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First stop: Toronto

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

It’s ironic that the first stop for the Vancouver Canucks on their unprecedented, never-before-seen, mind-boggling 14-game road trip is the centre of the universe.

That seems more like where this journey should end.

The Canucks travel to Toronto to play the Maple Leafs on Saturday as part of CBC’s 10th annual Hockey Day in Canada, a celebration of hockey as a universal language spoken by all Canadians, this year broadcast from Stratford, Ontario.

Vancouver and Toronto is the first of back-to-back games but don’t expect this contest to be rated-G simply because it’s in the matinee time slot.

The hatred that exists between the Canucks and Leafs dates back more years than I have fingers or toes and it seems to be generating steam each season. While Canucks fans rally together every game, regardless of opponent, twice a year they put the crew from Band of Brothers to shame by coming together to celebrate their massive distaste for the Leafs.

Toronto fans do the same regarding the Canucks and all-of-the-sudden it’s a hockey game to determine which side of Canada rules all - east vs. west for all the marbles.

That was on full display earlier this year when the Maple Leafs, still winless at the time, came to GM Place and were rudely sent packing by the Canucks in a 3-1 Vancouver win. The atmosphere had a life of its own that night with Canucks fans and Maple Leafs fans split close to 50/50.

That was also the scene last season when Toronto visited Vancouver, but things got especially hairy when the Canucks took on the Leafs at Air Canada Centre.

All the hype surrounding the return of Mats Sundin to Toronto couldn’t live up to the game itself with Sundin scoring the shootout game-winner in a 3-2 Canucks win.

It would take one heckuva outing from both teams to top that game, but the Canucks aren’t in search of style point this time around, they simply want to start life on the road on the right foot.

“This is one of the big hockey markets, much like ourselves, and it’s going to be fun, especially with Hockey Day in Canada, we’re looking forward to it,” forward Mason Raymond told Kristin Reid of CanucksTV on Friday.

“We want to get off to a good start at the beginning of a long road trip here and it’s a fun building to play in and I think guys are looking forward to it.”

While everyone will be a little move revved up than usual to go to battle, for Shane O’Brien playing the Leafs in Toronto is a once-a-year treat that he relishes.

O’Brien grew up in Port Hope, Ontario, a municipality nestled 109 kilometers east of Toronto and 159 kilometers west of Kingston in Southern Ontario. He bled blue and white and all that jazz and although he will not admit the error of his ways, he wants to beat the Leafs for a sixth straight time and up Vancouver’s winning streak to seven games more than anyone.

"It’s definitely special," said O'Brien. "I grew up a Leafs fan and I remember going to Maple Leafs Gardens and when this building opened coming here with my dad to watch the Leafs play and everytime I come back it’s special. It’s even better when we can win here, there’s no better team to beat than the Leafs, it’s a lot of fun."

O’Brien is one of five Canucks from Ontario, a list that includes Ryan Johnson, Kevin Bieksa and former Leafs Kyle Wellwood and Andrew Raycroft. All, except Bieksa, will be playing in front of friends and family for the first time since last November when Vancouver traveled east. All in all there are eight players that will feel right at home during the first few games of the trip with other stops including Ottawa and Montreal, where Steve Bernier, Roberto Luongo and Alex Burrows grew up.

“Going out east and playing in Canada in those markets always makes for fun games,” smiled Burrows.

“For some reason since I’ve been here it’s always been great going out east, we’ve always had some success and I know guys are playing in front of their friends and family so that’s fun. Plus we get to play in front of our eastern fans, and there’s a lot of them out there, so it’s a lot of fun and hopefully we’ll be able to get some wins.”

Last season the Canucks went 3-1-0 with two shootout wins in a four game eastern road trip that began in Calgary.

Vancouver has been impressive on the road over its last 10 games winning six of them and collecting points in seven and that success must continue if the Canucks hope to make it through the next 41 days away from home.

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