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Maple Leafs ‘feel the love’ at outdoor practice, dream of bigger party at City Hall

TORONTO – Nathan Phillips Square is buzzing like Mitchell Marner in the offensive zone.

The sunshine is cranked to 11 as thousands of believers in Maple Leafs sweaters gather at City Hall on Super Bowl Sunday to holler for autographs and clamour for photographs of the local hockey heroes.

So bright, Marner has gotta wear shades.

“Well, it’s straight-up his style,” linemate John Tavares smiles. “The glare was heavy. So, he made the right play — which is not surprising.”

From the swarms and the enthusiasm, a newcomer to the mecca wouldn’t have a clue that the source of all these smiles is the same organization that blew a good lead to a bad team mere hours ago. The same club whose most recent playoff-round-winning campaign began with Mel Lastman as mayor.

We’re talking six long terms ago.

So what if today’s Maple Leafs’ core hasn’t gotten the job done in six straight postseasons?

On an afternoon as upbeat and warm as this one, a local man can dream.

Maybe, just maybe, all these fans and all these hockey players could meet up in this same public square four months from now to celebrate something much more meaningful than a community-connecting 3-on-3 practice on outdoor ice.

Plan the parade? Let’s not get hasty.

But if you’re not fantasizing that all the heartache and pain and “Chychrun” doom-scrolling won’t one day lead to glory, then what’s the point of being a loyal sports fan in the first place?

“Absolutely. You think about that all the time,” Tavares says.

Eye black was smeared on the captain’s cheekbones as he spoke and squinted and imagined following the 2019 Raptors’ path to the corner of Queen and Bay.

That’s why Tavares came home in the first place. Not just to hear Joe Bowen bellow “Johnny Torontoooo!” as he leads Team Ontario over Team Europe in a fun if frivolous 3-on-3 intrasquad tourney next to the Nathan Phillips’ illuminated TORONTO sign.

“Obviously, a lot of work ahead,” Tavares acknowledges. “But certainly, that’s what we’re working towards. No doubt, from time to time, those thoughts come across your mind.”

As much as detail-obsessed head coach Sheldon Keefe preaches staying in the moment, he too admits that the vision of a citywide Stanley Cup party is what drives him.

“Well, we think about that a lot,” Keefe says.

But going out midday, riding the subway and playing for free and for fun in front of thousands of kids and parents and Leafs Nation lifers is a reminder that those representing the Blue and White aren’t skating in a bubble.

Even if it might feel that way sometimes along the airplane-hotel-rink-repeat grind.

“When you’re out here and you see the people coming out like this, you can see how much they care. You’re playing for not just yourselves but Leafs Nation as well,” Keefe says.

“Everything’s nicer the day after a win, but if you’re going to come in after a loss like last night, this is a good way to do it. Beautiful day. Unbelievable turnout.

“You feel the love.”

And you feel the potential for a downtown party, when the ice melts, that might outlast the arms on the giant clocktower.


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