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All-Star Game

Marner perseveres with Maple Leafs despite adversity in All-Star season

Forward is thriving, wins Last Men In vote while overcoming heartache, injury

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Mitchell Marner is finally healing, both inside and out.

The Toronto Maple Leafs forward is going to the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Game at Enterprise Center in St. Louis on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS) hoping to close a tumultuous six-month chapter of his life wrought with physical pain, gnawing heartache and churning frustration. 

"It's been a roller coaster. A lot of ups and downs," Marner said in a candid interview with "But it's definitely made me stronger, knowing the will I have in me and knowing the will I have in my family and how much my family believes in me, supports me and loves me.

"That's one of the reasons it's so great to be able to go to All-Star Weekend. I'm so excited to be part of it, be able to share it with my family, and to know it was public support that helped get me here. 

"It's awesome. It's a chance to put a lot of the recent [chaos] behind me."

He was named to the Atlantic Division team as part of the 2020 NHL All-Star Last Men In presented by adidas fan vote. The overwhelming public backing was refreshing for the 22-year-old forward, who still remembers feeling the wrath of certain outspoken fans not so long ago.

Marner, a native of the Toronto-area community of Markham, recalled walking his dog last summer when teenagers began yelling at the restricted free agent for not yet having signed a new contract with the Maple Leafs. He eventually agreed to a six-year $65.3 million contract on Sept. 13, but not before his family -- primarily his father Paul -- had been criticized on social media for allegedly meddling in his son's decision-making process.

"Obviously that entire signing situation, that's the first time I've been through a situation like that," Marner said. "My family situation and having to go through that, it was different. It was very hard. It didn't make me mad, I'd say it made me more uncomfortable about what people would say to my family. It made me uncomfortable and not happy about it.

"I'm lucky that my family was with me through it all, backing me in whatever decision I made."

Months later, Marner said he embraces the fact there are far more fans in his corner than not.

Video: TOR@FLA: Marner finishes pretty passing with Hyman

"Now seeing and knowing how much the fans believe in me and our team and every player on our team, it's great," he said. "I know they were trying to make me sign as quick as I could. I understood that part. Everyone wanted the best for both sides. We figured something out and it's greatly appreciated that they voted me in. 

"It's been amazing. To be honest, I didn't really know how the process worked when that fan vote came out. I've heard multiple things about how certain teams have fan bases that set up hundreds of accounts in those voting things and put them in. The way I dealt with it, I made sure I wasn't getting my hopes up so I could cope so if I didn't make it, I wouldn't feel bad about it. 

"I looked at it like a win-win situation. If you go to the All-Star Game it's your first time ever and you get to experience it with the people that you love. Kind of see and showcase so many skills and get to see and hang out with so many guys you don't get to really talk to. If you don't go, you get a seven-day break that could let me really rest my body and take care of myself. 

"Either way was going to be a plus. But, really, for the fans to vote me in is so awesome."

Marner's contract resolution in mid-September allowed him to attend most of training camp. Little did he know the rocky ride he was in for during the weeks and months ahead, both emotionally and physically.

He was crushed five weeks later upon learning that 7-year-old Hayden Foulon, the little girl he called "my hero," passed away after a valiant battle with leukemia Oct. 20. Marner, then a forward for London of the Ontario Hockey League, first met Hayden when he toured the Children's Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre in 2015 and the two were friends ever since.

Then he suffered a high ankle sprain against the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 9, an injury that caused him to miss the next 11 games. His absence didn't keep him out of the news, however.

Days after Mike Babcock was fired as Maple Leafs coach on Nov. 20, reports surfaced that Babcock asked Marner to rank his teammates from hardest-working to least-hardest back in January 2017, Marner's rookie season. Marner verified to reporters that the incident did happen but said he had long put it behind him.

That's exactly what he hopes to do with all the setbacks he's dealt with this season -- put them behind him.

Video: TOR@WPG: Marner hits one-time blast for PPG

"Through the Hayden passing my family was there for me. My friends were there. Her family was there for me. I was there for her family. She'll always be remembered in my heart and a lot of people's hearts," said Marner, who has 47 points (13 goals, 34 assists) in 38 games. 

"The injury, I haven't had something like that for a long time. Through it all, I was keeping my mind right, keeping my mind in a good spot. Staying healthy with it.

"Now it's time for All-Star Weekend and I'm so excited. It's my first one ever. You grow up watching them and hearing about them. It should be a lot of fun being a part of one."

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