Sports Hockey

Diehard Leafs fans in Collingwood look to the future

By Tracey Richardson, Sun Times, Owen Sound

COLLINGWOOD - 

It's all about the future for diehard Toronto Maples Leafs fans who trekked to Collingwood Saturday to catch a glimpse of Leafs hopefuls at the team's prospects camp.

“It's good to see what we have in store for the next couple of years, and seeing what we're cheering for,” said 15-year-old Tyler Wiltshire of Orillia.

Wiltshire and his buddies Ayden Miller and Sam Hossack said making the trip to Collingwood was a chance to see their future heroes up close.

“It's great to see the future of the Leafs in a smaller setting, and it's a good chance to get close to some of the future guys coming,” said Miller, who confessed he no longer dreams of playing in the NHL, but would like to become a sports reporter some day.

“At a certain age you realize your dreams of making the NHL aren't going to come true, but still seeing the guys you're going to be cheering for for the next few years is pretty exciting to see,” Miller added.

The three friends were in full-blown selfie mode, getting their pictures taken with as many of the young Leafs hopefuls as they could.

But it wasn't just the younger generation enthralled with the prospects. Harry Huff and Malcolm Long, both of Owen Sound, stood near the back wall in the lobby of the Central Park Arena taking it all in and dreaming that there might finally be something to look forward to. They've been Maple Leafs fans for decades.

“Actually this year, with the way things have gone since Brendan Shanahan's taken over, I think we've got a chance,” said Long, who has a basement full of Leafs' memorabilia.

“We're going to build the right way, and finally I think we're on the right track. We're going to do this in a few years, I really believe that.”

Long has been a fan since 1962 when the Leafs won the first of four Stanley Cups that decade.

“Up to now all we've had is the past,” Long said. “I'm sure hoping for the future because my son, my grandkids, have never seen the Leafs win. So I'm hoping for them because I know what it was like to see them win, and you never forget that feeling.”

The Pan Am Games chased the prospects camp from the MasterCard Centre to Collingwood last Wednesday. The team brought 57 prospects, including this year's fourth overall pick, Mitch Marner, the team's second selection in the draft, Travis Dermott, last year's eighth overall pick William Nylander, and newly acquired forward Kasperi Kapanen.

Huff said the idea of bringing the camp to Collingwood should be replicated in other small centres as a way of reaching more fans.

“This would be so nice for the Leafs to expand their fan base. Not just having it in Collingwood, but say next year having it in Owen Sound, and then the year after that do it in Stratford, and then the year after that in Guelph or something. Most of the smaller communities, they sort of feel left out sometimes.”

Leafs' director of player development Scott Pellerin said the team's been very happy with the facilities in Collingwood, which have not only included the arena but an outdoor cement pad rink and a ball diamond/soccer field.

“With the development camp, we want a real good teaching environment, and this has been better than we had expected,” Pellerin said. “It's been a little more relaxed and the guys have been able to be in a good place to learn because we've been throwing a lot of stuff at them. But the environment here and the location and space has been great.”

Fans throughout the camp, which began Wednesday and end Sunday, numbered about a hundred at any given time. They wandered in and out of the arena to watch the drills and scrimmages, and got autographs and photos of the players as they milled around outside either playing soccer or ball hockey.

“The fans, the people, they've been very respectful of our space,” noted Pellerin. “We're in a public place and we know that, but everybody's been respectful to what we need to do, and we've also been respectful and know and feel grateful that we're in a great community here to have our camp.”

Dermott, who plays defence for the Erie Otters, was still riding high Saturday from being drafted by the Leafs two weeks ago.

“All my social media blew up after I got drafted,” he said Saturday, grinning at the memory. “It was really cool, people Tweeting at me excited for me and stuff like that. There was the odd mean comment, but it's Toronto, so I guess I'll get enough of that. But it was really cool. And there's some superfans here (in Collingwood), which is really cool, some people who are obviously really big Leafs fans out to see some of the young talent who hope to be on the team in a few years.”

Marner, a London Knights winger, has become an overnight sensation in Leafs Nation.

“It feels pretty crazy when you think about it,” he said. “London fans are special fans, they're top notch fans, better than (others) in the CHL and maybe even some NHL teams. Everything's special to me the last two years I've been there, and it's been a lot of fun for sure. Obviously coming into here, it's a different angle. It's the Maple Leafs, it's the NHL, it's the biggest nation and it's awesome.”



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