ST JOHN’S, N.L. — Scenes from a training camp weekend in a place called Paradise.
Auston Matthews kissed a cod — and he liked it.
It was all part of the growing education of the soon-to-be Maple Leafs captain. He — and a number of his Leafs’ teammates — got Screeched In, a not necessarily religious but culturally appropriate experience at a George St. bar called Christian’s.
It was part fun, part dare, part ceremony, and in the words of new teammate Tyson Barrie, pretty awful. Matthews, his first time in Newfoundland, batted first for the Leafs in cod kissing.
“I’d heard you had to kiss the fish and drink the shot (rum), but the whole ceremony beforehand, laying down some history about The Rock, that was pretty sweet. I figured I’d want to kiss it first and (the other Leafs) could have sloppy seconds.”
He kissed. He drank the rum — pretty powerful stuff. “
It didn’t taste great,” said Matthews, “but it wasn’t like it was gasoline or anything.”
Matthews survived, not sure he’d ever do this again.
The woman behind the rental car counter is wearing her Maple Leafs jersey with the No. 34 on the back. Almost everyone around St. John’s, it seems, is wearing a Maple Leafs jersey of some kind this weekend, so many with 34 on the back.
I asked her if she was going to put a ‘C’ on her jersey in the inevitability that Matthews is named team captain.
This seemed to throw her off. She said she had no plans to put a ‘C’ on her jersey, then turned around to show me why. She was wearing a James Reimer jersey.
“Old school,” she said. “I’ve had this one for years. I love James Reimer.”
Mike Babcock hasn’t kissed a cod, but he has vowed he won’t be leaving St. John’s without doing so.
Babcock breathes in Canada. East Coast. West Coast. It doesn’t matter where. He has been and coached just about everywhere in the country. Team Canada at the Olympics. Team Canada at the world championships. Team Canada at the world juniors. His career reads like a Burton Cummings song. He’s coached in Moose Jaw, Lethbridge, Red Deer, before running back to Saskatoon.
But this is trip is different, eye-opening, special.
“It’s awesome,” said Babcock. “Where were we last night? Mallard’s Cottage, Quidi Vidi (which is pronounced Kitty Vitty)? I don’t know what the place is, honest to God, the scenery, we have so many beautiful things in our country and it’s great to see it. The thing about the people here, they’re happy and they appreciate you.”
Two things to know: The Leafs are loving this training camp in St. John’s. And St. John’s is loving them right back.
This is Ben Harpur’s second time having training camp in Newfoundland. The first time was as a member of the Ottawa Senators. The two experiences couldn’t seem more different.
Here, everything is Maple Leafs. Everywhere you look, a blue Maple Leafs jersey. At the arena, around town, in the bars, in stores, everywhere. When Harpur was here the first time, he saw the odd Ottawa Senators jersey, “but mostly Leafs jerseys then. But nothing like this year. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Harpur is one of many battling for one of the two available spots on the Leafs defence. He has size and penalty-killing ability. Whether he has enough to beat out a group of about six fighting for two places will be determined by the end of camp. But as many coaches have said — you can’t coach size. And the Leafs don’t have a lot of it on defence.
“You get here (rink) early in the morning and they’re people who are lined up to get in. I’m told some of them were sleeping overnight just to get in. It’s pretty crazy, really. Makes you realize just how big the Leafs following is and how exciting this for a community like this one.
“This is pretty far away from the rest of Canada and I guess this is their opportunity to see the NHL in some way. You know, I played my first ever exhibition game here against the Islanders. But it was nothing like this.
“This is Leafs country.”
The three little guys in Leaf jerseys , no more than eight years old, were banging on the glass, screaming loudly, jumping up and down, trying anything to get Mitch Marner’s attention.
The rink was jam-packed with people, not a seat to be had on this Sunday morning as Marner returned to the Leafs on the ice with his first practice of training camp.
Marner was skating on a line with John Tavares, at camp for his first practice after becoming a father for the first time, and with a new winger, Kasperi Kapanen, taking the place of the injured Zach Hyman. And the crowd was clearly inspired with Marner’s appearance, after him being signed to his $65-million US, six-year contract.
And at the end of the drill, Marner made his way to the glass, made a face and posed for a selfie with the three little boys. It was an old kid and three young kids having some fun.
“That’s a $65-million photo,” one of the dad’s from the stands yelled. Pretty much everybody around laughed. Marner continued to smile.
“Kids love him,” said Tavares, who is in St. John’s for the second time in his life. “They really do. Everybody saw Mitch today, the crowd was going nuts. That’s pretty special.”
An American has never been captain of the Maple Leafs. The people of St. John’s are voting for Matthews to be the next Leafs captain, if only by their actions since training camp began.
On Sunday, after the parking lot at the Paradise Double Ice Complex was cordoned off by barriers to set up for an afternoon of autograph signing, the place almost exploded when Matthews walked through the barriers and towards the stage.
The cheers went on and on and on. One young man held up a sign: “When I grow up I want to be Auston Matthews.”
Another held up a sign: “Welcome to the Rock, Auston Matthews.”
Matthews walked to the stage and after answering a few softball questions by the host, he took the microphone himself and talked about how great this camp visit has been. Then he gave away one of his jerseys, to a young fellow sitting on his father’s shoulders. The gesture was a lot like this training camp in Paradise — pretty close to enlightening, pretty close to perfect.
- Five storylines to watch for as Maple Leafs open training camp
- Maple Leafs get down to work Down East
- Zach O'Brien looks very much at ease camping near home in St. John's
- Gilmour celebrates anniversary of Canada Cup classic with game at Mile One in St. John's
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019