Imagine yourself back on that little league field with your new team. Or on the ice for the first time with your midget team. The coach’s are watching, instructing, teaching. Your heart has been pounding from the moment you woke up that morning, anticipating the excitement, the competition that awaits you. The unknown: Will you make the grade?
Now imagine yourself going halfway around the world possibly to a country where you speak precious little of their native language. You are accustomed to being a “big fish” and you are now thrust into the “big pond” with other big fish. It is your first touch with an NHL franchise, YOUR NHL franchise, and you are wondering: Will I make the grade?
The Toronto Maple Leafs entrust a big part of their future to a very capable man, Chris MacDonald. “My role is a little difficult to define”, says the very personable man, who is also Queens University’ hockey coach. “I can best explain it as coordinating the Toronto Maple Leafs’ prospects’ adjustment to the NHL. Not only on the hockey level, but acclimating them to the city, to the organization, to each other.” He works hand-in-hand with Leafs’ assistant GM Anders Hedberg, creating a “comfort zone” to players who largely represent the future of the franchise.
MacDonald also coordinates the numerous people and organizations, outside the Maple Leafs, which have influences on the young propsects and their development. “It is particularly great to meet and come to know not only the young players, but their moms and dads and other family influences.” “Coordinating the Leafs’ plans, the young man’s plans, his junior team or college teams’ plans can be a complex process sometimes, particularly when the player might still be on a team in Europe”, MacDonald relates.
The Leafs hold a prospects camp for their young players, just days after the completion of the entry draft. In MacDonald’s second year in this role, this past year’s camp was held at the Air Canada Centre. “It was neat to see the impression the Leafs’ new facilities had on the young players”, said MacDonald. “There were definitely some raised eyebrows and mouths wide open”, he says. “Anders Hedberg goes out of his way to give the camp some special touches, such as putting the players’ names above their locker. It really gives them a taste of what the NHL is like”, he adds.
In addition to the orientation and the acclimation the camp holds for the prospects, the instruction is what really stands out. “It is definitely a team effort, from nutritionists, to the team’s strength and conditioning coach, to the team’s sports psychologist to all the on-ice instruction”, said MacDonald. The level of play is not extremely, physically competitive, but the prospects work on everything from faceoff ability, to corner work, to 4-on-4 mini-scrimmages. MacDonald and St. John’s head coach, Al McAdam, are largely responsible for the on-ice work.
“Anders Hedberg puts his stamp on the camp as a whole, and finishes up with a one-on-one sitdown with each player to pave the way for the future. He lets each player know where he stands and what the future plans may be as that young man attempts to one day play in the NHL. He outlines a program which the player can take home with him in an attempt to build on his strengths and improve his weaknesses”, states MacDonald.
“You know, it is a great thing to see the organization as a whole committed to helping these young players. From Anders Hedberg, to Ken Dryden, to Steve Stavro, the Maple Leafs are committed to building the team from the ground on up. Dryden probably puts it best, ‘that no two kids learn hockey the same way or at the same pace’. The Leafs will continue to show patience with these young players, letting them develop at their own pace”, says MacDonald.
What about the players themselves? Who impressed during this prospects camp? Who improved the most from last year to this one? Which of the latest draftees stood out the most?
“Adam Mair obviously jumps out at you. He’s come so far from a year ago when he was a feisty, physical, hustling player who faced some adversity this past year.”, says MacDonald. Adam impressed many at the Leafs’ training camp last year as well as at the Team Canada’ prospects camp to choose the squad which represented the country at last year’s WJC tournament. His broken jaw suffered last fall did not curtail his progress as he had an excellent season with Owen Sound, a great showing in the WJC and ended his year playing in the 2nd and 3rd round of the NHL playoffs with Toronto. No one will be surprised if Adam wins a regular shift with Toronto in the 99-00 season. After his whirlwind year, you’d think he’d take some time off, but it speaks to his desire and his character that Adam was right there working hard with all the other Leafs’ prospects as he approaches what may be his rookie NHL season.
Jeff Farkas, who in order to maintain his collegiate eligibility, came to the camp at his own expense, was equally impressive. “Jeff is a legitimate 190 pounds and has lost no speed at all with the added weight”, says MacDonald. “Jeff has really put the work in to develop his game and a lot of credit goes to his head coach at BC, Jerry York”, he adds. “His time at BC has seen him develop his game within a team framework without sacrificing his individual talents”, says MacDonald.
“Jeff’s speed through the neutral zone with the puck is maybe his most impressive skill. When he gets that outlet pass from the defenseman just inside his blueline, he can just flat-out fly through the neutral zone. He will make a little move on the defenseman, without losing speed, and he is in on the goalie, where he knows how to finish the play as well. Glenn Healy was there working out and he commented to me that he’s only seen one other player who can actually pick up speed when he has the puck and that is Pat Lafontaine”, states MacDonald. No one will hold him to that, but that is heady company indeed. “We expect that Jeff will have an awesome season with BC, if everything falls into place for him”, says MacDonald. Can he make the jump to the NHL right after his college career ends? “No one can say for sure, but if anyone can, it just may be Jeff”, says the coach. “Anders has some big plans for him.”
The Leafs’ 1998 2nd round draft choice, Petr Svoboda was also impressive. “Petr has the ability to be a solid, 2-way defenseman who contributes in all 3 zones”, says MacDonald. “He can skate, handle the puck and has a nice shot from the point”, he states. “He also adds a tough, physical presence to the ice as well”, MacDonald adds.
Michal Travnicek, out of the Czech. Republic, was impressive as well. “He is a feisty, tough winger who is very competitive. Even though the on-ice work was supposed to be relatively free from contact, Michal let himself be known to several players with his on-ice hits”, says MacDonald. “Several will remember him”, he adds. Michal has the skills to put the puck in the net as well, but needs to work on his skating a bit.
Alexei Ponikarovsky is a big, strong winger out of the Ukraine, who was drafted in the 4th round of the 1998 entry draft. “Alexei is a very impressive power-forward prospect who uses his size and strength to great advantage. He is tough along the boards as his strength and long-reach allows him to protect the puck very well. You can see him as that forward who drives to the net with the defenseman hanging all over him. He has the strength and skating balance to allow him to get there. He impresses you with his great speed as well”, says MacDonald. The Leafs may have a couple of tough, huge wingers beginning to develop in their system. Ponikarovsky may just be a player to watch in the next few years.
The question most often asked among Leafs’ fans is: How is Nikolai Antropov coming along? Is he ready for NHL play? “Nikolai will probably play next season with the Dynamo as the Leafs will continue to be patient with him”, says MacDonald. “All aspects of his game have improved from last year to this one. His great size will be his ultimate weapon in the NHL. He has the size, strength, reach and skills to be a big-time player, but he is still very much growing into his body. His skating has improved as well. His instincts and vision on the ice are incredible. He was paired in some 4-on-4 work with Adam Mair and later, Jeff Farkas, and they were just awesome together. Some of the plays they made would make you stop and say, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’, MacDonald adds. “Patience will still be needed with him”, the coach warns,”because he is still a physically developing young man.” “Anders feels that the Dynamo is still the best place for him as they are sculpting an NHL player in Nikolai”, he states.
Allan Rourke, a defenseman who played with Kitchener in the OHL was impressive as well. “Allan was hurt last year, so he was not able to participate in the camp, but he really exhibited good puck-moving skills this year”, states MacDonald.
Of the current Leafs’ draft choices, first-rounder, Luca Cereda and second-rounder, Peter Reynolds really stood out. “Their skill level is obvious, but what really made an impression was their willingness to learn and to improve their skills”, says MacDonald. “Both players, on their own, sought out the coaches to find out what they need to do to get better”, he adds. “Cereda’s poise with the puck, his confidence and work ethic was impressive.”
Of the other current Leafs’ draftees, fifth-round selection, Vaclav Zavoral made a big impression as well. “His skill level is close to Reynolds”, says MacDonald. His size and strength, despite the planned lack of physical play to avoid injury, was impressive as well. It appears that Zavoral might play in the OHL with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds next season, as they drafted him in the CHL import draft a week ago. “It will definitely be easier to follow his progress”, MacDonald adds.
“Jonathon Zion, who played well into the spring in the CHL Memorial Cup with Ottawa, showed a lot of ability and competitiveness as well”, says the coach.
At the end of the Leafs’ exciting playoff run in late May, coach Pat Quinn stated that he wanted to see the team improve it’s physical capabilities and toughness, particularly up front. “Probably as a group, I’d say that the Leafs’ prospects as a whole are more physical than a year ago”, MacDonald concludes. We can all see that great smile of Pat Quinn right now.
There are a thousand things to juggle on a player’s way to the NHL. Most successful franchises in pro sports use their “farm systems” or “prospects pipeline” to help to perpetuate that success. The Toronto Maple Leafs, starting at the top and permeating through the organization, have told us how they are committed to “building from within” by acquiring and developing young talent. The team’s goal is to be a perennial “top-five” team in the NHL. The team on the ice took some giant steps to achieve that end this past year. Led by Anders Hedberg and Chris MacDonald, the team has maybe taken even a bigger step to make sure that the great success enjoyed in the 98-99 season is not just a single blip on the radar screen. The Leafs could not have put their trust in better men.
Special thanks to Coach Chris MacDonald of the Leafs for his time in conducting this interview.