SUNRISE, Fla. -- He would rip puck after puck at the garage door at his parent's home in Waterloo, endlessly peppering the wood and metal with rubber.
"I destroyed it," John Mitchell said yesterday, wearing a big grin.
Looking back, it was a small price to pay in order for the Maple Leafs centre to reach his dream of one day playing in the NHL.
With Nik Antropov and Dominic Moore traded away and Nik Hagman still suffering the after-effects of a concussion, Mitchell, 24, has flourished. In the eight games that those three players have been absent from the lineup, Mitchell has received more than 20 minutes of ice time in five of them.
On March 3, he scored twice against Martin Brodeur, now the NHL's career leader in wins. On Saturday, his goal helped the Leafs defeat the Calgary Flames 8-6. And, Tuesday in Tampa, he scored in regulation, then added the shootout winner in a come-from-behind 4-3 victory over the Lightning.
Mitchell did not fool around with any fancy deke in the shootout. Instead he drilled the puck through the five-hole of Karri Ramo, just as if he was picking off a spot on the garage door.
"This doesn't mean John Mitchell is a No. 1 centre in the NHL," coach Ron Wilson said, referring to his increased ice time. "But he is certainly taking advantage of the No. 1 centre's minutes he is receiving."
Two years ago, Doug Gilmour, then working in the player development department of the Maple Leafs organization, mentioned that he was impressed with Mitchell, a fifth-round pick in 2003.
It appears that Gilmour may have been on to something.
"I think it helped that I started on the fourth line this season," Mitchell said. "It allowed me to work my way up and earn the right to play more. Now I'm getting to play in all situations, including penalty killing and power plays.
"Sometimes, when a kid starts playing on a top line right off the bat, he takes it for granted. Not me. I had to earn it. That's the way I like it."
Even if it meant the garage door had to pay the price.