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Liles wasting no time making contributions in Toronto

by Dave Lozo /
NEW YORK -- John-Michael Liles is a native of Indianapolis and, not surprisingly, a car enthusiast. The Maple Leafs' defenseman is the proud owner of a 1969 Camaro. During the summer, he was acquired by Toronto GM Brian Burke from the Colorado Avalanche just before the Entry Draft in a move designed to give the club more punch from the blue line.

So far, things are going pretty well for Liles in his new home.

The Leafs are off to a 5-2-1 start, and Liles has been making contributions from the back end. Through 8 games, the 30-year-old has 6 assists while logging 22:32 of ice time per game, second most on the team behind captain Dion Phaneuf.

With the Leafs in town to take on the New York Rangers in their home opener Thursday, Liles stopped by NHL headquarters in midtown Manhattan to meet with the media and chat with fans at the NHL store. The graduate of Michigan State also spent some time talking about his alma mater's dramatic football victory last weekend, the difference between playing in Denver and Toronto, and what it's like to go from playing against Phil Kessel to being his teammate:

John-Michael Liles
Defense - TOR
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 6
SOG: 15 | +/-: -2
Q: Saturday night, you guys beat the Canadiens in overtime. The game ended at about 9:45 or so. That left you plenty of time to catch the Hail Mary that gave Michigan State the win over unbeaten Wisconsin. Did you see it?

Liles: So we flew from Montreal to Philly, and after the game, the game wasn't quite over yet. We were on the plane and I was getting updates on my phone. It was 31-all with 4 seconds left on the 44. I'm like, "It's going to overtime." We're taking off, so whatever. I refresh, and all of a sudden it's 37-31 with no time left. So I put on Twitter, "Somebody please tell me what the hell just happened in the Michigan State game!" Then I landed in Philly and everybody's like, it was Hail Mary, this and that. When I got to my room in Philly, I made sure to watch the highlights.

Q: So you saw the score while you were on the ground and Philly and didn't believe it?

Liles: Yeah, I thought somebody messed up or something. Literally, I looked at it and said, "Somebody had to mess up." There was just no way. From the 44...what happened? Wow.

Q: Did you chirp the Wisconsin guy on the team, Jake Gardiner?

Liles: Oh yeah. I was giving him a lot of flak. He's a good kid. He's only a little bit cocky, so I have to bring him down to earth a little bit now and then.

Q: You made your own history by playing in the Cold War, the outdoor game between Michigan State and Michigan in 2001. What are some of your memories from that game?

Liles: It was pretty amazing. It was like a month after September 11, so there was a lot emotion. That's just something you'll never forget because of the experience, and also the events that happened previous to that. It was a heck of a game. We ended up tying it with about 40 seconds left, it went to overtime and ended up being a tie game. It seemed fitting, but it would've been nice if we had gotten a win. We had (74,544) people there (a record for a hockey game at that time) and perfect weather. It was a lot of fun, for sure.


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Q: Any chance of getting a reunion going and having a three-man shootout to decide it?

Liles: I don't know. If it's a three-man shootout, I'm betting I'm not in it. The good thing is Ryan Miller was our goalie, so I bet we'd be in good shape.

Q: What are some of the differences between playing in Denver and playing in Toronto?

Liles: I gotta be honest -- it's not bad playing at sea level. I had a great time in Denver. A really, really good eight years. Denver was awesome. A lot of good memories, fantastic place to play and an organization that gave me an opportunity to break into the NHL. To play there that long, I feel pretty fortunate. I made a lot of great friends and a lot of good memories. But playing in Toronto, it's Toronto. It's the place where you want to be and you want to come in and -- I've been saying this all along -- hopefully be a puzzle piece to helping this team have success and reach the playoffs.

Q: Have you had a "Welcome to Toronto" moment where you realized that it isn't like most other hockey cities?

Liles: It's a lot different. In Denver, you get recognized every now and again. But in Toronto, you get recognized no matter what you're doing.

Q: You're getting recognized already?

Liles: It's starting. It's gotten a lot more than I thought. I thought it would've taken a while. But it's Toronto. It's a religion up there.

Q: Was the altitude really that big a problem after eight years? The body doesn't get used to it?

Liles: Regardless of how acclimated you get to it, it hurts. It's one of those things where here you're out on a long shift, it is what it is, you deal with it. In Colorado, you feel it two days after the game.

Q: It's like that for athletes in the primes of their lives, huh?

Liles: Talk to the kid over there (gestures toward the 21-year-old Gardiner, who has spent time chirping Liles during the interview). He's in the prime of his life. I'm 30 now.

Q: It seems like with the Leafs, everyone is on Twitter. Is that some sort of requirement for being a member of the team? (Liles is @hoosierjm26)

Liles: I got on Twitter after last season, before I got traded. It's just something I thought it would be kind of cool to give the fans a glimpse into my daily life and routine and whatnot. I got traded to Toronto and my followers went up like 10,000 in a couple days. It's a way to kind of give the fans something about what I go through day to day. I think if I were younger and watching hockey and if Brian Leetch had a Twitter, that would be something that I would've followed. Obviously, I'm not Brian Leetch. But that was a guy I looked up to and idolized and it would've been cool to see what was going on with him from day to day.

Q: Is there a lot of chirping from fans of other teams?

Liles: Not really. It's mostly positive. It's just a lot of people asking questions more than anything. A lot of replies to stuff that you're doing, but nothing too crazy.

Q: You've had to defend Phil Kessel a few times in your career before coming to Toronto. What's it like?

Liles: He's a dynamic player. Great speed, great shot, great feel for the game. The guy can be a game-changer. He's a guy that was tough to play against. In practice, he could be real tough to play against. You see the impact he's had on our team so far this year. When he's on, he can be really on. He can change the course of a game in two shifts.

Q: Was there anything you learned about him as a teammate that you didn't know about him when you were with the Avs?

Liles: I think you have expectations about somebody before you ever meet them, and coming in and meeting Phil, I don't think he's exactly what I expected. I think he's a lot quieter. He's a guy that … I don't think you really understand until you're around him and meet him. He's quiet. He's almost … he's not stand-offish, but he's a guy who I don't think searches out the limelight. He's very skilled and very good at what he does, but he doesn't have to be in that spotlight. I think his skills and how he plays the game does that.

Q: Did you feel bad for him at the All-Star Game last year?

Liles: (laughing) Honestly, I don't think I was even paying attention at that point. I mean, nobody ever wants to get picked last, whether you're a second-grader playing kickball or it's an All-Star Game. But you know what, whatever. Maybe he's using it as motivation right now. Nine goals in eight games? That's not bad.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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