Not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.
That’s what Winston Churchill called 1942, the year the tide began to turn for the Allies in World War II.
It is that time, in the playland of sports, for the Maple Leafs upcoming season: The end of the beginning.
“In so many ways, we are not at the beginning any more,” said Leafs coach Paul Maurice. “The beginning was last year. This is stage two. We don’t have to go over and re-establish our pace with our hockey players. We were even able to practice some breakouts and changes on the first day. It was weeks before we got into that last year.”
The Leafs played a round of golf at the Leaf Fund charity event, Monday morning at Angus Glen, then loaded onto an airplane for Edmonton. Awaiting them is a date with the Oilers on Tuesday and then a game Wednesday in Winnipeg against the Coyotes.
“It’s going to be fun,” said Alex Steen, shielding himself from a harsh morning sun. “Nice round of golf, some lunch and take the plane to Edmonton.”
Other than the odd fourth line or seventh defencemen, the makeup of the team is the closest thing to set.
Last year Carlo Colaiacovo, Matt Stajan and Ian White took substantial steps in their development. Alex Steen stumbled badly, then righted himself. All four should, by any reasoning, be good for more this season.
Throw in pivotal acquisitions Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake with vets Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker and Tomas Kaberle, and you have the old and the new, a revamped team largely toughened and tested by Maurice.
That, in turn, makes for a heady attitude. Sundin has been enthusiastically forecasting his team’s fortunes since he hit town.
“Mats I think has a great view of the game and a great understanding of where the team is” said Maurice. “In the exit meetings, he was probably the most enthusiastic and optimistic person. Even talking with him after the Blue and White game, there were a lot of things that he really liked.”
For Steen, Wednesday’s game represents a return home. He grew up in a city where his father, Thomas starred with the Jets. Steen remembers former Leaf Bryan Marchment, then a hardrock Winnipeg defenceman, standing in front of a makeshift net in the Jets room while the Steen tried to flip a puck past him.
“Growing up in a dressing room with a bunch of NHLers wasn’t too normal but it was definitely motivating and inspiring, especially when I got into an older age when I understood more,” Steen said.
“You could tell how much it took to get to where they were, especially a guy like Teemu (Selanne) who had terrific seasons in Winnipeg. The guys were all great and that’s something I really appreciate now.”
It promises to be a lovely homecoming for Steen but training camp is usually filled with the kind of practices that prompt thoughts of easier livelihoods.
Belak chuckled when someone compared the early stages of camp to the first day back at school.
“The first day of school, you show up, you get your books and go home.” he said cheerfully. “First day here you get worked over for about an hour and you can’t walk for the next week because you’ve got sore groins and hip flexors. You’re pretty tight until about the first game in September. Then everything starts loosening up.”
“You can tell what your players think of your hockey team Day One because you know how much effort they put in their summer,” said Maurice. “If they think you’ve got a chance to win, they go back and work because they want to be a part of it.
“Our top end are in very, very good shape. We’ve got a number of guys… I’m not sure they can get in better shape. The next big test is how they come back to the rink. While all were a little bit sore and a little bit tired, there were no major issues. That tells you that they had a workout in the summer fairly close to the workout they had in the first day.”
But none like the one they will encounter in Edmonton. The circus is starting again and with added expectations on coaches, players and management. The goals start counting a little bit more Tuesday night. They start counting for real two weeks Wednesday.