Jeff O'Neill can't understand why Maple Leafs Nation is freaking out.
On a day that marked a new era in Maple Leafs hockey, O'Neill, Eric Lindros and Jason Allison -- the team's marquee off-season additions up front -- skated together in Toronto jerseys for the first time during an informal morning workout at Lakeshore Lions Arena yesterday.
While waves of panic have pulsated throughout the city in recent weeks from exasperated fans who feel the Leafs will not qualify for the post-season, O'Neill considers it to be nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction.
After taking part in a spirited game of shinny with the likes of Allison and Lindros, he knows the 2005-06 Leafs will not be lacking in skill.
"I don't want to slight the teams I was with in Carolina, but this is the most talented team I've ever been on," O'Neill, a native of King City, said. "Frankly, to hear people already saying we will miss the playoffs, well, that's ridiculous."
A child-like grin was smeared across O'Neill's face for much of the workout as he repeatedly peered down at the front of his white practice jersey. The source of his giddiness could be found stitched on the chest of his sweater, a blue Maple Leafs logo that he had dreamed of wearing since he was a kid.
"First day at the office, and it's pretty special," he said.
Since being acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes last month, O'Neill already has discovered that the spotlight is much brighter when you are a Maple Leaf.
"I've been noticed in the mall a couple of times," he admitted.
On the other hand, Lindros has been in the public eye ever since he was a teenage phenom on skates.
Remember several years ago when he stated he wanted to play in Toronto? While the Leafs never could finalize a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers in order to make that happen, some enterprising entrepreneurs around the city already had churned out blue-and-white jerseys with Lindros's name and familiar No. 88 stitched on the back. The Toronto Sun even superimposed a Leaf sweater onto a photo of Lindros.
At least yesterday the Big E was wearing the real deal, even if it was just a practice jersey.
"I've been excited to get going ever since I signed, but we have to keep things in perspective," Lindros said. "We have to focus on what needs to be done."
Having grown up Leaf fans during their childhood years in southern Ontario, Lindros, Allison and O'Neill all own cottages in the Muskokas and have spent several summers skating together in the area.
"I've played golf with Jeff. He's really good," Lindros said. "And I went fishing with Jason over at his place last year."