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Maple Leafs bring stars to Air Canada Centre

Much like New York and Los Angeles in U.S., Toronto becoming hub for celebrities in Canada

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Section 117 at Air Canada Centre is where families and friends of visiting players congregate after Toronto Maple Leafs home games. Given the proliferation of NHL players who are natives of southern Ontario, it's usually a very crowded place.

Among the sea of people sitting there on Saturday was Olympic swimmer Penny Oleksiak, the only Canadian to win four medals in the same Summer Games. Penny accomplished the feat at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, capturing gold in the 100 meter freestyle, a silver in the 100 meter butterfly, and two bronze medals in the women's freestyle relays (4×100 meters and 4×200 meters).

On Saturday, Penny was a fan, not a star athlete; her brother, Jamie Oleksiak, is a defenseman for the Pittsburgh Penguins. As such, the two shared an emotional embrace when Jamie walked into the stands to greet his relatives after Pittsburgh's 5-2 loss against the Maple Leafs.

 

[RELATED: Maple Leafs win record 10th straight at home | Gold medal winners honored by Maple Leafs]

 

Penny was one of about 100 people waiting for the Penguins in Section 117. With the number of NHL players who were either born or grew up in the Toronto area, crowds of loved ones of this size are common at Maple Leafs home games.

For years, even decades, Toronto fans viewed this as a detriment for the Maple Leafs, claiming opponents would always try to elevate their play with so many friends and family in attendance.

The 2017-18 Maple Leafs refuse to use that as an excuse.

By defeating the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins, they set a Maple Leafs record for consecutive home wins with 10, eclipsing the previous mark of nine (1953, 2007). Coach Mike Babcock's goal of making Air Canada Centre a difficult building for opponents finally is gaining traction.

"There are a lot of guys in the League from this area, sure," Maple Leafs forward Mitchell Marner said. "So it's understandable that it's a big deal to play in this building.

"But that's the thing. It is for us too."

Video: PIT@TOR: Marner nets PPG off defender to pad lead

Being back at home came as a welcome relief to Toronto after four consecutive losses, all on the road.

"You get to sleep in your own bed, spend time with your family, play in front of your own fans," said Marner, a Toronto native. "We're embracing that."

Toronto has not lost a home game since Jan. 22, a 4-2 defeat against the Colorado Avalanche. Since then, the Maple Leafs have outscored the opposition 45-23 at Air Canada Centre.

"Obviously you want to be comfortable in your own building," Babcock said. "I think it's great for the guys to come here. They feel good and they have a good chance to win."

Video: PIT@TOR: Kadri buries PPG for second goal of the game

Penny Oleksiak wasn't the only celebrity in the crowd Saturday.

During a break in the first period, the center ice video screen showed Toronto movie producer and Maple Leafs fan J. Miles Dale sitting in a private box holding up his Best Picture Oscar for his film "The Shape of Water," which received accolades at the Academy Awards last weekend.

The crowd understandably went bonkers.

The reaction was repeated later in the game when Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield was shown sitting in the stands.

Celebrity sightings are common during New York Rangers games at Madison Square Garden and Los Angeles Kings home dates at Staples Center. Air Canada Centre is becoming a similar place for high profile people to be seen, especially with the Maple Leafs enjoying more success.

"I think it's fun to play here," goalie Frederik Andersen said. "We enjoy that a lot and get great support from the fans in the building.

"Obviously we want to keep going and keep getting ready for these games, especially big bounce back games like tonight."

Video: PIT@TOR: Andersen turns away Brassard with his pad

The Maple Leafs (40-22-7) are third in the Atlantic Division with 87 points, seven behind the second-place Boston Bruins. The Bruins have played three fewer games, making it improbable that Toronto will catch them.

Eight of the Maple Leafs' 13 remaining games are at home. If they have aspirations of catching Boston, they'll have to keep their home streak going.

So far, so good.

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