high end athlete and talent. He was born for this. He was born to be an NHLer, there’s no question. And he’s a great young man that will be happy with whoever drafts him. He just wants to play in the NHL and do his best.”
Coach Rob Desveaux wasn’t the first to believe in Mitch Marner, was he? Someone had to hoist that 4 year old over the boards and believe he wouldn’t have to walk out for him. “This may sound hard to believe but it started well before that story with Rob. I know it sounds crazy but at 7-8 months old Mitchell would sit in front of a hockey game and watch every second. Even as a baby it was pretty incredible, and then when he could hold a mini stick he’d be in the kitchen with his mother while she was cooking supper and Mitch would take shots as long as somebody would play with him. All day if you’d let him. Once he could get out of his crib and stuff, he’d wake us in the night by tapping us with his hockey stick which he’d grabbed, saying “Hock, hock.” I put him on the ice for the first time when he was 2 ½ years old. I took him to public skating and we went out and he did okay. He stood up and then fell a couples times. So after about 20 minutes when he got comfortable I backed away from him a few steps, sure enough he walked his way over to me on his skates. The very next day we went to the pond and gave him a little stick and there he was, skating and pushing the puck right away. When I think of it now, it really was something else. I knew he was special very early on.”
It was from there that the boy Marner began his minor hockey days. His dad compared his son back then with a different Erie Otter than we are used to hearing. “I think some people think Mitch came out of nowhere but he’s always been among the top players. He and Connor were 1-2 at age 6 and 7. Mitch just stopped growing. In Pee Wee he was tiny. He looked like somebody’s little brother or something out there. But he had 185 pts that year. When he was drafted to the OHL we heard the same things then that we hear now about his size. He was 115-120 pounds and people thought there’s no way this kid can play in the OHL. The same people who said don’t worry about it back then will be the same ones that’ll be saying see now. There’s still so much room for Mitch to develop physically too. He’ll likely grow and when he does get there I think you’ll see what he can be.” The words of a proud father, but not the words of boast. Paul Marner’s voice was genuine, he only spoke of what he’s witnessed. There was no disillusion in our conversation. He knows how good his son is, that’s all. That’s not all he knows about him. “What he is more importantly and something that I know won’t ever change is that he’s a great person, just a real great kid. He really is. Nothing ever bothers him, he’s always polite. He has a good heart inside.”
After lighting up the scoreboards in the GTA it was on to prove his worth in London, where we all know he was drafted to by Mark Hunter and staff. Since his arrival he’s shown they were right to select the diminutive forward. I asked Assistant Coach/GM Rob Simpson what makes him believe in Marner.
“He has the ability to raise his game no matter what level he’s playing at. He can bring it up in-game at the right times too. He can turn it on in the big moments like we saw in the playoffs this year. He was on fire.”
I wanted to know from Rob what Mitch was like with his teammates. How is he perceived?
“Mitch is an engaging guy, one that you just want to be around. He’s a player you gravitate towards, a great guy that his teammates and everybody loves spending time and hanging out with. On the ice is a different story, almost two personalities. Once the game begins Mitch is extremely driven. He wants to win and wants to do well. He is tremendously focused that way. He has that fire inside him and Mitch is as competitive as they come.”
I wondered what Simpson thought of Marner having to silence the size critics once more.
“I don’t know if it’s proving people wrong or how you’d say it, but the issues with his size or strength are things that will come along. It might take time for him to develop, you may have to wait a little bit before he puts it all together physically. The thing with Mitch is that you know he’ll figure it out. You just know that no matter how long it takes him that he’ll do whatever he needs to do to excel in the NHL because that’s who he is. He’s heard the size stuff his whole life and he’s always overcome that. Even in his rookie year with us he had 59pts as a 16 year old and played very well.”
When I talked to Dylan Hunter about Marner earlier this season he shared the same sentiment on Marner, noting it goes beyond his ability.
“For Mitch, it really comes down to the intangibles. He’s a heady player. Aside from the skill, he just gets it. And by that I mean if we say “Mitch, we need you to block a shot” late in a game, he’s willing to do it (which he did during the game I should add). That’s the thing with him. It’s all the other stuff that comes with being a special player. And the guys in the room love him. He’s a leader and he’s extremely grounded. There’s no ego with Mitch, he wants to do whatever the team asks of him and he’ll do anything to help. That’s not to say he isn’t confident. Sure he is, and you have to be in order to be successful. He believes in himself but in the correct manner.”
Marner not only won the faith of the coaching staff in London, he won the admiration of the media in town. If you are on Twitter and aren’t following @NormanJamesCTV, you are doing it wrong. Norman and I have been compadres online for some time now and not only do I love Norman’s wit and sense of humor, I can tell you Norman is full hockey guy. He gets it and I trust his opinion, so I wanted his on Marner. Starting with this size stuff.
“Mitch was the guy who showed up for shinny the runt of the litter. He’s also the guy who left them jaws dropped and astounded by his skill.” said James. I wondered aloud to Norman if he could handle the rigors of the best league in the world. He replied, “Mitch was born to be an NHLer. Make no mistake, it has nothing to do with his physical impression, but his physical skills. The fact he’s smarter than most, with a rare unteachable intuitive sense on the ice makes him a player that’s not only special, but a must have for teams aiming to build around elite, resilient game changing talent.”
If I’m to be sure that Mitch Marner is everything he seems, maybe I had to step out of the London bubble or away from those emotionally invested. For that I contacted friend of the site and Chief Scout for North American Central Scouting, Mark Seidel. Mark was on his way to Florida to be there in person when the names are called. I’d read his reports (which by the way the NACS Draft Guide is released and it’s a must for the weekend) and we’d talked about Marner before. I had to do one last confirmation on what I already knew I believed. He sent me this message:
“Mitch Marner fits into the “new” NHL in that he possesses incredible skill & vision for the game and although he isn’t going to overpower anybody, he isn’t as small as many think. He has the ability to contribute offensively on both the power play and at 5 on 5 and with the Leafs burning desire to increase their overall skill, he would be a great fit at #4.”
I have no more bases left to cover. I’ve seen him play. I’ve watched videos. I’ve talked to his family, coaches, and scouts. The work is done. There’s only one conversation left. One with #93 of the London Knights and soon to be National Hockey League drafted, Mitch Marner.
Jude: Playing in London is a bit like going to the Harvard of hockey, isn’t it?
Marner: “(Laughs) Oh, definitely. I tell the new guys all the time to take advantage of who is around you. Absorb and learn as much as you can from the Knights organization. I mean Dale has coached and played in the NHL, he’s seen it all. Just the entire staff, everyone is so knowledgeable and experienced in the game. You may only have so much time with them. I try to take in whatever I can and make sure my teammates do the same.”
J: There’s plenty of discussion as to your position. I talked to your coaches about it and others who have an opinion on whether you are an NHL center or a winger. You spent a fair time on the wing this season, while some say your best hockey was played at center. And even when on the wing you drive your line and think like a center. Where do you see yourself?
M: “In London the coaches want you to able to play all over. To be versatile so you can be used in any situation when called upon. I’ve played center my whole life and finished up the year pretty good there. I hope to play center next year and in the future but I can play wing too. Whatever is asked of me I’m willing to do, no questions asked. Center is where I’m used to the most though. I would consider myself a center.”
J: Lindsay Hofford, recently added to the Maple Leafs scouting staff, has known you your entire hockey life. We know about your connection to Mark Hunter and the fact he drafted you with the 19th pick of the OHL draft. To pick you again he’d have to take you higher at 4. But that coincides with your ranking by many. Do you think this helps the chances of you being selected by the Leafs if you are still there?
M: “Well, they know me and what I’m all about and who I am as a player and person. Lindsay has had me with the Don Mills Flyers and then with Mark in London. I have good relationships with both. If they take me with the 4th pick I’d be honored but I don’t know about an inside track. I don’t think it hurts, that’s for sure. I have a great deal of respect for both men and hopefully if I’m there at 4 they will pick me.”
J: Work ethic and off ice attitude are hot button issue in Toronto. If you were to be selected 4th, what can we expect of you in that regard?
M: “Well it’s kind of like going to the office and putting in the hours. If you want to be a big name or big time on the ice, you’d better be big time off the ice. You have to put the work in and I have no problem with that. It’s needed if you want to have success and be a respected player. I love coming to the rink no matter what it’s for though. It doesn’t feel like work, even if it’s not always easy what you are doing. I push myself to be better all the time. As for my attitude, I try and be positive around the guys and still determined when it comes to training and playing the game. I just love being a hockey and all that comes with it.”
J: You are described as a great teammate who people want to be near. You are also ultra-competitive from what I’m told. Do both characteristics carry over into how you lead?
M: “I think I have a little bit of every type, as for leadership. I’m usually an encouraging guy, I just like to have fun with the team and be a popular teammate. I think with the rookie’s coming in this year and remembering what it was like, you don’t want them to feel overwhelmed or anything. I told the new guys last year to come in and play hockey. Be themselves, that’s how they got to this level. It`s business and I take it very serious, but it`s also about creating chemistry with your teammates, and often that`s done of the ice. We have a great group of guys and we’ve learned how to keep it loose and still be focused come puck drop. The big thing for me as a leader is to make sure everyone feels involved and part of the team. Just like when I came in and was made feel like I belonged, I’ve tried to do the same with our 16 year olds this year. I think it’s important to do create a good atmosphere and it will show on the ice.”
J: You’ve been asked so many questions leading up to his draft, and though I asked you a few, there’s really only one I wanted you to answer. Are you the guy who can push the Toronto Maple Leafs forward to success?
M: “Yeah, I believe so. I have confidence in myself and would love the opportunity to be a big part of the turnaround here. I’ll be happy whoever drafts me, honestly. But of course everybody dreams of playing for their hometown team and someday wear the “C.” Being a leader that helps brings the Cup and success to, in my case, Toronto, I don’t shy away from that responsibility. I’d love to be a guy who is counted on here. With Babcock coming and the plans the team have going forward it feels like a positive time around the team. And I’m up for new challenges. I want to come into camp and be ready right away. Learn the systems, get comfortable with whatever team takes me and really push to play in the NHL next year. That’s my goal right now, to play next season. If that doesn’t happen, I’ll keep working to improve and I’ll be ready when my time comes.”
A time has indeed has come. A time for the Toronto Maple Leafs to get up from the table, walk up to the stage, lean into the microphone and make someone’s dreams a reality. Will it be the humble yet confident Marner? I’ll be the first to admit that even after being blown away by #93 for the London Knights in my first live viewing, I still had reservations. There have been fiery discussions, no I would say arguments or possibly even fights within the walls of LeafsHub.com over who we should select at 4. Fact is things got heated because we care so much about the Maple Leaf that a choice of this magnitude, we know Toronto has to get this one right. It could be the biggest call facing us in this rebuild, everyone has to be sure. The management, Hunter, Dubas, Shanny, and even all of us, we need to be united. There are guys at the Hub who don’t want to hear any other name besides Marner’s with the 4 pick. They are believers and have been touched by the magnificence of Mitchell Marner. I myself proceeded much more cautiously. I wasn’t ready to endorse him fully just yet. Especially considering the talent who will be available when the Leafs take the podium and the time I’d put into studying the other options, on top of speaking with them. This is not an easy one, this mother of all decisions facing Toronto on Draft day.
Hockey is primarily a game of decisions, isn’t it? In-game decisions like whether to shoot, to pass, to deke, and on and on and on. Then there’s the off-ice choices, the executive moves. The contract negotiations, the roster, and of course what we will witness over the weekend, the drafting. Not unlike everyday life, we are constantly faced with things to decide on. Some minor, some major. I’ve got a big one on the go at my home right now. I’m looking for a new car.
It’s been a hot button issue at the MacDonald home. Not quite the level of fired up my buddies and I have gotten at the site, but there’s heat just the same. With a new house, three kids under five, the Leafs aren’t the only one building. So when purchasing an automobile there is much to consider. I’ve test drove several, but narrowed it down to three. The latest one I pulled into the driveway… well I wasn’t expecting it to be met with the enthusiasm of the first two. I envisioned the conversation, “Do you really need a sports car, Jude? We are just starting to build our life here with the kids. Don’t you think it’s just too small for us? We need something definitely bigger, it’s not practical. I’m sorry Jude. I’m sure you love it, but c’mon.”
I was prepared for that reaction though. I wouldn’t have brought it home if I didn’t do the research to combat her misgivings. There is nothing written on this vehicle I haven’t read. I’ve talked to everyone I possibly could who has any experience with it. I’d looked at this car from every possible angle. I weighed the concerns, even tried to convince myself the car wasn’t adequate myself. I test drove other gorgeous vehicles. Sturdy, sleek cars with the frame I needed. But they just weren’t this sports car. The more I learned about the car after all, the more I found out it wasn’t just a sports car. It might look like it couldn’t take the rough, back country roads, but when I took it out that simply wasn’t the case. This beauty rode through all the dirty areas I would have to go every day, and it made out just fine. Then I got fishing around the back and realized that there was lots of space. The seats could fold up or down, making room in trunk or in the back this car could grow. My little family of Leafers would be safe in here, no problem.
So I took my wife over to the sharp piece of machinery, sensing her hesitancy, and said “Look, you know me. I promise you, I am not jumping into this blindly. I know where we are at in life and I wouldn’t be suggesting this car if I didn’t know 100% it’s the right one for us. It’s hard to explain until you’ve driven it or seen it perform but here, get behind the wheel. Tell me you don’t feel confident, like you belong there? Okay, now hop out. There’s something you have to see for yourself. You need to take a look under the hood.”
I wasn’t really talking about a car there now was I? It’s the engine that powers the vehicle, no component more crucial. Simply put, it’s what powers you. The word that comes to mind before any other when I think of Mitch Marner, is “engine.” If you check under his hood you’ll see Marner has a 12 cylinder that never stops. The same engine driving his conditioning is the very same one driving his mind. He not only owns a high-octane engine, Marner shall become one, no matter who chooses him. If it’s Toronto, he will be the heart of their vehicle, pumping blueblood and life back in the body of the organization through the veins in the Leaf on our beloved crest.
I have absolutely no doubt that if available the Toronto Maple Leafs will select Mitch Marner with their first pick. I believe it will happen, every bit as much as I believe in the player. I doubt that belief in him, once established, ever waivers. Mark Hunter isn’t in the group that Marner has proven wrong. He’s in the group he’s proven right. There’s no reason to think he won’t call his name once more on another Draft day. Let’s face it, there’s something far more powerful involved here. I can’t shake the feeling this was all meant to be. I’m going to go ahead and say it. It’s his destiny. Mitch Marner, he could very well be the savior we’ve all been waiting for.
I have my Friday all planned out. First, I’m buying that sports car. Then I’m peeling the tires for two blocks, speeding back to my place and preparing to welcome Mitch Marner home. Home to our Toronto Maple Leafs. There are times in this life you need to put your faith in something. Sometimes you just have to believe.
Thanks for reading…