Pohl feeling right at home

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:49 AM ET

The door to the Maple Leafs dressing room opens and a lava flow of mediots instantly fills every available nook and cranny.

A guy inches his way through the throng, reading the name plates above the lockers. Aubin, Bell, Gill, Kubina, Raycroft ...

Thirty months ago, on the April day when the Leafs last started a Stanley Cup series, there were 28 names on the playoff roster. Just 10 of those players remain in the dressing room today.

"Welcome to Gary Bettman's new NHL," says Darcy Tucker, one of the survivors.

Yes, indeed. If there is a single theme to the post-lockout NHL, it is one of constant change. It is reflected in virtually every roster in the NHL.

Last year, the Leafs made 10 changes in a mad rush to get under the new salary cap. Tonight's roster for the opening game of the 2006-07 season against the Ottawa Senators will reflect eight more changes, not counting the head coach.

That's not a bad thing. The NHL needed to be turned upside down. It needed to recognize that obstruction rules were being bent by coaches and players, with the officials as willing co-conspirators, creating an unwatchable product.

Season 1 of the new age went so much better than anyone could have expected. Goals were up and fans, for the most part, approved. How it all plays out in Season 2 remains to be seen but it's clear the game has been reclaimed from the plumbers and is back in the hands of the gifted.

Being quick, crafty and small no longer keeps a kid out of the NHL, as Kyle Wellwood learned last year. Tonight, a well-travelled 27-year-old named John Pohl (Pope John to his teammates) will be savouring his very first opening-night roster opportunity. He may not be quite as shifty as Wellwood, but Pohl is a smart offensive hockey player and a quality addition to the locker room.

A ninth-round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues in 1998, Pohl turned pro in 2002 following a stellar career at University of Minnesota. He spent three years with the Blues' AHL farm team in Worcester, Mass., then was traded to the Leafs in August 2005.

With the Marlies last year, Pohl benefited from the fact Wellwood and Alex Steen both made the Leafs club because he became coach Paul Maurice's go-to offensive player. He had 75 points in 60 games, in addition to four points during a seven-game stint with the Leafs.

Now, with the Leafs once again in a state of flux, Pohl hopes he can take advantage of a chance to start the season in the NHL.

"It's an opportunity," he said yesterday in the chaos of the Leafs dressing room. "Nothing's guaranteed, nothing's set. But I'm thankful for the chance to still be here.

"I think I appreciate it more, maybe, than some others because I've been on buses for four years now. I've been hurt. I've been in and out of minor-league lineups, so I know what it's like on the other side and I hope I don't have to go back."

As an American growing up in the small town of Red Wing, Minn., Pohl did not follow the NHL much. He didn't really understand that he might have a career in hockey until he got to U of M.

"I never followed it until I got to college," he said. "I had no idea what to expect. I didn't know if it would be easy or hard. I had no clue just how incredibly difficult it would be to get here and I don't want to go back."

"Last year with Paul, that was the best that ever happened to me. I, and the other Marlie guys from last year, are very well-prepared for this.

"He told us at the start last year that he was going to run the Marlies the same way he would run an NHL team and I think that's one of the reasons why when any of us came up to play last year, we performed pretty well."

Well enough to be right there in the front row when the 48th Highlanders pipe in another season at the Air Canada Centre tonight.


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