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The Official Site of the Toronto Maple Leafs

The Secret Society

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

Every day, in ways you will never know, NHL players have conducted their own version of the Pay it Forward moment.

It happens regardless of the rank or status of the player being taught or the veteran nurturing him along. It has gone on for generations. It is, in a real way, a manifestation of the immortal properties of kindness.

Kindness, American Idol judge Steven Tyler says, is the new black. If you want to see how it works, consider Leafs rookie Jake Gardiner tonight when he freewheels against the Winnipeg Jets.

Gardiner, a player of immense promise, hasn’t dressed for the last two Leaf games. It had nothing to do with Gardiner: the five defencemen in front of him are solidly-established. One of those, Carl Gunnarsson, was scratched 13 times last season. Leafs coach Ron Wilson needed to look at Cody Franson so Gardiner sat.

What you don’t know about, what you couldn’t know about, are the quiet, private words of encouragement Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf has shared with Gardiner, at practice, in the dressing room, in the gym.

“Practice is your time to shine,” Phaneuf will say. “You have to practice hard every day and prove you can play.”

Gardiner is paired with the effervescent Mike Komisarek, a player well known among the Leafs for his kindness to those with the least status in the dressing room. But Gardiner’s main mentor has been Phaneuf and it is no accident that the rookie’s locker is right beside the captain’s.

“Dion has been really good to me. He’s in my ear, encouraging me, telling me what I need to know,” Gardiner said. “It’s huge to me. It really means a lot.”

So in five years, will Phaneuf’s words bear fruit with another young player in whatever dressing room Gardiner calls home?

He promises it will.

“For sure, I will do that,” he said. “I did it with some freshmen at Wisconsin. Nobody wants to be the guy who walks around the dressing room like he’s stuck-up.”

When Mike Brown was finding his game in the American League, he was tutored by his coach Alain Vigneault and former NHL veteran Scott Arniel. For Quebecker Pascal Dupuis, a forward, wisdom came from an Albertan defenceman with 500 NHL games under his belt named Jamie Pushor.

The network of roots sustaining players is underground. Sometimes saplings are sheltered by giant redwoods.

When he was a rookie making poor decisions, on the ice and off with the Montreal Canadiens, Mikhail Grabovski’s agent gave him the phone number for Russian, Soviet and NHL hockey God Igor Larionov.

“Coming to the NHL, it’s like a different planet,” Grabovski said. “He helped me a lot. After only one time, I felt much better. He had huge experience. He held respect of really good players who played before.”

Larionov was the Russian Gretzky. He pioneered the Russian emigration to the NHL and survived the downfall of the Soviet state, tyrannical Viktor Tikhonov and the autocratic Scotty Bowman to fashion a Hall of Fame career. His roots extend to the great Russian stars who dominated the international game for decades. Larionov listened then. Grabovski does now.

Another Belarusian, Ruslan Salei, lost this fall in an airplane crash, was a key mentor to Grabovski. The Leafs centre sometimes has dinner with Detroit superstar Pavel Datsyuk who sends him texts urging him to shoot more.

Grabovski went out of his way to tutor Belarusian players at the World Championships. Some of those are playing or will play in the NHL.
The NHL schedule tells the world when players perform. What you don’t know, what you couldn’t know, is the underground network of the NHL shows them how.

Briefly: Manitoba native James Reimer makes his fifth start tonight against the Jets. Not surprisingly, Reimer credits his 2.49 goals against average and .917 save percentage to his defence… The Jets have struggled mightily to score this season and with seven goals have just one more goal than Phil Kessel. The reconstituted Atlanta Thrashers have not scored a power play goal. Former Leaf Kyle Wellwood drew attention when he said the Jets needed to play with more urgency. No word on when his body was taken over by a different life form… Jets centre Alexander Burmistrov is emerging as one of the NHL’s bright young stars. The 21-year-old, Barrie Colts alumni plays with former Leaf Nik Antropov and has three assists in his first four games. Leafs coach Ron Wilson thinks a little extra-ice time would push Matt Frattin into the goals column. “He’s had some great scoring chances but has played only played twelve and a half minutes,” Wilson said. “You’ve got to give him a few more minutes so you will notice him.” Wilson is wrong on that. Frattin’s sturdiness on his skates, his ability to recover the puck when he chips it into the offensive zone and his howitzer shot make him stand out.

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