TORONTO - Mike Zigomanis isn’t sure what the bigger thrill was — playing for his hometown Maple Leafs in the season opener on Thursday night, or playing on a line in minor hockey with Anakin Skywalker of Star Wars fame.
Of course, when Zigomanis was 9 and playing on a line with childhood buddy Hayden Christensen, he had no idea at the time that his skinny winger would some day become a Hollywood big shot — though he did figure that his other winger on that Markham AAA squad, current Vancouver Canucks forward Raffi Torres, would make it to the NHL.
“Raffi was definitely better than me,” said Zigomanis, with a laugh. “He was really good. I had to try to keep up with him. I just basically tried to dig out the puck and get it on his stick in the slot, that’s about it.”
Zigomanis, 29, played with Torres with teams in Markham and North York, from the time they were about 8 until about 13, and he played with Vancouver-born Christensen for a couple of seasons as well.
“He was good, better than me,” Zigomanis said of Christensen, who beat out a certain Leonardo DiCaprio for the role of Anakin Skywalker in the 2002 Star Wars flick, Attack of the Clones. “I was the weak point on the line. They carried me on their back a lot growing up.”
Zigomanis said he is thrilled for the success of his two former minor-hockey line-mates, but he said the biggest thrill was suiting up last night at the Air Canada Centre, having been a typical Toronto kid who was raised a devoted, though long-suffering, Leafs fan.
“I still talk to some of my friends I was in grade school with,” said Zigomanis, prior to Thursday’s opener against the Montreal Canadiens. “And they were really excited (about the game). Maybe they were a little more excited than me, although I don’t know if that’s possible. But they’re excited because they’re all hard core Leafs fans.
“I grew up on the street playing road hockey and every goal was Game 7 playing for the Leafs,” he added. “And it was like that with me and my buddies. You dream about it, but what are the odds of it happening?”
But not only is the Leafs’ fourth-line centre a lifelong fan of the blue and white, he’s practically a team historian.
In fact, it’d be a stretch to imagine any other active NHL player who attended more important Leafs games as a kid than Zigomanis.
“We used to take the subway down and get off at the College St. exit,” he said.
He was at the Gardens on March 28, 1990, when Gary Leeman, one of his boyhood idols, scored his 50th in a 6-3 loss to the New York Islanders.
He was also there on
May 3, 1993, when Doug Gilmour, another boyhood idol, scored on a wraparound in double overtime on St. Louis Blues goaltender Curtis Joseph to give the Leafs a 2-1 victory in Game 1 of the Norris Division final.
“I was sitting up in the reds,” Zigomanis said of the game and the aftermath celebrations on the streets of Toronto. “I remember when they won the series and people were climbing on the top of bus (shelters) and everything.”
And Zigomanis was there on Feb. 13, 1999, for the Leafs final home game at the venerable Gardens, a 6-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
And now, after playing 189 games in the NHL for four different teams — Carolina, St. Louis, Phoenix and Pittsburgh — he finally got the chance to play at home, for the Leafs — though it wasn’t his first game on Air Canada Centre ice.
“I played my second game here (for Carolina), and that was fun,” he said. “But I couldn’t move my legs, they were just like jello.”
Zigomanis said he hasn’t stayed in touch with his boyhood linemates much over the years, though he did get a shout out from Christensen during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics (Christensen attended some games along with then-girlfriend, the actress Rachel Bilson).
“He said that I was his favourite hockey player,” said Zigomanis, who was playing for Djurgardens of the Swedish Elite League at the time. “My mom called me over in Sweden and said: ‘Hayden said you were his favorite player, give him a call.’ When I was in junior hockey, he used to come out to my skates. So I have to give him a shout out now. He is my favourite actor.”