Leafs enjoy trips to hockey heartland

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 1:50 PM ET

STRATHROY -- When John Ferguson Jr. worked for the St. Louis Blues, there wasn't usually a mad dash to get his autograph as soon as he walked into a rink.

But Strathroy is hockey country and it isn't every day the general manger of the Toronto Maple Leafs rolls into the Blue Pad of the community's Gemini Sportsplex to check out some of the young players he's banking on becoming stars

"We were going to have our prospects scrimmage with the Detroit Red Wings and ran into a scheduling glitch, but we were always coming to Strathroy because the people were expecting us here," Ferguson said.

"It's a perk of the job (being recognized and signing autographs) . . . we're stewards of a public trust and this (development) camp is important for us because it allows us to get our young guys in here together and keep an eye on their development moving forward."

After watching Ferguson sign his name and talk on his cellphone for a while, one wide-eyed youngster innocently exclaimed to a friend: "There's the boss of the Leafs. He's going to get fired soon."

It's true Leafs brass don't get much credit for anything these days but putting many of their young up-and-comers, including goalie Justin Pogge and former first-rounder Jiri Tlusty, on a bus bound for Strathroy might turn into a master stroke.

Leafs head coach Paul Maurice, who rolled in for a gander on his way home to Sault Ste. Marie for his brother's wedding, indicated the point of a development camp was to provide the rookies with the building blocks for future success in one of hockey's most demanding markets.

What better educational spot than Strathroy? After all, hockey's ultimate goal -- the Stanley Cup -- was just captured by hometown hero Andy McDonald and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. The Strathroy Rockets also know what winning is all about after a Western Ontario Hockey League title and a near-miss at the Sutherland Cup, so maybe some of those victories will rub off on the squad when it returns to the Air Canada Centre.

"If you ever forget what hockey's all about, all you have to do is come here and look at this," Maurice said, pointing to the parents and kids in the Sportsplex stands oohing-and-ahhing at a nice Pogge glove save. "Mats (Sundin) isn't here but all these people came out to watch us scrimmage and there are a lot wearing their blue and white. It's always a treat."

Jordan VanderBurgt, 10 on Saturday, was skating when the young Leafs and team bigwigs arrived.

"I didn't know they were coming until a few guys on the ice said, 'Hey, the Leafs just showed up.' It's pretty cool."

Returning to southwestern Ontario always provides a flood of memories for Ferguson, Jr. He drove to the rink yesterday with his son and four nephews from Grand Bend, where he and his family had been bunkered down when the original GM job offer from the Leafs came through a few years ago.

Last Father's Day, he walked around the track at TD Waterhouse Stadium with his dad to raise awareness of prostate cancer. Ferguson, Sr. is currently suffering from the disease.

"He's battling and he's at home now (in Essex)," the Leafs GM said. "I still lean on him, of course, and we've had the chance to sit down -- father and son -- and chat about things. It meant a lot to be able to do that."

The on-ice activity is always the vital component of evaluation but like a lot of teams, the Leafs are taking pains to ensure their players are educated on what it takes to handle the different stresses of a hockey career.

"We have cooking classes and media classes for them," Maurice said. "They have to understand that because our American League team (the Marlies) is in Toronto, they're going to be in the city and in the spotlight. For me, this is a chance to meet the players, an introduction. They're not Leafs yet but we're trying to provide the first steps of what will be expected of them when they're with us."

One player who will be given a shot by Maurice at making the big club this year is Tlusty, whose Soo Greyhounds fell one game short of fighting back from a 3-0 hole against the London Knights in the second round of the OHL playoffs this spring.

"It was sad after we lost the (seventh game) in London -- some of the players were crying and the coaches were crying," he said. "But we had a good playoff run and did well for Sault Ste. Marie and I learned a lot about what I need to do to be a better player."


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