Jake Gardiner's lake effect

Tampa Bay Lightning's Ryan Shannon (L) is checked by Toronto Maple Leafs' Jake Gardiner during the...

Tampa Bay Lightning's Ryan Shannon (L) is checked by Toronto Maple Leafs' Jake Gardiner during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Tampa, Florida November 22, 2011. (REUTERS/Mike Carlson)

Steve Buffery, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:06 PM ET

Lake Minnetonka, a 59-kilometre body of water located just southwest of Minneapolis-St. Paul, has an interesting history.

William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States, made it his summer home for a brief spell in the early 1900s. Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright was arrested for violating the Mann Act while vacationing at a cottage nearby in 1911, and the Tonka Toys factory was founded beside the lake (as the Mound Metalcraft company) right after the Second World War.

It’s even mentioned in the Prince song Purple Rain.

Less known about Lake Minnetonka is that Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner grew up on its shores and honed his skills on its frozen surface.

Gardiner, in fact, believes he is an NHL player today because his dad, John, fashioned a rink on the bay beside their house every winter without fail — and not just some candy-ass sheet of ice, but a skating surface at least half the size of a regulation rink. From the time he was three until he was 17, Gardiner spent pretty well every day on that ice.

“That’s where I developed all my skills, my stick-handling and vision too,” Gardiner said, following the Leafs’ practice on Tuesday. “Guys are running all over the place in pond hockey, so it’s a good way to develop your skills. We had boards set up (and) we had lights, too, so we could play at night.

“The best was when it was frozen over before the first snowfall,” he said. “It was like black ice and we could skate all over the bay. And we have a no-wake zone in our bay, so it was always calm in there, no wind. It was perfect ice pretty much all over until in snowed.”

The best time to play, he said, was at night, under the lights, when the winds were calm.

“It’s so much fun,” Gardiner said. “You’re looking around, firing the puck about 200 yards down the ice to your brother and friends. I was pretty fortunate growing up.”

Gardiner said the lights were so bright that the neighbours across the lake sometimes phoned to complain.

For his part, Leafs coach Ron Wilson is thankful that they didn’t complain too often. Wilson is not the type of coach to heap over-the-top praise on his players, particularly younger players, but when talking about Gardiner, he can’t help himself, just as he can’t help but give the 21-year-old rookie defenceman major minutes in recent games. The past two games, in Dallas and Anaheim respectively, Gardiner played 25:15 and 28:34 minutes, the latter the most of any Toronto rearguard.

And Wilson is using him more and more in crucial, late-game situations. In his past seven games, the former University of Wisconsin standout is a plus-7. It’s still early in the season, but Gardiner is gradually being mentioned as a possible Calder Trophy candidate — and those rumblings will probably increase as his game continues to progress.

“The scary part is, he doesn’t get tired,” said Wilson. “The more we play him, the less he sweats.”

An example of that was last Friday’s 4-3 shootout victory in Dallas.

“(John-Michael) Liles came off with a minute and 20 to go and, as Jake was going on, Liles said: ‘Stay out the whole damn minute and 20. I’m dead.’ And Jake was already working on these ridiculous minutes,” said Wilson. “So, our guys know he’s the real deal.”

Gardiner, who was acquired by general manager Brian Burke last February from the Anaheim Ducks, along with Joffrey Lupul for veteran Francois Beauchemin — already considered one of the biggest swindles in Leafs history — wasn’t expected to make the team out of camp. Wilson said that he had the Minnesota native pencilled in as the eighth, ninth or 10th defenceman. Gardiner was destined to start the season with the Marlies. But his play and poise, and especially his skating, was so impressive, that the club had no choice but to start him with the big team.

Not only did he make the Leafs, his play has earned him increasingly more ice time (lately with partner Luke Schenn) which is something, given that defence is said to be the most difficult position in NHL hockey to master.

“The guys call him Silver Stick because he acts and plays like he’s been in the league for more than 1,000 games,” said Wilson. “That’s a lot of heat when you’re getting that from everybody on the team.

“But he just laughs about it. He thinks it’s funny,” the coach added. “And I’m playing him like he has played a 1,000 games — 27 or 28 minutes. It’s nice to have that, especially when guys get banged-up.”

Gardiner surprised even himself when he made the Leafs out of camp, and is certainly enjoying the playing time. But the laid-back rookie is not taking anything for granted.

“Being a young guy, I have to prove myself every day,” he said. “I can’t take any practices or games off. Making the team was just the first step. Staying with the team is my next goal.”

 


Videos

Photos