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Home Opener Still Resonating With Team

Players and management reflect on the magic of the Home Opener

by Adam Proteau /

More than 36 hours had passed since the Maple Leafs' 4-1 win over the Bruins in Toronto's home opener, but Buds players - the young ones and the veterans - and team management couldn't help but let the magic of the first 2016-17 game at Air Canada Centre resonate with them just a little bit longer.

"It was awesome to be a part of," said Leafs rookie forward Connor Brown, who scored the first goal of the game, which was preceded by the organization announcing its players who'd had jersey numbers honoured by the team would now have those numbers retired. "Standing on the blueline for the anthem was a pretty cool moment. The crowd really energized and it was good to see, so it was a great night all-around."

"It was pretty crazy seeing all the people that have played for this team and how they're still remembered by the city," added first-year forward Mitch Marner, who scored his first career NHL goal in the victory. "Obviously everyone wants to be a part of that one day in their life, and I think we really made an impact in that game and showed what we're about."

You couldn't blame the youngsters who've never been part of an opening-night ceremony at the NHL level for being in awe, but even players who've been through a number of them recognized that this home-opener - celebrating the centennial anniversary of the franchise - was different and more meaningful.

"It was probably one of the better games I've been a part of as far as (the ceremonies) aspect," said veteran blueliner Jake Gardiner, now in his sixth season. "From the national anthem, obviously you could feel the energy in the rink there, and then throughout the night, every single time we scored or there was a big hit or a fight, the fans were into it. So that was fun."

"It was cool and a great thing to be a part of," added centre Tyler Bozak, referring to team legends such as former captains Darryl Sittler, Dave Keon and Wendel Clark, all of whom were on hand to see Toronto dominate Boston. "It was a pretty memorable night for everyone within the organization - past, present players, coaches and staff, everyone that's been a part of it. Those (Leafs icons) hold a special place in this organization. They're obviously guys we look up to, and we're very honoured to be able to put the jersey on after them. So it was awesome to be a part of that special moment."

One of the things that stood out for the Leafs during Saturday's game was their improved speed. This isn't to say Toronto was a plodding team last season - far from it, as a matter of fact - but with youngsters including Marner, Brown, centre Auston Matthews and forward William Nylander on the roster this year, the Buds are among the swiftest squads in the league.

"This team is definitely faster than the previous five years I've been here," Gardiner said. "Whether that's youth or the game's getting faster, I don't know what it is, but we're definitely a pretty fast team."

"Since (head coach Mike Babcock) got here our practices have got a lot faster, he's big on that, a lot of speed in practice," added Bozak. "And then we've got all these young, fast guys that are flying around in practice, too, so that probably adds to it."

The Leafs took to the ice at their practice facility Monday in preparation for a road trip that takes them to Winnipeg Wednesday, Minnesota Thursday and Chicago Saturday before returning home to face off against Tampa Bay next Tuesday. None of them are satisfied simply remembering the great moments in their win over the division-rival Bruins - but the way things turned out Saturday at Air Canada Centre were so ideal, it was fine for them to bask in its glow a day-and-a-half later.

"It was a great atmosphere (Saturday)," said Matthews, who Monday was named the NHL's second star of the week for a standout beginning to his rookie campaign. "It's the 100th year and it's a pretty special night for everybody, so I think the crowd was really into it (and) it was nice to get a 'W'."

"I didn't see (the ceremony) really until (Sunday), and it was impressive on TV," added Babcock. "But obviously for the gentlemen and their families to be immortalized for all time in such an organization, that ceremony must've been real special. I just know by watching the guys' eyes and the emotion in their face and the tears, that obviously was special to them.

"I'm thrilled for those guys and now it's a responsibility for us as a group to make sure the start of the next century is a good one."



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