Overwhelming reception for Leafs

Maple Leafs forward Colby Armstrong signs autographs for fans outside on the National Air Force...

Maple Leafs forward Colby Armstrong signs autographs for fans outside on the National Air Force Museum of Canada at CFB Trenton, Oct. 10, 2011. (EMILY MOUNTNEY/QMI Agency)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:33 PM ET

TRENTON, ONT. - His astonished face pressed against the window, Colby Armstrong could not believe his eyes when the Maple Leafs team bus pulled into the R.C.A.F. Flyers Arena on Monday.

On this magnificent sun-splashed October day, Armstrong and his teammates were left almost speechless at a lineup estimated at about 2,000 fans that snaked around the outside of the rink, spilling all the way on to adjoining properties. More than half of these people were already on hand some four hours before the team even arrived.

Normally an overwhelming reception such as this would be reserved for heads of state, not a hockey team that had not won a championship in 44 years.

Such is the power of the Maple Leafs brand.

Take the players away from the private suites, sushi bars and slick-suited bankers at the Air Canada Centre, and they get an opportunity to understand just how much they tug at the hearts and imaginations of the blue collar fans — the real Maple Leaf fans — who live in towns like Trenton.

If Armstrong and his Leafs had forgotten about that, they have been reminded of it during this three-day, team-bonding exercise at CFB Trenton.

“I didn’t expect that at all,” Armstrong said. “It’s pretty incredible to catch a bus here and see people roped off and a huge lineup to come.

“I think they were cycling people in and out so that everyone could get a chance to come in, which is something else.”

The R.C.A.F. Arena is said to hold about 500 people (if you don’t mind the next guy’s elbow jabbing into your gut). With four times the building’s capacity on hand, the quick-thinking organizers came up with the perfect solution.

In order to accommodate the huge overflow of fans, they astutely brought groups of supporters into the building in shifts. Each group watched between 20-30 minutes of practice before they were led out and the next batch of fans ushered in.

“We knew there would be this much interest so we planned for it,” Lt.-Col. Dave Alexander said. “The beautiful weather helped too.”

As the team went through its drills, players were accompanied by chants of “Go Leafs Go!” At one point, forward Matthew Lombardi interacted with the throng, playfully waving his stick at them much to their glee.

Coach Ron Wilson has been secretive about the team’s off-ice plans here, although the players were scheduled to tour the nearby aeronautical museum. Lunch on the base with some of the troops was also on the agenda.

“Things like this really puts into perspective what other people go through and how lucky we are to do what we do,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong recalled a similar experience when he was with the Pittsburgh Penguins. On that occasion, the team spent several days at West Point.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “Simulated bombs were going off near our heads, we were doing helicopter rescues, all kinds of things.”

Of all the Leafs, perhaps no one appreciated the support of this military town more than defenceman Luke Schenn, who has seen his “Luke’s Troops” program take off. As part of his program, Schenn, who visited Afghanistan along with Leafs president Brian Burke during the summer, donates tickets to military personnel during every home game at the Air Canada Centre.

“It’s almost like people look forward to it,” Schenn said. “They usually highlight the (military) person on hand at the break at the 10-minute mark. We can be winning by two or losing by two and it doesn’t matter — they cheer anyway.

“The military and the forces are a big team themselves. Obviously, serving your own country, it’s pretty cool that we get to hang out with them for a few days. It’s a good experience, a good opportunity to bond together and get away from Toronto a little bit.

“There’s no better way to do it than with the troops.”

And with the fans who were willing to wait for hours just to get a glimpse of their hockey heroes.


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