Exactly 19 years after the Maple Leafs played their final game at Maple Leaf Gardens, the team returned to the iconic Toronto hockey arena Tuesday for an open practice in front of their adoring fans. And although the building isn't exactly the same as it was when it hosted NHL hockey for more than 67 years - it's now a multipurpose facility that is grocery store and part athletic centre for Ryerson University - the spirit and history of the Gardens still resonates with today's group of Leafs.
"You hear stories about Maple Leaf Gardens and the great history that happened there," said Leafs centre Tyler Bozak, who was a 12-year-old boy when the Buds played their final game at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1999. "It was cool to be in that atmosphere. I've been in there a few times before, (and) it's pretty neat to be in there and skate around."
"I've always been raised having an appreciation for that kind of (hockey history) stuff," added Bozak's linemate, winger James van Riemsdyk. "So it's cool always to get a little taste of it, even though it's completely revamped from what it was when the Leafs used to play there. But still, that being said, it's a pretty cool building to be in, and obviously, to practice in there was pretty fun."
The Leafs took part in the open practice on one of their bigger collective highs of the season thus far, as winners of eight of their past nine games, including a 4-3 victory over the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning at Air Canada Centre Monday. The Buds have also beaten strong squads such as the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars on their current run, and have the opportunity to sweep their five-game home stand with a win over the Columbus Blue Jackets Wednesday.
They certainly still have areas of their game to work on, but with a 34-19-5 record (including an 18-8-2 mark at home), the Leafs have earned the right to be confident and believe they can beat any opponent.
"You look at the teams that we've played in this last little bit and beat, those are all very good hockey teams, and teams that we wanted to put ourselves up against and see where we stand," Bozak said. "I thought we did a really good job."
Veteran forward Patrick Marleau was a key member of some excellent San Jose Sharks teams prior to joining the Leafs this season. And the 38-year-old looked at Toronto's win over the Lightning - a win that included the Buds allowing Tampa Bay to erase a 3-0 Leafs lead before the home team answered back with the game-winner from van Riemsdyk - as part of the maturation process for a young group.
"I think it was for the most part good," Marleau said of Monday's win. "There were some bad bounces going the other way on us, but we stuck with it and found a way to win. Just learning the right way to play and what it takes to win consistently. It's a lot of hard work, but when you put in the hard work, you get the results."
As the senior member of the Leafs, Marleau is the only one on the roster who has experience playing in a game at Maple Leaf Gardens. Granted, that experience came in his rookie season in the NHL, but for a kid who grew up watching Hockey Night in Canada on TV and understanding what cachet the arena had for so many fans of the sport, he appreciated the chance to get back into the shrine at the corners of Church and Carlton Streets and take to the ice again.
"That's a building, one of the Original Six, one of the better buildings in the league," Marleau said of the Gardens. "A lot of history there, and being able to go there in my first (NHL) year was pretty special.
"Those older buildings, there's a lot of memories in there, a lot of nostalgia. It was nice to get back there."