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Battle At Leafs Camp Begins

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

TORONTO (CP) -- Once a major cog in Toronto's Stanley Cup contending teams of the late 1990s, Steve Thomas arrived at the Maple Leafs' camp Monday needing to prove himself all over again after 21 NHL seasons.

The 42-year-old free agent was invited on a tryout and the competition is fierce to make the team. He's swallowed his pride and accepted the challenge that lies ahead.

""My ego is out the door,"" Thomas said on the first day of camp. ""It's totally out the door. I'll play any position or any role they want me to play.

""I'm looking forward to this, really looking forward to it. This is where I want to play.""

Thomas also had a tryout offer from Detroit but wanted to play in Toronto, where he began his NHL career in 1984 and rejuvenated it more than a decade later with a 28-goal season in 1998-99 and a 26-goal season in 1999-2000. Along the way, he scored some big playoff goals for the Leafs.

""I honestly think I can still do that,"" insisted Thomas, who had 10 goals and 12 assists in 44 games with Detroit in 2003-04. ""I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could contribute like that. But you know what? We'll see, this whole thing is up to me. The ball is in my court.

""I have to impress these people and I'm very much prepared to that. And if I make this hockey team, it's because I deserve to be here. It's not because of who I am and what I've done in the past.""

If he makes the team, he'll likely make no more than the $450,000 US minimum salary. The Leafs don't have a lot of salary cap room to play around.

Free-agent defenceman Bryan Marchment is in the same spot as Thomas, also trying to make this team as a walk-on after being extended a tryout.

""A lot of it will be determined on what we see, on what Pat (Quinn) feels and what I feel and how they play,"" Leafs GM John Ferguson said Monday.

Marchment, 36, had one goal, three assists and 106 penalty minutes in 2003-04, his first with the Leafs. He insists he's not hurt by the fact he wasn't offered a contract and has to earn his job all over again.

""Not really,"" Marchment said Monday as players reported for medicals. ""Whether I had a contract three years ago or 10 years ago, I've always felt like I was fighting for my job at training camp.""

Marchment said other teams were interested but he wanted to remain a Leaf.

""I'm here to make the Toronto Maple Leafs,'' Marchment said. ""Worst-case scenario, I've got free ice time this week.""

Centre Eric Lindros was pumped on the first day of camp. He had always dreamed of being a Leaf and that day came true last month when the Leafs signed the oft-injured star.

""I'm fired up about being here,"" he said. ""I'm really looking forward to a good week at camp to get things going again.""

The Leafs open the pre-season Sunday night at home to Ottawa.

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