First Leaf game always magical

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:00 AM ET

There is still, after all these years, magic on opening night.

There is still, in these days of Maple Leafs overexposure, the feeling of a present being unwrapped, a new season, and the surprise of what you'll find beneath the ribbons.

There is still the raw emotion of young and old, captain and coach.

Paul Maurice felt it before the banners were raised last night, before the 48th Highlanders played that awful bagpipe music, before the pageantry was put aside for for another Ottawa-Toronto game.

He felt like the coach one minute, a little kid the next. He felt in charge and he yet honoured to be there. He watched the banners of Hap Day and Red Kelly and Borje Salming being raised to the busy rafters of the Air Canada Centre and inside fought that little fight between Leafs fan and Leafs coach.

He is one and the same. And sometimes it's hard to separate one from the other. Both hard and human. Funny and cutting. Absorbed by his job and forever pulled by the enormity of it.

"It was very, very exciting," Maurice said of his first night as a Leaf, a defeat on the scoreboard, a victory in other ways. "It gives you an example of the history here, what it all means ...

"There was emotion. It was humbling. Standing behind the bench, watching the banners, it almost felt like I was sitting at home watching ... Once the game started, it seemed quite quiet."

It is forever quite quiet: This is Toronto regular season hockey. There is emotion on the streets and throughout the city but for hockey there is a theatre crowd that sometimes paints its face, the only real indication of edge.

Paul Maurice watched his time in Toronto begin from behind the Maple Leafs bench, in body and out, saw his undermanned lineup come out with a burst, considered the four scoring chances they had in the first five minutes of play, and with that there was some emptiness.

"If they don't go in for you you're going to be working all night to get four more," the coach said.

They worked all night and got one goal against the Senators. One goal on a penalty shot that shouldn't have been called. The rest of the night there were chances and a lot of oohs and ahs and all kinds of Martin Gerber.

So much of it beginning with Mats Sundin. He kept putting pucks on the sticks of his linemates, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Kyle Wellwood, without any tangible result.

Sundin, who has been a Maple Leaf forever, was feeling some of the same opening-night excitement his coach was experiencing. It is, he insists, still a kick to open the season at home. It is, he insists, as exciting as ever.

This is about as emotional as Sundin ever comes off.

"The captain is more emotional than people give him credit for," Maurice said. "Don't underestimate what it is to open in Toronto ... I'm very impressed by with the way he handles this hockey team."

The night began for Sundin in a most touching way. A ceremonial faceoff between Sundin and his Team Sweden gold-medal teammate, Daniel Alfredsson. The puck was in the hands of Borje Salming, the first and largest hero in Swedish hockey history. He couldn't have designed a more emotional beginning.

"You have guys like Borje Salming come out on the ice," Sundin said. "If that doesn't get you going, I don't know what. I don't care if you're 21 or 35, that's a great atmosphere."

The coach and the captain, each becoming more appreciative of the other, were united in their opinion after an opening-night defeat. They liked what they saw in spite of the score. They saw enough good things for each to see reason to build on.

"I didn't think we played that bad a game," Sundin said.

"There was a large portion of that game I really liked," Maurice said.

This matters just for one night. The feeling won't be repeated. The sticks won't be squeezed so tightly. The Paul Maurice debut began in full ceremony last night. Tonight, the discovery continues.

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MARLIES PP

Do we need to remind Paul Maurice he's coaching the Leafs now? Or does he still have Marlies on minds? Last night, the new coach had a power play that included Johnny Pohl, Aleksander Suglobov, Andy Wozniewski, Ian White and Jeff O'Neill, only one of whom has spent more than a minute in the NHL.


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