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It All Starts Tonight

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
   
 
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A year ago the Maple Leafs opened their season and Tyler Bozak was an unknown commodity watching the game on television and cheering on his roommate Viktor Stalberg.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere was in goaltending limbo in Anaheim. Seismic changes would see him lose his starting job to Jonas Hiller.

Mike Zigomanus was undertaking a season that would see him bounce between the Marlies and a Swedish team.

Colby Armstrong was an Atlanta Thrasher, opening his season in St. Louis.

This is why time begins on opening day. Because within a few hours, the importance of the Leafs 29th place finish last year will vaporize under the weight of the endeavour of those four men and 16 more.

Opening night, naturally enough, is the night of absolution. Last year’s sins, carried sandbags through the summer and early fall, will be consigned, as Churchill wrote, to the dustbins of history.

Individual and collective achievements are in constant push and pull. What is good for the group is usually good for the individual but the ripening of careers, the determination to make good on a chance that seemed unreachable a few months ago, these things are subtexts to the season.

Take Bozak, a college kid bound for the Marlies last year, now the club’s number once centre and the architect of much of what Phil Kessel and Kris Versteeg will achieve this year.

“My nerves are starting to come in again,” he said in a jammed dressing room after the pre-game skate. “I’m excited.”

A year later, he is a year wiser.

“You never want to get sent down, it’s your goal to be up, but as I look back it was the best thing for me.”

“I was happy it happened that way.”

At 33 and with a Stanley Cup already in his resume, Giguere is entering the fall of his career. He has been handed a rebuilding team with a veteran defence, the company of his preferred goaltending coach, Francois Allaire, and a mentoring role with his apprentice Jonas Gustavsson.

This is the final year of his contract and with experienced goalies, especially fit ones, at a premium, this is a tremendously important year in his career.

“I want to be a number one guy,” Giguere said. “I want to play lots of games and I want to have fun. Jonas wants the same thing. It’s going to be a battle all year and it starts tonight.”

Zigomanis, a veteran of 11 pro teams, hasn’t seen the media circus that is Toronto-Montreal but one night was close.

“I was in Tampa on opening night the year after the Lightning won the Cup,” he said. “Hulk Hogan was there, tearing off his shirt, saying whatever he says before a wrestling match.”

There is a digital clock in every NHL dressing room counting down the moment until the players take the ice, but the overriding clock quietly ticks down careers as well.

Even Armstrong, the gregarious 27-year-old admits that he feels it.

”I was always the young guy on the team, at least for my first few years of pro.  Now I’m moving into that spot where I am one of the older guys here.  I think every year is a different challenge. Every year it’s a new team. Every year your role can change, up or down. “

Opening night is about all those things and behind the buoyant optimism is a sobering truth: as soon as the slate is wiped clean they start keeping score again. That’s what makes it worth watching. Every life inside an NHL dressing room is subject to tumultuous change. Every year a challenge, every year a new team, every year a role that goes up and down.

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