Following a West Coast road swing, the Maple Leafs were happy to be home - and after their annual visit to see some very important fans at Toronto's Hospital For Sick Children Monday, the players and management were grateful for the inspiration those fans provided.
"I've been lucky enough to do the Sick Kids visits four times now, and each year you appreciate it more," said Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly. "Playing in Toronto you have a great opportunity to be out in the community, and it's always fun to be out in the community, but when kids are involved, it's that much better. You just want to make them smile and make them happy, but they end up doing that to you. It's really fun."
"It's special," added Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. "I have a kid from Sick Kids every night at the game with a parent, and it's always a thrill to meet them there, and then when you go back and see them there, it's special. No kid and no family wants to be at Sick Kids, the people and the staff do a fantastic job.
"We have an opportunity to give back in the community, and obviously, brighten the day, and it was very obvious yesterday that took place. But the other part is the message for you yourself as a player who's been blessed - enjoy what you're doing, do it well, and be very thankful."
The Maple Leafs make numerous charitable endeavours throughout the season - prior to their West Coast trip, they took to their practice facility ice at the MasterCard Centre in west-end Toronto for the annual Easter Seals charity skate - but taking a few hours out of their day to head to Sick Kids Hospital is something that clearly holds a dear spot in their hearts. For as focused as they are on winning games and making Leafs Nation proud of them, the players get an invaluable perspective on the impact they have on young people in difficult scenarios, and they also find their spirits bolstered by the resolve those youngsters show in taking on much more serious battles in life.
"In hockey and in any professional sport, you're you're focused on the team always, and you're always evaluating yourself," blueliner Connor Carrick said. You're always looking inward (and asking yourself), 'How am I doing? How am I helping? How am I contributing?' And it can be a stressor. It can be something you think about if you're not happy with it.
"And sometimes gaining a little sense of perspective by getting out in the community and understanding your role in the real world, how fortunate you are, how positive your outlook really should be. I'm not a big fan of looking down at someone with tougher circumstances and saying, 'Wow, I'm so fortunate', but you have an appreciation for the level of battle certain families have to deal with. And it's even more sentimental come holiday time. The families are at the forefront of your mind."
After going 1-1-1 on the road trip that took them through Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, Toronto's on-ice focus switches to the Minnesota Wild, who will visit the Air Canada Centre Wednesday night. The Wild have a 12-8-4 record, but they're just 5-5-4 on the road. Meanwhile, the Leafs are 8-3-0 at the ACC and are aiming to close the six-point gap that separates them from the final wild card playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. And although there's always an adjustment period - more physical than mental - that comes when teams return home from a lengthy road trip, Babcock doesn't believe there's any rationale that will excuse a less-than-strong effort from his players.
"Any time you have as much (recuperation) time as we did, there's no issue," said Babcock, referring to the three-day break between Saturday's 3-2 shootout loss to the Canucks and Wednesday's game. "I think when you come back (with) that time change and play two nights later, it's harder for you for sure, even more so than the first night back. But we're lucky in this situation - we stayed an extra day (in Vancouver), so we're in a good situation and that shouldn't be an issue."
And with the memories of their visit to Sick Kids fresh in their minds, the Leafs should be inspired and prepared to give their fans something to cheer for.
"It's a very good thing for us, very humbling, and very inspirational for us," winger Matt Martin said of the hospital visit. "Any time you can put a smile on a kid's face, especially children that are going through tough times, it means a lot to us."