Welcome to The Jungle

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:57 AM ET

Lee Stempniak walked off the plane at Pearson International Airport last night and right into the fishbowl that is the so-called centre of the hockey universe.

Sort of.

Actually, the newest Maple Leaf got off easy. Only two reporters and one photographer were waiting for him on this rainy Toronto evening, just hours after he was traded to the Maple Leafs from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Carlo Colaiacovo and Alex Steen.

As he politely answered questions about his whirlwind day, an onlooker asked one of the scribes: "Who is that guy?"

Lee Stempniak, new Leaf, the fan was told.

The fan grinned.

"Go Leafs Go!" he yelled.

"Thank you," Stempniak replied.

His first brush with Leafs Nation.

It won't be his last.

When Stempniak is formally introduced at the Air Canada Centre today, the media swarm will be much larger. And, should he get off to a good start as a Leaf, fans won't ask who he is.

They'll know.

"I'm excited. I'd like to think I can handle (the spotlight of Toronto)," said Stempniak, who, as a kid, came up from his Buffalo-area home for minor hockey tournaments in places like Chesswood Arena.

Being able to cope with the pressures of playing in such a hockey market might be easier said than done. Just ask Colaiacovo.

Having grown up in Toronto, Colaiacovo was the local-kid-does-good story, a feel-good yarn culminated by his selection in the first round of the 2001 entry draft by the Leafs, the team he watched as a kid.

But his penchant for being hurt soon made him the butt of bad jokes around town. It was the freaky nature of some of the ailments which elicited the most ridicule. He once, for example, injured his shoulder when he was checked just as the bench door was open. Then there was the time where a puck struck him in the ear, leaving him partially deaf for a number of weeks.

It left him with the reputation of being a china doll. Try as he might, he could not shed that image.

All the while, Blues forward Brad Boyes, Colaiacovo's buddy and junior teammate with the Erie Otters, watched the abuse his friend was taking.

"I remember being home here in the summer and thinking: "The best thing for Carlo would be a change of scenery," Boyes, a native of Mississauga, said yesterday.

The same could be said of Steen who, in the eyes of many fans, has underachieved while wearing a Leafs jersey. Both should benefit in new surroundings. It just wasn't working here.

Boyes would know the benefits of getting out of hockey-mad Toronto. He, like Steen and Colaiacovo, was a one-time first-round pick of the Leafs. It wasn't until he left Toronto -- with stops in Boston and San Jose -- that his NHL career took off.

"I talked to Carlo right after the trade," Boyes said. "We're both excited to be playing together again."

Should all three players involved in the deal pass their physicals today, Stempniak hopes to make his Leafs debut against the Atlanta Thrashers tonight. He'll earn $2.5 million US this season and $3.5 million in 2009-10, but the cap hit for both is just $2.5 million.

A late bloomer who played his college hockey at Dartmouth, he remained in St. Louis over the summer working out and hoping to wipe out memories of his 13-goal season a year ago.

"I didn't have the year I wanted so I was determined to straighten things out," said Stempniak, who scored 27 goals back in 2006-07.

"Growing up near Buffalo, I was a big Dave Andreychuk fan when he was a Sabre. And I was a fan of Steve Yzerman too. I played against him in my first NHL game."

EXCITED

Stempniak has his own fans back home, especially at the West Seneca town rink, the place where he grew up playing hockey, sharpening skates and working at the snack bar. There, hanging over the main door, is a banner with his No. 95, which has been retired.

Chicago Blackhawks' budding star Patrick Kane briefly played in that same arena. There is no mention of him there. Only Stempniak.

It seems Lee Stempniak was famous long before becoming a Leaf, even if it is just in a quaint little corner of western New York.


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