It takes 35 steps to get from the home locker room of the ACC to the ice.
The doors open, and you can hear the rumble of the crowd — it’s still quiet. As you turn right, following the sound, it starts to build. You take a few more steps before you reach one of the quirks that makes the building unique to the NHL: the stairs to the ice. You have to go down five steps before you reach ice-level. Then you pass this little roped-off section of fans, and that’s when it — that particular feeling — starts to hit your gut. By now, the noise is deafening. The building is rocking. You can barely hear the music beneath the roar of the crowd. You can see the blue lights bouncing off the stainless steel walls of the tunnel.
Just a few more steps, and you’re out of the darkness, into the blue.
I was always the second guy out, after the goalie. I’d smack the pucks from our bench onto the ice for warmup. Then I’d hit that fresh sheet … and I would just kind of float.
That feeling … man, it’s pretty close to whatever perfect is.
I did that for nine years. Nine years.
Being a Maple Leaf is all I’ve ever known.
So before I leave, I just wanted to say thank you.
And to do that properly, I need to take you back to 2009 — to a coffee shop in Denver, and a meeting with Joe Nieuwendyk, who was on Brian Burke’s staff in Toronto.
I had been chatting with a couple of NHL GMs, in-person and on the phone, for a few weeks while I was rehabbing my knee after surgery during my sophomore year at Denver. There had been some interest around the league, and I was talking to as many people as I could, trying to find the opportunity that best suited me.
Joe made it clear: I wasn’t going to find another team like the Leafs. And I wasn’t going to find another city like Toronto.
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I knew all this. I’m from Regina, Saskatchewan. There aren’t any NHL teams in Saskatchewan, so the Leafs are a big deal. I remember Toronto’s games coming on at five on Saturday nights. Dougie Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk, Tie Domi, Wendel Clark … those guys were legends. Joe didn’t have to tell me how important the Leafs were. I’d grown up knowing how important they were.
But I had some concerns. I had never been a blue-chip prospect. I hadn’t played major junior hockey in Canada. In 2004 I left home to play for the Victoria Salsa (seriously) in the British Columbia Hockey League. I was 19. My first year I wanted to quit so bad. I called my dad so many times telling him I didn’t think it was going to work out.
“Just stick it out for the year … you just never know,” he’d say.
So I did. My coach in my final two seasons in Victoria was Rylan Ferster, and he really helped me find my game. I battled Kyle Turris for the league lead in points in my last season. That was enough to make me think, Yeah, maybe I can do this.
I went to Denver to get an education and keep my hockey dream alive.
So when I eventually spoke with Brian about a contract, just thinking about playing in the NHL in Toronto was surreal to me. But I also didn’t want to go to the Leafs and just fall through the cracks — or break under the pressure. I thought about going somewhere warm, maybe flying under the radar.Stella is a goldendoodle, the light of Phil’s life.
But this was the Leafs.
So I signed a two-year deal.
And from the moment I got to Toronto in the summer of 2009, I knew I had made the right choice. I was living with Christian Hanson, another college free agent, and Viktor Stålberg, who’d been drafted by the Leafs in ’06. We worked out at the facility together, went to development camp together, learned the city together. I’ll never forget the time we were out one afternoon that summer and these kids — like 15- and 16-year-olds — recognized us. We hadn’t even worn a Leafs jersey yet. I heard them talking to their friends like, “Oh yeah, that’s Bozak. He had 34 points in 41 games for Denver last year. I think he’ll be a good center, but he needs to work on his shot.”
That kid was right. But what he and I didn’t know was that the better I got at passing the more success I was going to find. Because when I got called up for good in January 2010, I got put on a line with the best shooter in the league.
I can still see Ron Wilson’s handwriting on the whiteboard in my mind from January 12, my second ever NHL game.
Our line scored that night. I got an assist.
When in doubt, pass to Phil.
See, the thing you need to know about Phil Kessel is that he’s a quiet guy. O.K., you probably know that, but it’s why we got along so well, I think. We’re different. I’m a bit more outgoing, I like to crack jokes, and he’s a bit more reserved. Phil and I had the same interests. A lot of nights you’d find us on the couch, watching a game with Stella.
Stella is a goldendoodle, the light of Phil’s life.
I got to know Stella after Phil asked me if I wanted to be roommates. It was a few years after I got to Toronto, and the way he did it was totally Phil. He just said, “So you wanna live together or something, or…?” I wasn’t going to say no — he had a sick apartment downtown. It was a no-brainer.
Frank Gunn/CP/AP Images
Some nights I’d be in another room in our place and I’d hear Phil’s voice.
“No, no, I just didn’t play well tonight. Yeah, I dunno really …”
I’d walk into the room, and he’d be in mid-conversation with Stella.
I understood why. Sometimes I did the same thing — Stella was a good listener and a big hockey fan.
In fact, it was just me and her watching Game 7 of our first-round series against the Bruins in 2013. I was hurt and had to miss the last two games of the series, so I stayed in Toronto instead of traveling to Boston for the last game.
I remember, after Nazem Kadri scored to make it 4–1, the texts were rolling in from friends and family.
“Congrats Bozie! What a series!”
“Good luck in the next round!”
Stella gave me a look like, Don’t reply to a single one of those texts.
You know how animals can sort of sense when disaster is coming? I think she knew.
Stella left the room. And it wasn’t 4–1 much longer.
We lost, and it was terrible. It killed me that I wasn’t there.
It’s hard not to think of that moment from time to time now, because I’ve been through it all in Toronto. I know it isn’t easy to be a Leafs fan because I was one for nine years.
I remember everything, but if there’s one moment that sticks out in my mind, and one person who I hope fans remember, it’s G-man.
Garrett Gamble Jr.
Garrett was an 11-year-old boy from Duck Lake, just north of Saskatoon. He was suffering from Morquio syndrome, a rare disease that affected his bones, his heart and his hearing. In March 2015, the Leafs signed him to a one-day contract, and he dropped the puck from his wheelchair for our home game against Ottawa.
I was his favorite player, and he got a number 42 jersey with G-MAN on the back.
The day of the game, I talked with his family all morning about Saskatchewan, Garrett’s life and what the Leafs meant to him. They told me how he would watch our Saturday night games at five, just like I used to.
That night, I played for G-Man.
I had a hat trick and assisted on the game-winning goal in overtime. It was one of the best games of my life.
Garrett and I shared the first star that night, so I asked if I could bring him on the ice with me when they called my name. He looked me right in the eyes, a massive smile across his face, and grabbed my gloves.
I did a lap around the ice with him in his chair. I watched his face light up as we stepped on the ice, I watched his family wipe tears from their eyes. That was one of the proudest moments of my life, and of my time as a Leaf.
That’s what hockey is all about.
All the visits to the SickKids hospital in Toronto, those were the most important days to me. To make a difference in their lives and see their faces — it was a priceless experience. And I thank the Leafs for the opportunity to do so. It’s truly a world class organization.
That’s what being a Toronto Maple Leaf meant to me.
From Brian Papineau, Bobby Hastings and Tom Blatchford — our amazing equipment staff who were my best buddies for nine years and deserve all the credit in the world for their efforts — to Paul Ayotte, the head athletic therapist, who fixed me every time I was broken, the Leafs community was my family.
Those 35 steps I’d take from the locker room to the ice? Every one of them was because of all the people in Toronto who have been by my side for the last nine years.
The first time I made that walk, I was a 23-year-old kid who wasn’t sure if he belonged. But when I took it for the final time last spring, I saw how far I had come. I saw my wife, Molly. She’s my best friend, and she’s supported me throughout. She was holding our two-year-old son, Kanon, who was born in Toronto. I gave him a wave through the glass during warmup.
I’ll remember those moments forever.
I grew up taking those steps, playing in front of those fans. They made me into the player, the man and the father I am today. I can’t thank my teammates, the city and the organization enough.
We went through so much together. But there was always another constant: The fans.
I’ve had so many teammates, so many highs and lows, that I can’t even begin to count them all. But I always knew, no matter what, after the 35th step, I was going to walk out to a building packed full of Leafs fans.
You all meant the world to me. Every conversation in public — even the ones where you told me I needed to be better — will stick with me. Because you cared, no matter what. And as a player that’s what you want.
Every high five, every selfie, every moment … I appreciate them all so much.
I’ll miss you guys a lot.
I’ve been texting James Van Riemsdyk pretty often the last few weeks. We’ve been talking about how weird it’s going to be not playing together. He was my linemate for a long time in Toronto, and I owe him a lot for my success — he’s a great friend. We’re both going to miss playing for this city. But we know this: You’re in good hands, Toronto. The next few years are going to be a lot of fun. Believe in Kyle Dubas and the talent you have. Auston, William and Mitch can do anything. Trust me, I saw them in practice every day, they’re special.
Richard Lautens/Toronto Star/Getty Images
When you’re in a place long enough, you get a feeling for how things work. I knew this day was coming. At first, it wasn’t easy to accept that Toronto was moving on, because the city means so much to me. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t as excited as I’ve ever been in my career right now.
The very first call I got this off-season was from Doug Armstrong, the St. Louis Blues GM.
He told me about the city, the team and his plan. I spoke with some other teams and there were a few good offers, but St. Louis was a perfect fit.
Mostly because I don’t want to block another Vladimir Tarasenko shot ever again.
I’m kidding. (I’m not kidding.) I know how good the Blues are. They’ve been so hard to play against for years. They’ve got great talent, and even though I was fortunate enough to accomplish some great things in Toronto, I never got the one thing I’ve always really wanted.
The Stanley Cup.
I want to win a Cup. So damn bad.
That’s why I signed in St. Louis. There’s your headline. Print it.
I spoke with Paul Stastny about the city and what a great place it is to raise a family — I just can’t wait to get there. I can’t wait to get on the ice. My wife and I had our second child, a baby girl named Blake, on June 23, and we’re already picking out Blues gear for her.
I’ll have to explain to Kanon that the shade of Blue on his next jersey is going to be a little bit different, but I think he’ll understand. There’s going to be a lot of changes for us the next few months — new team, new city, new house and a new walk from the locker room to the ice.
And even though the steps will be different, all the ones I took when I wore a Maple Leaf on my chest will be on my mind when I take them.
And for that, I’m forever thankful.