Primeau in tough to make Leafs

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:14 PM ET

Wayne Primeau stepped on to the ice against the Philadelphia Flyers Friday as a Maple Leafs’ wanna-be.

The prospect that it could be his final NHL curtain call has never been quite so stark.

Primeau has been the ultimate hockey survivor.

A player blessed with limited offensive skill, he carved a career through diligence, sweat and a dogged work ethic that endeared him to coaches.

He could be trusted defensively; he could do the dirty work. He never whined about money or playing time or who got to wear which number.

None of that may matter anymore.

For the first time in his career, it might not be enough.

“I still enjoy playing the game and 34 is not old, it’s just that in this game, it’s not young either,” said Primeau, yesterday before making his first preseason appearance in a game.

“It has been my livlihood and I’d like it to continue — but what happens, I’ll accept it either way. My goal is to make the team but if that doesn’t happen I’ll have to move on with my life.”

Primeau had three goals and eight points in 58 games in Toronto last season and like many veterans in the off-season became a free agent without a nibble. So, when the Leafs offered him a tryout contract, he took it.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been in a situation like this, but if you look around the league a lot of guys are in similar positions.”

Former Leaf Kyle Wellwood just signed a tryout deal with Phoenix. It wasn’t until September that Mike Comrie got work in Pittsburgh and training camps opened with players such as Darcy Tucker, Stephane Yelle and Robert Lang looking for hockey homes.

“I’m glad the Leafs have given me an opportunity and I hope it works out.”

But the calendar and young legs are catching up and he has felt a sense of how quickly this game passes a player by.

“On this team — I’m old! I was playing in training camp with (Greg) McKegg and we were talking and he’s born in ’92. I was drafted in ’94 when he was two years old! That’s crazy!”

There are other signs that another year in blue isn’t to be. Mike Brown is wearing his No. 18 jersey now. The one he stripped off yesterday was branded with a No. 24.

Primeau is trying not to take the hint.

This is a fight for survival. He can’t afford to take hints; can’t afford to change tactics; can’t afford to believe he won’t see another opening night on Hockey Night In Canada.

“I’ve approached every training camp the same way from when I was 18 to now at 34. I come with no expectations of a guaranteed spot on the team. I’ve never taken summers off. There’s never a guarantee,” said Primeau. “I may not have the best offensive skills for this level, but I give 100% every night. When you do that, coaches appreciate it.”

By most accounts, he’s had a solid training camp. But nothing spectacular. Just solid might not do it any more.

“It’s an uphill climb for him,” head coach Ron Wilson said after yesterday’s morning skate. “He got the job done in scrimmages, but we’re pretty deep in the middle. Christian Hanson stepped up his game physically and more than likely could be a fourth-line centre, maybe third line.”

So, Friday’s game was a telling moment for Primeau. If it doesn’t convince the Leafs to keep him as a mentoring influence in a young dressing room, Wilson said there’s always a chance he could impress “someone who might be watching.”

With more depth and other veteran influences such as Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong now on the team, there doesn’t appear to be room for him to stay a Maple Leaf.

Harsh. Such is reality in the NHL.

“There were a couple other teams interested,” said Primeau, “but with my family situation here (a Whitby native he owns land in Pickering where he hopes to eventually settle) there was no better place to accept a tryout than here. If it doesn’t happen ... maybe there’s an opportunity somewhere else.”

But not the Marlies.

He probably won’t accept a two-way contract, he said, instead retiring, maybe working some hockey schools with his brother.

“I don’t foresee (going to an NHL farm club). I’d like to still play in the NHL. But after 14 years, if it’s not meant to be, I’ll look to the future and start a new chapter in my life.”

Meantime, for one more night he is a Maple Leaf.

bill.lankhof@sunmedia.ca


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