TORONTO – On the ice at the junior level, Mitch Marner is an electrifying talent who can put up points seemingly at will. Off the ice at his first NHL training camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he’s far more subdued.
“When I came in here I was really shy,” Marner said. “I didn’t really know how to talk to anyone. You’re kind of scared to talk to the older guys, the vets.”
So one of those older vets took it upon himself to make a connection to Marner. On the Leafs’ flight to Halifax at the start of camp, captain Dion Phaneuf invited Marner to sit next to him and spent more than an hour talking to the 18-year-old about his family, his draft experience and his time with the OHL’s London Knights.
“For him to come up right away and introduce himself to me was kind of special,” Marner said. “He said he’s always going to be there for me and help me out whenever I need it. It’s special having that kind of bond with a captain of an NHL team.”
Phaneuf is often maligned for his leadership style, but new coach Mike Babcock spelled out in no uncertain terms that even though he’s an easy target, the 30-year-old was his captain.
“I think he’s got great intentions,” Babcock said.
“He’s our leader right now and we can really help him with the leadership side of things and we’ll help him be the best he can be just like everyone else.”
Reaching out to Marner was a peek into Phaneuf’s behind-the-scenes approach with teammates that fans don’t ever get to see and rarely hear about.
“I’ve been in his shoes, and that’s why I do it,” Phaneuf said. “I know coming into camp at a young age, it can be intimidating. … For a new guy coming into his first camp, there could be some nerves. I just wanted to get to know him a little bit better, and I did that.”
Phaneuf, who’s going into his sixth season wearing the “C” for Toronto, doesn’t consider what he did for Marner anything special. He said he does it all the time.
“For me, it’s nothing to do with being the captain,” Phaneuf said. “It’s about trying to welcome him into our group and make him feel as comfortable as possible to allow him to have a really good camp.”
Marner has high expectations as the fourth pick in the draft, even though he’ll likely go back to the Knights for at least another season. The Leafs want their top prospects to develop before they reach the NHL, and the six-foot, 170-pound Marner has some growing to do before he should be physically ready.
Mentally, Marner took a big step thanks to Phaneuf’s gesture.
“It kind of opened my eyes that if I go back to junior that’s the kind of leader I want to be, introducing guys around and kind of taking them under my wing,” Marner said.