Goin’ Wild in Minny

Leafs Na­tion alive and well in the Twin Cities, Boudreau still a fan, Gar­diners host 3-on-3

Toronto Sun - - SPORTS - MIKE WIL­SON in St. Paul, Minn.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — I felt like that in­fa­mous foot­ball player (no name re­quired) as I was run­ning through Min­neapo­lis air­port to­wards the Lyft pickup af­ter my Air Canada flight ar­rived an hour and a half later than sched­uled.

I was sup­posed to be at the Tria Rink in down­town St.

Paul, at­tend­ing the Wild prac­tice, fol­lowed by a chat with its head coach, ex-Leaf Bruce Boudreau.

Fel­low SIHR mem­ber (So­ci­ety for In­ter­na­tional Hockey Re­search) Roger Godin, who is the Wild’s team cu­ra­tor, had ar­ranged a busy sched­ule for my two days in the Twin Cities, es­cort­ing me to the small me­dia room next to the rink just as prac­tice ended. While Boudreau was chat­ting with Hockey Night in Canada’s Jim Hugh­son, it gave me a chance to put my travel bags down and catch my breath.

Boudreau, a Blue and White lifer and who be­gan in mi­nor hockey with the Marl­boros, starred with the Markham Wax­ers junior Bs, then won two Me­mo­rial Cups with the Mar­lies be­fore be­ing drafted by Toronto in 1975.

“The Leafs are it, man; what ev­ery young player strives to be­come,” he said. “Re­gard­less of how many op­por­tu­ni­ties to go some­where else came along, for me, no mat­ter how many times I was up and down, I never wanted to leave.”

Dur­ing Boudreau’s fre­quent shuf­fling to and from the farm, he wore six dif­fer­ent sweater num­bers.

“Once you be­come a Leafs fan, you are one for­ever," he said. "Loved or hated by ev­ery­one else, you re­main a Leafs fan. I religiously watch ev­ery game they play, so I guess I have a good scout­ing re­port.”

Boudreau could’ve also dropped by next door to watch the Leafs play out­doors in the Gar­diner Clas­sic.

Or­ga­nized by Jake’s fa­ther, John, last year dur­ing the

Leafs’ sea­sonal visit to the Gar­diner fam­ily’s home state, it’s a three-on-three mini-tour­na­ment on a small civic rink across from the Xcel En­ergy Cen­ter. From two blocks away, I de­tected the un­mis­tak­able sound of pucks hit­ting the boards; skates cut­ting into the ice and groans of a good or bad play.

A smat­ter­ing of cu­ri­ous on­look­ers gath­ered to ex­pe­ri­ence this group of highly skilled pro­fes­sion­als act­ing like kids on a win­try play day. When the ‘cham­pi­onship’ game was done, the Leafs switched skates for run­ning shoes, stopped for a hot dog at the snack bar and boarded the team bus in full gear. Though this was Min­nesota, it couldn’t have be a more Cana­dian scene.

I had din­ner that evening at Tom Reid’s bar a few blocks from Xcel, a well-known hang­out for hockey peo­ple. Tom once played for the Min­nesota North Stars dur­ing an 11-year NHL ca­reer and con­tin­ues as the Wild’s ra­dio colour com­men­ta­tor.

“Grow­ing up, my dad was a huge Leafs fan, but my favourite was Jean Be­liv­eau,” said Reid. “So we used to ar­gue con­stantly who was the bet­ter team and who’d win the Cup. It was great.

“I never saw a game at the Gar­dens un­til I was 19, Bru­ins and Leafs. When I played there, walk­ing around the halls, look­ing at the his­tory, it was just great to be a part of.”

Xcel’s hall­ways pay trib­ute to the ‘State of Hockey’ and its past. Godin proudly showed me the dif­fer­ent lev­els — grass­roots, high school, col­lege, Olympic and pro. Herb Brooks is im­mor­tal­ized with a statue in the short walk be­tween Xcel and the Wild head of­fice, once home to a pri­vate men’s club that also has a restau­rant named af­ter the famed coach.

The Min­nesota area is rich in cov­ered rinks, many of them dat­ing back to the 1930s and still in use. The White Bear Hip­po­drome was built in 1926 as part of the Ramsey County Fair com­plex and is the old­est in op­er­a­tion in the Twin Cities area.

Yet, dur­ing the pre-game warmup, the lower bowl around the Leafs end was a dozen rows deep in

Toronto colours. Ge­orge Gushu­lak and his nephew, Blair Pacheco, drove down from Win­nipeg and al­ways try to get to a few NHL games a year. Van­cou­ver is their next des­ti­na­tion . At his bach­e­lor party 25 years ago, Don McCall’s best friend gave him a Leafs sweater with his name on the back, along with his age at the time. On the sleeves is the date of his wed­ding and McCall still wears that to ev­ery Toronto game he at­tends with wife Michelle. On this night, they in­cluded eight-year old grand­son Ma­son for the six-hour drive from Thun­der Bay. It was Ma­son’s first live game, show­ing off his Mitch Marner sweater and Leafs toque.

But it’s the Thun­der Bay con­tin­gent out-num­ber­ing those who’d made the closer drive from Win­nipeg. One fan from there was in head-to-toe Leafs garb. I ap­proached four other guys who looked as though they’d been sam­pling lo­cal craft beers rather than the pop­u­lar mini-donuts hawked around the rink. They’d just ar­rived from the On­tario side of the border that morn­ing.

I al­ways ex­plain who I am and what my 82-game Leafs pro­ject is all about be­fore ask­ing for in­ter­views, get­ting names and tak­ing pic­tures, but at that point, the leader of the quar­tet sud­denly backed out say­ing: “No way, man, no way.”

He wouldn’t even face me, while the oth­ers had no reser­va­tions telling me all their great Leafs mo­ments. Cu­ri­ous what had set him off, I later ap­proached him — with­out my cam­era.

“Hey, are you vi­o­lat­ing your pa­role re­stric­tions or some­thing and can’t be seen?” I joked.

He as­sured me it was noth­ing per­sonal.

“Lis­ten, if my wife finds out I snuck away and am here with these guys, I may as well be on pa­role," he ex­plained. "She’ll kill me.”

When we all stopped laugh­ing, he gave me a hug and a big ‘Go Leafs, Go’ and we watched a 5-3 Toronto vic­tory.

Jake Gar­diner is in­ter­viewed re­cently dur­ing a 3-on-3 out­door tour­na­ment in St. Paul, Minn., that he and his dad, John, started up last year dur­ing the Maple Leafs’ visit to the Twin Cities. Top, Mike Wil­son (left) poses with Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.