Reflections of a new Leaf

Jeff Finger understands where the naysayers in Toronto are coming from, having only played in 94...

Jeff Finger understands where the naysayers in Toronto are coming from, having only played in 94 career NHL games. (Sun Media/Dave Thomas)

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:26 AM ET

Jeff Finger had just pulled on his Maple Leafs jersey for the first time when nature called.

It was Tuesday morning and Finger, the former Colorado Avalanche defenceman, was preparing to make his inaugural appearance with some of his new teammates for an informal skate at Lakeshore Lions Arena.

"I had my gear on and had to go to the bathroom," the new Leafs defenceman said yesterday, a mischievous, slightly embarrassed grin on his face. "I was making my way there when I passed a mirror in the hallway."

Finger stopped to take a look. He liked what he saw in the reflection.

"Seeing myself wearing that Maple Leaf, well, it was unbelievable," Finger said. "At that moment, it really sunk in. I'm really a Toronto Maple Leaf."

If Finger needed any more convincing that, yes, the Maple Leafs really did throw a whopping four-year, $14-million US free-agent contract at him on July 1, it was reaffirmed during a light-hearted game of shinny yesterday.

Each time he peered into the stands, he spotted dozens of kids who were oohing and aahing with every line rush, every slapshot, every save. Later, as he attempted to leave through the back door to get to his car, he was mobbed by a gaggle of autograph seekers, most of them polite, all of them wishing him well.

Finger probably wanted to check his calendar.

Given all this hockey hysteria, was it really August and not December?

Welcome to Toronto, Mr. Finger. Get used to it.

"It's amazing," he said. "You hear about the hockey atmosphere, guys tell you what it's like, but until you see it in person, until you actually see all those kids watching you practice in the middle of the summer, well, it's hard to believe.

"It's exciting."

Finger has been in town only since Saturday, so all this lovey-dovey stuff between him and the spectators is still fresh. He is still in the honeymoon period. But he also understands that with celebrity comes scrutiny in this shinny-crazed market.

There has been no shortage of that aimed his way.

From the moment terms of his contract were made public, the criticism started en masse.

What could the Leafs have been thinking? Shelling out $3.5 million a season for a stay-at-home defenceman who has only 94 career NHL games under his belt? A guy who has just 24 career points? Hockey analysts feast on such questionable moves, and this one was no different. Some went as far as to list it as one of the worst signings of the summer.

At one point, an e-mail was sent to various media types around Toronto including yours truly suggesting that Fletcher had confused Finger with another player and had inked the wrong defenceman. The notion was quickly dismissed. For that to have taken place, the entire hockey department would have had to misidentify Finger, not just Fletcher.

Stop your snickering. Even the Leafs are not that incompetent. Honest.

Within hours of announcing the acquisition of Finger, 28, Fletcher already was defending himself.

"He's a player who is getting better ... He was Colorado's shutdown guy and played well over 20 minutes a game in the last half of the season. We feel he has tremendous upside and has potential," Fletcher said at the time.

Even as he summered on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Finger was well aware he was being ripped by some parties in Toronto, his new hockey home.

So be it. In fact, despite having not played a single game as a Maple Leaf as of yet, he understands where the naysayers are coming from.

"Of course I paid attention to what was going on," Finger said. "Some people might say the criticism of me is unfair but I wouldn't. I can see why some things would be said about me. I'm coming from the Western Conference. I've played fewer than 100 NHL games in my career.

"It comes with the territory. You have to accept that. Just because you are under the microscope here does not mean you are under more pressure.

"I can understand both arguments. All I can do is what got me here and make believers of those who don't."


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