When he got married Alexei Ponikarovsky told his bride that being a hockey player was a little like being in the military.
In other words, keep the suitcase handy, because invariably the marching orders will be handed down.
For nine seasons in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ organization the phone call telling him to take a hike has not come. Several times it has been expected by the media, the public and even Ponikarovsky himself but when the Leafs hit the ice Tuesday night against New Jersey Devils the only two players in the lineup with more than two years service in Toronto were Tomas Kaberle and Ponikarovsky.
He has seen Toronto icons such as Gary Roberts, Tie Domi and Mats Sundin summarily dismissed or depart on their own. He watched last year as lockermate and buddy Nik Antropov was packed off to Broadway.
“Some people think about it more than others. I tend to just think about the next game because you can’t control the other stuff. You can’t do anything about it so there’s no point,” Ponikarovsky said yesterday.
This season his name was chewed through the rumour mill, but somehow even after Brian Burke’s garage sale this week, Ponikarovsky remains. One constant on an ever-changing landscape.
“Welcome to Toronto,” he laughed yesterday as newcomer Fredrik Sjostrom shook his head at the din created by several thousand exuberant school kids who showed up to watch a pregame skate.
“It’s hard to believe. I went out there and they’re playing the national anthem and the place is packed,” said call-up Christian Hanson, who played last year at Notre Dame. “I thought I missed morning skate and I was late for game time.”
Nine seasons now Ponikarovsky has watched this adoration. It makes him the longest serving Leaf of anyone not named Kaberle and he admits to some surprise that with so much shrapnel flying he remains not only a Maple Leaf — but a first-line Maple Leaf last night alongside Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak.
“When you get into this business and especially when you get into the NHL you don’t prepare yourself to get traded but mentally you know that at some time you might get traded. Most of us do at some point. You just have to kind of deal with that as being part of your job. It’s like being on an oil rig somewhere and the company says you’ve got to move.
“I try to keep that Russian military mentality,” said Ponikarovsky, who recalls his childhood and his grandfather. “He’s 83 now and for 25 years they wouldn’t let him over the border because he knew stuff that was pretty important back then but he moved all over Russia. That’s how you have to look at hockey ... it’s a business. I’m not worried. I’d love to stay but it’s up to management.”
Ponikarovsky, 29, leads the team with 19 goals and among the teams interested in him are the Penguins who believe he might fit in alongside Evgeni Malkin, who has spent much of the season alongside the offensively challenged Maxime Talbot and Ruslan Fedotenko.
Ponikarovsky has appeared in just 23 playoff games and admits the possibility, “would be fun. It’s been a while since we’ve made it.” But, that’s as far as he’ll go. He says he’d prefer to stay in Toronto and see how things play out with all the changes being undertaken by general manager Brian Burke.
“Right now I’m excited about the new faces ... excited about getting on the ice with them and see how we can do.”
There did seem to be a renewed vitality in the dressing room the past couple days. If nothing else, the recent moves have displaced a dark mood, exacerbated by a six-game losing streak, with a sense of hope. Not just the fans are excited. “It affects the team as well. The guys coming in you can tell that they’re excited about being Maple Leafs.
"It’s still a franchise that’s special to a lot of kids when they’re growing up and the guys who came in worked hard the last couple days in practice and you can tell they’re looking forward to getting something new started,” said Ponikarovsky. “I think it’s shaken up the team. It’s a totally different mood.”
Except, of course, for those screaming kids. Like dandelions in spring, they pop up around anything to do with the Maple Leafs. Nothing different there. Just don’t tell Dion Phaneuf. “On the ice, we told him ‘they all came out just to see you,’” said Ponikarovsky. He grins. Big. Wide. It is a grin that says he will go where the wind blows. No worries.
“I just want to play hockey. I just want to have fun.”