The Maple Leafs take pride in giving each game their all, but there will be a little twist when they take on the Minnesota Wild Thursday at Scotiabank Arena: for one thing, the game's start time will be a rare 2 p.m. weekday kickoff; and, in addition, there will be an abundance of youth in the stands as the team celebrates the Next Gen Game presented by Scotiabank - a day to celebrate the coming generations of new Leafs fans.
And for Leafs players and coaches, the chance to get back on the winning track - in front of many kids who might be attending their very first NHL game - is one they relish.
"It's a great concept, a very cool concept, for the youth to come out and support (the team)," said centre Nazem Kadri. "I know obviously with the prices of games, it's probably hard to get a ton of kids in the building, even though I'm sure they're watching on their TV sets. But it's a great concept."
"It's nice to see how excited kids are, and it's probably the experience of a lifetime for some of them," added Leafs goalie Garret Sparks, who will be in net against the Wild Thursday. "I loved playing in school games in Junior and back with the Marlies. It's always loud and maybe a little higher-pitched, and the kids always encourage you."
Sparks is accustomed to having youngsters in the stands; as a member of the American League's Toronto Marlies in recent seasons, he's played in front of thousands of children who attended games as part of a school outing. And he and other Leafs know that growing the game at the grassroots level is crucial to the future of the sport.
"I think we do a real good job here in Toronto with our fan base and with kids, and doing everything we can to sell the game," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said after practice Wednesday. "I think (Leafs owner) Mr. (Larry) Tanenbaum is really into that and it's a special thing…the only way you get good players is if you have grassroots hockey, and so sharing with the community is so important."
Leafs forward Patrick Marleau has four sons, all of whom have followed his lead as lovers of the game. And he hopes the children who are in attendance Thursday have fun first and foremost; that's the key, he said, to bringing them into the sport as participants and viewers, and devoting their time and energy to it.
"Just having fun is the major thing," Marleau said. "Once they do that, maybe they start looking forward to it a little bit more, and that's when they'll maybe have a great experience coming to a game - watching the players in warm-up, maybe having a puck thrown to them by one of the guys. Hopefully there's something they can take from it and build off of that."
Kadri and his teammates know getting back on the winning track - after a flat outing in a 4-0 loss to the New York Islanders Saturday - is the most crucial thing for them to focus on. However, he's well-aware Thursday's game also could be the day a youngster or two is so thrilled by the experience, they make a vow to work their way through the amateur ranks and eventually make it to the NHL - and perhaps skate in a Next Gen Game of their own down the road.
"That's something you can pinpoint where you said that's the moment you want to play in the NHL," Kadri said. "That could give the youth motivation, and sometimes that's all you need."