September 30, 2012
AHL road trip: Marlies coach Dallas Eakins hopes Toronto will get behind team
By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - He may preach tough love behind the bench, but Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins would like to see the self-proclaimed centre of the hockey universe offer up a group hug for his boys.
Like all American Hockey League teams, the next few weeks, months and possibly beyond offer a chance for young prospects and aging pros to seize a rare spotlight beyond their own limited fan base.
Bolstered by young NHLers and aided by a full and proper training camp, the quality of play in North America’s second best pro hockey league should rise accordingly. But will people in Canada’s biggest city take notice and care?
“I want to see this city come in and enjoy these guys that I get to see every day work their tails off,” Eakins said early in his team’s training camp.
“When you see the level of commitment (from the players), it’s important for our city while there’s no NHL hockey to wrap their arms around these young men and support them.”
As major junior teams and all levels of hockey below the Maple Leafs have shown repeatedly over the past several decades, that’s been far easier said than done.
The Marlies have served a purpose in terms of professional development for the big club, a place for the prospects to develop close to the watchful eyes of management. It has also been convenient for promotions and demotions, a big reason the parent club moved its top minor league team here.
But despite a great fan-friendly venue in the Ricoh Centre, the Marlies rarely have generated a buzz since moving here for the 2005-06 season.
The indifference eased some this past spring when the team played to near capacity crowds throughout their post-season run to the Calder Cup final, leading Eakins to point out at a pre-camp dinner that an opportunity is their for the players’ taking.
“That was one of the messages,” Eakins said. “This opportunity may never come again. Maybe the NHL and the players’ association will get their act together and have labour peace going forward, so this is the opportunity for us to really be in the spotlight right off the bat.”
Beyond the opportunity to win over fans, the brand of hockey should be elevated a notch or two. With most teams having at least a couple players that would have battled for spots on the NHL rosters, chances are the trumped up skill level will be noticeable.
“It’s going to be a good league if the lockout keeps going much further,” 31-year-old Marlies forward Mike Zigomanis said. “I think it gives the people of Toronto the chance to see some of the best young talent in the world. It’s an easier way to see them then at the Air Canada Centre.”
Having a proper training camp won’t hurt either. Normally, the AHL rosters are patched together at the last minute after the parent team makes its cuts. Now, Eakins and his staff have a chance to make decisions on line combinations rather than guessing who will merely be in the lineup.
“On a normal training camp, (before) the big club makes its first round of cuts, I’ve got 12 guys and you are trying to have a practice,” Eakins said. “The level of your practice drops off.
“(This year) I expect the pace to be higher in our league, I expect the skill level to definitely be higher and I think it makes for better hockey. I think our team proved last year we can play an entertaining brand of hockey and people opened their minds and hearts as the season progressed. I’m hoping that continues.”
While the Baby Leafs don’t have the high-profile interlopers like other AHL teams such as Flyers and Oilers affiliates, there will be at least a few with meaningful NHL experience. Defenceman Jake Gardiner, after his breakthrough rookie season, will be a big part of Eakins’ blueline and forward Matt Frattin will be there as well, once he recovers from knee surgery. Also, the ongoing saga of former first-round pick Nazem Kadri will catch the attention of many.
For now, it is the only pro game in the city and we’ll find out soon enough whether Hogtown cares.
“I can’t play in the NHL,” Gardiner reasoned. “Right now, it’s the best hockey out there. I’ll just go out there and be in shape and be ready for the season when it does happen.”