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Centennial Classic

Maple Leafs get history lesson

Current, former Toronto players come together as NHL gets set for Centennial Celebration

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

TORONTO -- The past met the present in the Toronto Maple Leafs locker room at Exhibition Stadium on Saturday.

The current Maple Leafs walked in after practicing on the outdoor rink as the former Maple Leafs prepared to play in the 2017 Rogers NHL Centennial Classic Alumni Game. Then the surviving members of the 1967 Maple Leafs, the last Toronto team to win the Stanley Cup, entered through a side door.

"Everyone's like, 'Oh, my god. There's three generations right there,' " said Maple Leafs alumnus Lanny McDonald, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. "It was awesome."

They took a team picture together. They watched a video titled "Maple Leafs Forever" together. They mingled together.

By design, the lockers alternated between past and present, putting players from one era with a similar player from another. So there was Curtis Joseph chatting with Frederik Andersen, Borje Salming with Morgan Rielly, Mike Gartner with James van Riemsdyk, Dave 'Tiger' Williams with Matt Martin. Salming said it was like "a big family."

"That's what this game is all about," McDonald said. "I don't care if you've played five years, 10 years, 20-plus years. This means something. It means a lot to all different generations."

It will not be just another outdoor game when the Maple Leafs play the Detroit Red Wings in the 2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports). It will begin a yearlong celebration of the NHL's 100th anniversary and commemorate a century of the Maple Leafs franchise.

The 100 Greatest NHL Players will be unveiled. The first 33, who played primarily in the League's first half-century, will be announced in a pregame ceremony Sunday. The remaining 67, who played primarily from 1967 to the present, will be announced at The NHL100, a star-studded event open to the public during NHL All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles on Jan. 27.

"There's going to be an unbelievable collection of hockey players over the decades," said Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. "If you're a hockey fan, it's going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see the Wayne Gretzkys and Bobby Orrs and Bobby Clarkes and Phil Espositos all in one room."

Throughout 2017, there will be special content on NHL.com and NHL Network, including bios, video vignettes, documentaries, memories and the Top 100 Moments. There will be special events in NHL cities.

"A hundred years is a long time for any organization or business," said Gartner, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. "In hockey, I think the 100 years is a huge milestone, and it's one that should be celebrated. We've been playing this game around the world for a lot of years. It's a real testament to how well the League has managed through all the generations."

That came to life in the Maple Leafs dressing room on Saturday. Each player, each game, is part of something bigger -- in Toronto in this case, but across the League in the bigger picture.

In a sense, the current players became like fans around the former players. Auston Matthews, 19, shook hands with Gartner, 57, who played for the Phoenix Coyotes when Matthews was an infant in Scottsdale. William Nylander, 20, asked for an autograph from Salming, 65, a legend in his native Sweden.

In another sense, they were all just players, all on the same level.

"It's one thing when you're at an event and you see these guys, but it's another thing when you're in a dressing room," Shanahan said. "Everyone's more relaxed, and they speak hockey to each other."

Rielly, 22, sat next to Salming. He was like a little kid, absorbing little details. He watched him tape the knob of his stick in a way he'd never seen before.

"I'm a fan," Rielly said. "So I'm asking him what it was like when he was playing, what kind of equipment he used. Seeing him tape his stick the way he did was pretty cool for me."

The Maple Leafs are mired in the longest Stanley Cup drought in the League. They have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs once in in the past 11 seasons. Under Shanahan and coach Mike Babcock, they are trying to connect the past to the present, so the current players understand the tradition they are upholding.

This is what they're trying to build for the future. This is what the League has built over a century, what it is celebrating this weekend and over the next year.

"I try to make the most of every day playing with that logo," Rielly said. "You definitely appreciate the history. You definitely appreciate what goes on here. But I think on a day like today more than ever, you appreciate the guys that have come before you and what they've done for the team, what they've done for the city. It's amazing."

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