A sense of renewal for Leafs

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:43 AM ET

And, so begins another Maple Leafs season ... that blending of emotions that come together annually in a cauldron of public angst and adulation, a dash of media scrutiny, a hint of victory, too much defeat and always, at the end, a pinch of regret.

It has been a tradition of Toronto's most revered sports franchise for running on half a century.

Yesterday, as the team wrapped up its final pre-season practice before facing the Ottawa Senators tonight, the sun shone brilliantly, the air was soft and outside the Lakeshore practice facility two lovers cooed on the grass, lush and green.

This is not your ordinary Canadian autumn. And, this is not your ordinary Maple Leafs season opener. Sure, there are familiar warriors such as Mats Sundin and Darcy Tucker. But the roster is also dotted with a Suglobov, Wozniewski and Pohl.

"There is a changing of the guard," Jay Harrison, a defenceman moving to the Leafs from the Marlies, said. "Some of us are a little wet behind the ears, but we've still got some veterans like Mats and Darcy who can set the tone."

Sure, there's the usual entourage of men without lives bugging players for autographs in the parking lot. The clatter of pucks on sticks and the crunch of flesh meeting boards is still the same. And there are the familiar echoes of players' yelps bouncing off the dirt-white walls. But, this Maple Leafs season is different. For starters, the Sloppy John's Bar & Grill billboard on the wall is not yet a reference to the team's play.

And, nobody so far has predicted a Stanley Cup parade. Even with a win over the Sens tonight, it's likely the most over-exuberant Mapleholic will restrain himself from honking his car horn down Yonge St. whilst hanging out of the sunroof.

This is a team in transition -- estranged of Tie Domi, Ed Belfour and Owen Nolan. Alexander Mogilny? Nyet. Pat Quinn. Gone. There is a sense of renewal ... a sense that new coach Paul Maurice could get these guys to kneel down at centre ice and sing the Hallelujah chorus without getting an argument.

This is a team with, essentially, 13 new faces: Raw rookies, free agents, retreads and castoffs. So, the mood at this training camp started out a bit like a family reunion -- everybody knows they're in this together, but they're not quite sure what they're together in.

"We're more comfortable with each other already. That nervousness isn't there anymore," Harrison said. "When you first get here everyone wants to show what they can do as individuals. Now, we're focused as a team." In other words, they've started to figure out whether they're part of a Whoopie! cushion crowd or one that's more into poetry readings.

"It's starting to feel like a team," Andy Wozniewski said. "You can tell in the dressing room because guys are talking a lot more. I think everyone felt a little strange at first, but as you get to know people, well, there's more a free flow of conversation."

It's a bit early to figure out who the locker room lawyer will be, who's going to take the pie in the face and who's going to take the scissors to someone's skate laces. All Wozniewski knows is that "I'm prime picking to be the butt of any joke. I've got to watch myself."

He laughs. "We need to experience things together to become a team. When that happens this (Wozniewski waves around the dressing room) becomes your family. You know what makes guys mad, what makes them laugh, who the pranksters are ..."

Hey, since when are rookies allowed to feel this at ease! This is Toronto, don't these guys know this franchise is built on a foundation of pressure cracks? Hal Gill heard all about how tough it was to play in Toronto. He comes to the Leafs defence from Boston. "It always takes a while to feel at home, but I think we'll be all right. (In Toronto) someone is saying something every day: I've heard everything from we're going to be awesome to we're going to suck."

It is an ambivalence felt by the public, the media and, if they're honest, by the players. "People don't really know what to expect and how it's all going to turn out," Harrison said. "But if last year showed anything it is that in the new NHL any team can win."

A thousand voices donning Maple Leafs blue have uttered such unrequited optimism over too many autumns to remember. But, some things never change. Nor, should they.


Videos

Photos