Opportunity knocks for Earl

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:32 AM ET

Robbie Earl looked around the Maple Leafs dressing room yesterday. Dreamland.

This was before the clouds rolled in against the Panthers, before head coach Paul Maurice had to chew out his troops in front of a TV audience, before things went so sour that Earl -- one of only a handful of players who seemed willing to compete -- would end up going from fill-in to the power play.

Strange times in Leafland. Just four nights previously, the 22-year-old rookie slid a pass through the slot to set up the winning goal against the Ottawa Senators, becoming the first Leaf from the draft class of 2004 to play with the NHL team.

Last night with his grandparents, Pat and Tom McCusker, watching him on TV from the other end of the continent, Earl continued to do what he does best -- defy all odds.

He was one of the best Leafs, briefly moving up to the top line with Mats Sundin and Jiri Tlusty. Heady times for a sixth-round draft pick. He has come from improbable beginnings, through unusual circumstances, to become a Maple Leaf, just the fourth black player to suit up for the team.

Born in Chicago, his mother died when he was two. His father disappeared. He found a home with his grandparents, who by then had moved to California from Toronto.

"They were hockey fans and I got my love of hockey from them," said Earl, who went from rollerblading to the Los Angeles Junior Kings program by age eight. He played soccer and baseball but, in a land ruled by the UCLA Bruins and Lakers, he became one of the first California natives to be converted by Wayne Gretzky -- hockey messiah to Lotusland.

"I've always wanted to be in the NHL, way back to when I was a little guy watching Gretzky. I watched the glory days of the Kings. I grew up in that era watching Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios and, of course, Tony Amonte. I watched them, loved the game and knew that's what I wanted to do. I got my introduction to hockey from my family but when Gretzky came he gave it a public face. It was huge."

So, Earl becomes one of the first children born of the NHL's expansion dream into the American hinterland; a player cultivated and raised in a non-traditional market. Even if it did take an assist from his Canadian grandparents.

"They watched (his debut) on TV. I think emotionally it affected them as much as it affected me," Earl said at yesterday's morning skate. "There's nothing like it. It's a pure shock of adrenalin and surreal at some points. But you have to find a way to contain that and focus on the job. It just makes it extra special that it's happening with the Maple Leafs because they're such an historic organization."

The scouting report on Earl is that he is an excellent skater with explosive speed. He's packed with intensity and a tenacity that -- at an age when most kids think a big adventure is heading off to the junior prom without a chaperone -- saw him leave home and country to chase The Dream.

"I left when I was just turning 14 to play with Penticton Panthers of the B.C. hockey league but then I got a chance to join the U.S. national team."

THE AMERICAN WAY

He billeted with a family in Ann Arbor, Mich., attending Pioneer High School, as part of the USA Hockey National Development Team and earned a ticket to the University of Wisconsin.

"It's the American way. We don't have the luxury of Canadian kids growing up in hockey hotbeds so we go through the college route."

He was MVP at the Frozen Four tournament, leading Wisconsin to the NCAA championship then left prior to last season to join the Marlies.

In 67 games he scored 12 goals and 30 points -- the least productive he'd been since leaving rollerblades. But he was learning.

"It was good having a hard-nosed coach like (Greg) Gilbert, he made me ready for the next step," Earl said. "Coach Gilbert worked on my defensive game. It was tough love and he was passionate about me learning that style."

When Toronto lost six regulars this week, Earl found himself sitting at a locker next to Alexei Ponikarovsky.

"I know they called me up to fill for injuries but it's an opportunity to show what I can do," Earl said.

When it comes to opportunity, Robbie Earl rarely has needed it to knock twice.


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