By Jonathan Bradley
Over 1,000 fans dressed in blue and white braved the frigid temperature hoping to catch glimpses of their favourite players on Thursday, as the Toronto Maple Leafs held an outdoor practice at Nathan Phillips Square.
The Leafs decided to surprise the public by travelling to the event on the TTC. They rode the subway from Union Station to Queen Station in their full gear, except skates.
Making their way through massive crowds of fans when they arrived at Nathan Phillips Square, they gave out high fives and fist bumps every so often.
Sheldon Keefe, the head coach of the Leafs, said this outdoor practice was a reset for the team.
“This is a nice little break for us here,” said Keefe. “We can get outside and enjoy this.”
“It’s even better when you know that a trip to Florida is around the corner,” he said referring to the Leafs’ upcoming road trip.
The Leafs did a skate around the ice before the practice started. Right winger Mitch Marner shot a few pucks over the mesh surrounding the ice for fans. Marner said he loves doing events like this one.
“I think everyone enjoys it,” said Marner. “We’re grateful for how many fans come to these events and how many fans we get to interact with. We have a lot of fun with it.”
The practice consisted of a 3-on-3 tournament. Players were divided into three teams based on their birthplaces.
Team Ontario, comprised of players such as centremen John Tavares and Jason Spezza, beat the Eastern team that consisted mostly of European players to secure the first spot in the finals. The Western team, which included centreman Auston Matthews and left defender Morgan Rielly, trumped the Eastern team to receive the second spot in the finals. Team Ontario won in the finals.
The players left the ice a short while after the game ended, but they spent some time off the ice with fans. They stopped to sign autographs and take selfies.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said he asked Brendan Shanahan, the president of the Leafs, about who he needs to speak to about doing this event at the same time next year. Shanahan joked and told Tory he was already invited to next year’s practice.
“The turnout is fantastic,” said Tory. “I know there’s a number of kids who have even taken the day off school; I was just talking to some kids that came from Hamilton.”
Saadiq Jasat, an event attendee, said the event provided special experiences for fans and newcomers to the sport.
“It’s important to come so fans can see players up close and personal,” said Jasat. “You’re able to build long lasting memories. And for people who don’t know the game, it’s a good opportunity for them to come, see the game, see how it is, and maybe want to watch hockey in the future.”
The Leafs will look to harness the energy of their outdoor practice next as they take on the Florida Panthers on Sunday night.