Making the most of it

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:52 AM ET

He was just on his way to Marlies practice, was John Pohl, when he got the call.

"Did a little u-turn," the kid said. "It was a nice turn."

One way is the bus and the American Hockey League.

The other brings you to the Air Canada Centre and 20,000 people.

Yeah, nice turn.

In Bull Durham, Kevin Costner rhapsodies about the big leagues, where the balls all are white for batting practice and every woman is beautiful.

Twenty-six year old John Pohl, a one-game callup in place of the ill Nik Antropov, will pretty much sing you the same tune.

"It's the truth," he said, cheerily talking to the media as if it was privilege and not a chore. "The ice is better. The towels are softer. The players are better. Everything is a step up."

Pohl, a natural centre, worked on a line centred by Leafs captain Mats Sundin. He adapted nicely to the change in position.

"You talk about a player being a step ahead," he said.

"Mats is two steps ahead."

Pohl got his second NHL goal on a Sundin feed and looked astonishingly strong along the boards. Buffalo goalie Marty Biron stoned him, otherwise he might have had three goals and it's a pretty good bet that calibre of goaltending isn't a feature of the AHL.

"I got it and shot it as fast as I could," said Pohl, shaking his head. "I don't know how he got it, but he made a phenomenal save."

Pohl scored once in a five-game stint with the Leafs in late December and played well. Thirty-six goals and 35 assists tells you he has been excellent for the Marlies.

For all last night told you, Pohl is a lock for a job, especially since the player he replaced -- Antropov -- has been a neon disappointment.

Antropov's gastro-intestinal tract is John Pohl's highway to the NHL.

"We rated him (Pohl) very highly," Leafs coach Pat Quinn said. "He's long on effort, he reads the play well and he's not afraid to mix it up."

Pohl is an honest hockey player. He will never be fast, but he was critically, unforgivably slow and that's what has buried him in the minorleague system of the St. Louis Blues and, for perhaps only a little while longer, the Maple Leafs.

To earn a chance at the big money, Pohl hasn't just had to improve his skating, he has had to erase the memory of it.

"Honestly, I've worked on my skating and nothing but my skating for three summers. If you talk to someone who knows what I looked like three years ago, I've come leaps and bounds."

He does it with boxes that he leaps across back home in Minnesota and thousands of squats and one-legged exercises.

"I don't have Maxim Afinogenov's hands, or you look at the way some of these guys skate, I can't do that. I don't think I have any one thing that is spectacular, but the thing is I can read plays and hopefully get the right people the puck."

The Leafs' turn to youth has been accidental. Injuries have prompted the callups of Ian White, Brendan Bell, Ben Ondrus, Jay Harrison, Andrew Wozniewski, Staffan Kronwall and now, Pohl.

Only Aleksander Suglobov didn't show much and he is now attending the Paul Maurice finishing school at the Ricoh Centre.

With the Leafs destined to miss the playoffs, Pohl will be one of the few local hockey players enjoying the post-season. He will be sent down, probably today.

"It's a number's thing, he came in on an emergency" Quinn said about Pohl's first callup.

It will be a number's thing again. Number things rarely give an advantage to slow skaters whose career clocks are chiming like Big Ben.

And so, yes, there is a possibility that last night will be the last game John Pohl plays in the NHL, that beating Marty Biron once and nearly beating him two more times will be the story he tells the grandkids.

Then again, maybe the summers spent jumping while others were golfing will carry him over the hair's width barrier that defines them that have it and them that don't have it enough.

"You can put in years and you can put in the grind of the American League and then you get to play in a game like this and play with Mats Sundin," Pohl said.

"It is worth it. Absolutely."

And then the kid thinks it over.

"If you can stick."


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