TORONTO - John-Michael Liles had spent all of about 10 minutes in a Maple Leafs polo shirt before he made a positive first impression.
The 30-year-old defenceman, acquired from the Colorado Avalanche in June, made his initial public appearance in Toronto on Tuesday afternoon, chatting with patients at the Hospital for Sick Children and signing autographs for the young Leafs fans.
“It’s fantastic,” Liles said of his meet-and-greet with the kids. “I tried to be as much a part of the community (in Denver) as possible, and to come here, and to be my first appearance, it’s definitely a special feeling.”
For the player and patients both. Fifteen-year-old Danielle Borden came away with a couple of signed mini sticks and a stuffed animal after talking to Liles.
“It’s awesome,” Borden said. “You see them on TV, but you never think you are actually going to meet one. It makes coming to the hospital a little more fun.”
As for the impression Liles makes on Leafs Nation as a whole, that won’t be known until he steps on the ice for the first time in October. Liles said he has chosen to wear no. 24 on his sweater, a revelation that immediately started the Bryan McCabe jokes on Twitter. Never mind that — Liles has had discussions with general manager Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson and knows what is expected of him.
“I don’t think they are looking for me to re-invent the wheel,” Liles said to a large group of reporters on a hot July day. “I have been in the league for eight years, and I think they kind of know my game.”
Which is to provide offence, and, the hope goes, to help kick-start a sputtering power play. Liles has scored six goals in three of the past four seasons after back-to-back 14-goal years, but recorded a career-high 40 assists in 76 games for the Avalanche in 2010-11.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Liles didn’t come across as a guy who is looking for an added incentive, but he is entering the final year of a contract that will pay him $4.2 million US.
“As far as a contract year goes, it’s not really a different approach for me,” said Liles, who will spend some time in Toronto this week looking for a place to live.
“It’s more about preparing myself for the season and making sure I’m ready to go from Day 1. Contracts are going to take care of themselves.”
The hockey world is a small one, so Liles will see a few familiar faces when training camp opens in September. He has become an acquaintance of Leafs centre Tyler Bozak through former Avs teammate Paul Stastny, who is a friend of both. When the trade for Liles happened, one of his first congratulatory texts was from Bozak. Liles knows Tim Connolly and Mike Komisarek thanks to their similar U.S. bloodlines.
The recent history of the Leafs, of course, is not great, with a Stanley Cup drought passing 44 years in the spring. But Liles made it fairly clear there are fewer places he would rather be in the NHL.
“I know a lot of about the Maple Leafs organization and the history involved with it,” Liles, an Indiana native, said. “Having played in the west, and growing up an American kid, you have a sense of it, but you don’t fully realize it, but now that I am a part of it, I am going to catch on pretty quickly.
“I know the Leafs are a young team. When you have the youthful energy on a team and you see the progress they made, toward the end of last year, the record they put together, it was a heck of a run toward the playoffs.
“They were an impressive team to play against, and now joining them, I am excited to be a part of it. It’s a great time for myself and just really looking forward to getting the season under way.”