Ask any pro hockey player: the road to the NHL is not a solo endeavour. Coaches, teammates, trainers, billet families, the friends who offer up rides to and from bantam practice; it really does take a village.
This was the motivation behind the Maple Leafs' first-ever mentors' trip, an opportunity for players to invite along an influential person from their own lives to see the Leafs at home last night and join the road trip to New York later today. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for both sides: pulling back the curtain on NHL life for the mentors, while giving the players a chance to recognize them for their invaluable contributions, both past and present.
"A lot of people impact your life and help shape who you are as a player and a person," says captain John Tavares who's bringing his former minor league Toronto Marlboros head coach, James Naylor. Over a decade into his NHL career, Tavares still credits Naylor for the ways he instilled accountability and a competitive mentality in his players.
"We still keep in touch; I think it speaks volumes about what he means to me and what he's brought to my game," says Tavares.
As one might imagine, former coaches are a customary mentor choice amongst the Maple Leafs players. For 23-year-old Pierre Engvall, whose former youth coach Michael Andersson is making the journey from his native Sweden to join him, the player-coach relationship has evolved into one of companionship over the years.
"I think he turns 60 this year, but he's like a 20-year-old. He's been like a friend to me," says Engvall. "He still contacts me almost every day. I know it means a lot [to celebrate him in this way.]"
When it came to selecting his mentor, new Maple Leaf Tyson Barrie kept in the family. His grandfather, Len Barrie Sr., who's run a hockey school out of Victoria, B.C. for the last 30 years, has taught the defenceman more than just puck skills since childhood.
"My grandpa has always been somebody I look up to," says Barrie. "He's great with kids, and between him and my Grandma, they do a lot of stuff in the community through the church. I try to take all his positives and put them into my life."
Barrie admits that for his grandfather, a long-time Leafs fan, finding out he'd be taking part in the mentors' trip was perhaps the most exciting phone call he'd received since learning his grandson was traded to the team last summer.
"He was pretty fired up. He's a die hard hockey guy; he could probably name every player who's ever played on the Leafs. I imagine this will be a dream come true for him to be in the mix with these guys," says Barrie.
At 29, goalie Michael Hutchinson still turns to his former coach James McGuire, someone he started working with during a March Break camp when he was just 14.
"I can lean on him anytime during the season, not just for on-ice stuff, but also off-ice stuff," says Hutchinson. "He came to my wedding, came out to my bachelor party. It really made me feel good making that call to see if he was free and interested in coming, even though I knew he would be," he laughs.
Still, Hutchinson says the most difficult part of this mentor opportunity was choosing just one person to recognize.
"No one makes it to the NHL by themselves; it takes a bunch of people," Hutchinson says. "It's cool to be able to celebrate that person who's made a huge contribution in helping you get to where you are."