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Learning Continues Off-Ice For Leafs' Rookies

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
It’s around 2 a.m., December 19 and with the aches of the game a few hours before in full blossom, the Toronto Maple Leafs arrive in their hotel in Pittsburgh.

Dog tired, the veterans and coaches take their room keys and find the elevators.

Watching them are the rookies, Luke Schenn, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski. Never mind that those three represent the future of the franchise. The rookies make sure every veteran and coach has their ride to their room. Then, and only then, do they get on the elevator.

Welcome to The Life, a code of behaviour expected and if necessary, enforced, by the old, for the young. The public sees the prospect mature on the ice, but in the dressing room, on the bus, at dinner on the road another kind of apprenticeship is underway.

“Unwritten rule,” said 41-year-old goalie Curtis Joseph. “When you get in at 2 a.m. and the elevators can fit four people, the young guys aren’t getting on before the veterans.”

Not on this hockey team. Not on any hockey team.

It’s a dynamic rookie Luke Schenn instinctively understands. It comes down to comportment. And that, he understands, is noticed by the veterans.

“I think when you have a kid like Luke, he’s very humble and he’s very open to trying to learn,” said forward Dominic Moore. “He asks a lot of questions. Not all rookies are like that. When the veterans see a guy who is so eager to learn and has such a good attitude, they’re eager to help.”

“You have to respect everyone all the time, but even more so as a rookie,” said the 20-year-old Schenn. “When we walk into a hotel on the road, there’s a lineup for the elevators, you let the older guys go first. Little things like that. On the bus, on the plane, if they need to do stuff you let them go.

“The times I need treatment I’ll go in early or stay a little bit late and make sure that everyone else is taken care of,” Schenn said. “The veterans have been around the league and they’ve gone through it too. They had to do the same things too.”

The fealty demanded by the veterans is a small price. Rookies arrive in the league knowing next to nothing about the perils and demands of their new life. No one else in the world is as qualified to instruct as the veteran.

When Schenn made the big club, Jamal Mayers, Matt Stajan, Jeff Finger and Curtis Joseph gave him advice on wardrobe. The boyish Schenn had no idea how to dress as an NHLer.

“In Saskatchewan you don’t dress up too much. You throw on your winter coat and away you go. Here when your on the road you have to dress up.”

“What you are teaching is how to be a professional,” Joseph said. “It’s tipping and how to treat the people who hold the door open for you at the hotels. Luke is going to pass this on someday and if we don’t pass these things on to him, the next generation of kids is not going to wait for the veterans to get on the elevator.”

The enemy, Joseph said, is ignorance.

“The young players have to know the older player has paved the way. They can wait an extra nine minutes for the elevator. We’re not cutting their hair, we’re not giving a guy wedgies, but respect carries on to the ice. Respect means that you don’t hit a guy from behind. It means that if there’s not enough seats on the bus, the rookies double up. That respect translates into everything: how you treat women, how you don’t get in trouble. You have to pass that along.”

Leafs’ coach Ron Wilson played in a time when the price exacted from veterans was much higher. He remembers Tiger Williams and some other veterans inflicting a rookie haircut.

“That’s a bad haircut. When they take a razor and run it against a brick wall and then get to work on you, it’s not a lot of fun.”

Still, Wilson too demands his young players pay a price for the privilege of playing in the NHL. If a veteran’s game drops off, Wilson will send him to the press box. The same transgression gets a rookie a ticket to the minors. Just ask Kulemin whose reward for an uninspired streak was three games in three nights for the Marlies before being called back up.

Wilson has one more device he likes to use.

“I have to get some of these young guys to help the trainers take the bags from the airport,” he said. “A lot of time the players don’t understand how hard the trainers work and what their hours are. Hanging up really stinky stuff can be pretty disgusting.”
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