For most, the minor leagues are where you go to fail.
It’s the getting back up that defines who you are.
Take the Toronto Marlies who will skate onto the ice at the Ricoh Coliseum Wednesday having improved to 50 wins from 34 the season before.
The Marlies, North Division Champions, play the San Antonio Rampage in a best-of-seven affair that kicks off Wednesday and runs into Friday’s Game 2. The puck drops for both games at 7:30 p.m.
The Marlies lineup is dotted with players who made cameos on the Leafs roster: Kris Newbury, Bates Battaglia, Andy Wozniewski, Jiri Tlusty, and a whole bunch of players you haven’t heard much about.
But, unlike the Maple Leafs, who made a protracted, sorrowful exit from playoff competition, the Marlies are giddy at the thought of hockey in the spring.
“This is the first time I’ve ever played a seven game series,” said Wozniewski.
“I can’t wait. I think it’ll be so cool.”
“I’ve gotten into the second round of the playoffs twice in junior,” said goalie Justin Pogge, “but I’ve never played past my birthday, April 22. This is going to be great.”
It is indeed refreshing at The Ricoh, a jewel of a rink located just a short streetcar ride from Air Canada Centre.
For one thing, the Marlies are unabashed in their admiration of each other. They are, to a man, honest hockey players and if they are on their game, they will give you all you want. Then they’ll give you a little bit more.
“Marlies hockey is relentless hockey,” said defenceman Jaime Sifers. It’s get the puck deep, bang teams and make them make poor decisions.”
The team’s style is in fact, as old as the game itself, but the heavy forecheck, bang the boards style is probably a homage to Mike Keenan, a coach and influence for Marlies bench boss Greg Gilbert.
“We never back off after a whistle,” said 10-goal rookie Brent Aubin.
“We stand up together. After we hit a guy, the whole bench gets up. We don’t back up. Our chemistry is unbelievable.”
It is a chemistry built not just on the bus and during heinous road trips but in the humbling crucible of day-to-day life in the minors.
For every Anton Stralman who touched down for just 21 games before graduating to the Leafs, there are a half-dozen or more players who encounter their first real taste of failure in the American League. Most every player on the roster was one of the best, if not the best player for every team he played on. The fall back to earth can be crushing.
Aubin scored 192 goals in junior. With the Marlies, he was generating meager ice time and found himself stuck forever on two goals. A late flourish lifted him all the way to 10.
“It was pretty tough,” he said. “.In junior I was getting 30 minutes, power play, penalty kill. But I went on the ice here trying to get better every day, in a game or practice. It was a rough time but the coaches just told me keep working harder. I learned how to get better defensively and get stronger on the wall and make sure I finished my check every time and keep moving my feet.”
“It’s what the minors are for,” Pogge said, “to get your game to where it should be or get it back to where it should be.”
Pogge dropped his goals against average from 3.03 in his rookie year to 2.34 this year.
“Hockey is a weird life, full of ups and downs,” he said. “Getting back up to even keel and finding more confidence when you are having a down time, that’s a big part of pro hockey. Once you get it in your mind that no matter what, you can definitely come back, you have a real advantage.”
Wozniewski played, often sparingly, in 48 Leafs games. He has found an oasis of confidence with the Marlies and has potted 7 goals and 17 points in 33 games.
“I feel a lot more confident and I’m having a lot more fun,” he said.
“I feel comfortable jumping up into the play. The great thing for me is having a bit more freedom to show my skills.”