For a day, it was easy to smile watching Leafs

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:04 AM ET

The weather outside was frightful. In Toronto, global warming has disappeared under a snow bank.

The wind chill read -25C, a day not fit to be outside for either man or beast.

But, dogs yipped and tumbled in the snow, kids frolicked on banks of the stuff, and Wade Belak stepped from the playground change room wearing a flourescent-orange balaclava. Teeth chattered. Eyes watered. Music blared: "Leafs are the best; Better than all the rest."

Well, maybe not in the standings but in the hearts of the 250 kids who watched yesterday's Maple Leafs' outdoor practice at Withrow Park rink they're right up there .

"Where I grew up in Sweden you don't get many days this cold," Mats Sundin said. "I was a little worried it would be too cold. I hope all the kids are all right."

The kids, from Pape and Leslieville public schools, were more than all right. "Oh, no, they were going," said teacher and trip organizer Christine Andreopoulos, about suggestions the event be cancelled. "They were cold but forgot about that when they saw the guys on the ice."

Pape school principal Mary Patrick couldn't go. She gave her boots to a student so the student could go. For some of her students, she said, it will be as close as they ever get to seeing the Maple Leafs in person.

"Even though it was blazing cold, when I went up to speak to the students today it was really paramount to them that they be able to go. So they were very attentive ... more than willing to brave the cold because for many it will be their only chance to ever have contact with a Leafs player. Some of our children play hockey, but a very small number.

"It was a great community spirit builder," Patrick said. "Many of our kids would never have the funds to be able to go and see the Leafs. This was a phenomenal opportunity. And when it's in our back yard, it's special."

Yesterday's event was part of a Leafs' initiative, along with a national building products firm, to refurbish local rinks. Withrow Park is one of five in Riverdale to be improved this year. "I haven't seen ice this good since I was a kid in the Sault," Leafs coach Paul Maurice said.

Maurice admitted between the cold, the outdoors, screaming kids and the blaring public address announcer yelling: Go, Leafs, Go that it wasn't a particularly instructive practice. But it sure was a chuckle. Bryan McCabe played forward. Sort of. Line rushes turned into pond hockey. Maurice, for one day, thought it was perfect. "The guys just played, they hardly never, ever, ever get a chance to just have fun. Even in the summertime the conditioning, the training, they're trying to push the pace. Never in season do they get a chance to do things with the puck without me yelling."

For the kids it was a day to make memories; for the Leafs it was a day to stir memories.

Recalled Matt Stajan: "This brings me back to where it all started. Me and my buddies would go play. It was an outdoor rink in Etobicoke just off Brownsline and the best time to go would be on real cold days like this because there wouldn't be as many kids."

Maurice grew up an outdoor rink-rat. "We had a rink in the backyard. Almost everyone had one and there was one at the school where my dad was principal. So we'd play there."

Today most kids play in arenas, and wouldn't recognize hockey without the referees or uniforms. A few years ago a player with the Marlies mentioned that he had never skated outdoors, never experienced the essence of a game that comes with frosted toes and a couple of boots for goal posts.

"That just shows how much the game has changed," Maurice said. "I don't know what it is but hockey on an outdoor rink is just different. You feel the wind and the sun. I grew up on outdoor rinks in the Sault and there's just something special about the sounds on that hard ice, the sticks hitting the ice. That's hockey. That's real hockey."


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