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Leafs’ Marner reflects on up-and-down season

TORONTO – Mitch Marner is usually bouncing off the walls.

Whether it’s between practice drills, during warmups before a game or in the locker room, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ star winger is more often than not a ball of unbridled, happy-go-lucky energy.

That makes the NHL’s shutdown and this unprecedented era of self-isolation and physical distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic even tougher.

“It definitely sucks,” Marner said on a conference call Tuesday. “You miss going to the rink, you miss seeing the guys, you miss hanging around with them and just joking around.

“But there’s a lot bigger things going on in the world right now than going to the rink and playing hockey.”

With that important caveat front of mind, Marner decided to do something productive with his spare time.

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He recently posted a message on Instagram in support of Kids Help Phone and announced this week his Marner Assist Fund charity will be working with organizations dealing with front-line workers during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

“It started off first by donating meals to families in need,” Marner said. “I’m trying to donate money to get as many meals out as we can to families that are in need. Now we’re trying to get a lot of money to try and give back to all the workers still working (like) police officers, firefighters, delivery services, any kind of service … just in any way possible we can help get them the right tools to stay healthy on the front lines and do their job as best they can.”

Marner, who admits to sleeping in a later than usual and wearing pyjamas around the house, has also had a chance to look back at an up-and-down 2019-20 season that started with the six-year, $65.358-million contract he signed in training camp.

The campaign got off to a so-so start both for himself and the team, but he was feeling good about his game when the NHL paused proceedings March 12 amid the widening crisis that’s killed thousands worldwide and brought economies screeching to a collective halt.

“A flip of the coin of seeing how we’re gonna play, I think that’s something there where I take a lot of responsibility,” Marner said. “(I’m) trying to be a leader and trying to be a guy that goes in every night and tries to get our team ready to play.

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“It wasn’t something we want to be known or want to keep going, especially if this season does come back. That’s something our team knows we need to fix. Through this break we can get a little bit of a reset and get back going and realize the team we can be.”

Marner registered 16 goals and 67 points in 59 games for Toronto, which sat third in the Atlantic Division at the time of the pause, after missing nearly a month with a high-ankle sprain suffered Nov. 9.

“I felt good,” he said. “The thing about our team is that every time we have our backs against the wall against a very good team, we show that we are the team we can be. That’s just something we need more of.

“For now, it’s just trying to get my mind back on the reset and try and get ready to go.”

Marner would be in favour of summer hockey if it meant finishing the current season, but stressed it needs to be done right.

“Whatever it takes to get this thing going, I think everyone’s willing to do it,” he said. “The main thing is making sure that nothing happens, that everyone’s going to be healthy and everyone’s gonna stay healthy.”

Apart from working out and hitting golf balls into a net in his backyard, Marner and his girlfriend have been kept busy by their 11-month-old Chocolate Lab named Zeus.

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Much like the player, the puppy has plenty of energy.

“He’s been letting us sleep in a bit these past couple days,” Marner said. “But he’s a lab so he’s loves the water, he loves anything to do with balls or chasing a retrieving things.”

And like large segments of society, Marner is also doing his best to stay in touch with friends and family with the technology at his disposal.

“I’m probably FaceTiming probably six or seven guys a day, Zoom calling every weekend,” he said. “We just sit around and shoot the crap about what’s been going on and how they’re doing.

“Just acting like we’re with each other, but we’re not.”

Just like the rest of us.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2020.

Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

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