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Taking The Game Outdoors

by Kristina Costabile MapleLeafs /

Aleksa Groen in 't Woud arrived at Nathan Phillips Square on Thursday morning around 9 a.m., hours before the Toronto Maple Leafs Outdoor Practice presented by Sport Chek was set to begin.

It was a school day for the grade 12 student, but she was skipping class and a test to catch a glimpse of her favourite NHL team. 

Thursday was the kickoff of a jam-packed weekend at the iconic downtown Toronto outdoor rink, as the Maple Leafs began four days of celebrating the game of hockey at all levels. 

The free activities throughout the weekend also included a Leafs alumni game where Leafs legends like Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour faced off against each other on the outdoor rink and a First Responders Game featuring some of the city's finest.

To start off the weekend was the Blue and White's 3-on-3 tournament and that's why Groen in 't Woud was at the rink as early as possible.

She had one of the best seats in the house; front row and right behind the net for a perfect view of the event that began three hours after she arrived.

Groen in 't Woud was holding a sign that had a check list on it as she hoped to catch the attention of the players on the ice. The list that she called her 'Grade 12 Bucket List' had three to-dos: Watch the Leafs practice (which had been checked off), get a picture with her favourite player Mitch Marner and to get a puck. 

"(Marner) is so entertaining to watch," smiled Groen in 't Woud, as the sound of skates scraping on the outdoor sheet of ice could be heard while she talked. "He bats the puck out of the air, he's so fast, he makes great plays and he's, overall, so good."

In what has become a tradition for the Leafs organization, the team holds a free outdoor practice inviting fans that may not be able to watch inside Scotiabank Arena on game nights to see the players practice up close. 

It was a sunny, cold January afternoon; with the wind chill it was about -11 Celsius. But the weather didn't stop hundreds of fans from lining up around the rink to get as close to their hockey heroes as possible.

"It's super cold," laughed Groen in 't Woud. "I can't feel my toes but it's all worth it. I haven't been able to go to any games. I just watch Saturday night hockey on CBC and just to be able to see these players so close is amazing. It's unbelievable."

Marner was on Team Ontario along with Zach Hyman, Jason Spezza, Travis Dermott, Mason Marchment, Cody Ceci and John Tavares for the tournament. Despite losing to Team East (Kasperi Kapanen, Frederik Gauthier, Dmytro Timashov, Pierre Engvall, Martin Marincin and William Nylander) in the finals, the Markham, Ont. native enjoyed the experience of playing in the fresh air in front of the Leaf faithful.

"Growing up in this area I remember, you always looked up to hockey players," said Marner. "And I think it's cool to do these events and have these kids come out here and have everyone come out to watch us. It's fun for us. It's fun for them. It's fun for everyone. I think everyone enjoys it."

In what has also become a tradition, the team rode the TTC subway to the rink. The entire squad piled onto the underground trains, dressed in their full gear, to commute with other Torontonians to Nathan Phillips Square.

"I haven't been on the subway in a little while, so it was good," chuckled Tavares. "Just everyone kind of being a little bit surprised, kind of caught off guard you know of us coming on. It's amazing just the support, even people just saying words of encouragement as we walked by. Fun to do it. It's a different experience for us but certainly one we enjoy."

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