A sea of blue and white filled Nathan Phillips Square as fans young and old came out to see the Toronto Maple Leafs hold their annual outdoor practice.
Hundreds showed up Thursday to get a glimpse of their favourite players, some of them arriving hours before the noon start time. They braved a wet winter day in February, but the Leafs took care of them. With food trucks, coffee, and an outdoor pop-up stand selling official team merchandise, it was a full-on fan experience like no other.
The team also surprised everyone by riding the TTC in full gear to the practice, entering the square through the crowd, signing autographs, and high-fiving fans along the way.
— Leafs Fans United (@LeafsFansUnited) February 9, 2019
The Leafs sit second in the Atlantic Division and third in the Eastern Conference. The annual practice is a way for fans who can’t normally attend games — with tickets as expensive as $1,000 for a pair — to see their favourite team.
Leafs fan Dean and his kids are from Cambridge, Ont., and don’t get to see the team play very often. “It’s really great that they put this on, it’s a super deal,” said the dad, who didn’t want to give his last name.
When asked why Leafs fans subject themselves to the elements for an event like this, he said, “It’s just the loyalty to the brand and to the team. There’s just so many fans and it’s caught on and they’re doing well, too, which always helps.”
While the fans were the focus, the players got to have a little fun, as well. The practice took the form of a three-on-three tournament. It was won by forwards Connor Brown and Auston Matthews, newly acquired defenceman Jake Muzzin, and goalie Frederik Andersen.
Forward John Tavares enjoyed the different setting. “Just to be outside, change the atmosphere; makes you feel like a kid,” he said in a post-practice interview with the media. “A fun little competitive tournament.”
Head coach Mike Babcock also met with the media after the practice and agrees that it was a great motivator for the team, which is essential for an approaching road trip. “It’s energizing for the players, as well. There’s a number of ways to get energized, and I thought this was a good one.”
The Maple Leafs return home on Thursday to host the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.