By Scott Wheeler
May 13, 2017
It was only four years ago that a young Mitch Marner was packing and unpacking boxes with a minor hockey trainer named Marshall Bacon, unloading equipment and water bottles at a Toronto rink.
It’s something that has stuck with him, years later.
“He was always the first kid to come and make sure he was helping me out of my truck with all my gear,” Bacon said. “Just a real nice kid. Polite and respectful to everyone that he came in contact with.”
In the spring of 2013, Marner was a 15-year-old member of Bacon’s minor midget Don Mills Flyers team. By the spring of 2017, he had played out his first season in the NHL as part of the Leafs’ historic centennial season. While there were questions prior to the season if he would even make the team, he ultimately finished as the franchise’s rookie record holder in assists, with 42.
Marner is one-third of a trio of Leafs rookies who were bred by an extended hockey family in Toronto’s rink-laden suburbia. Fellow Leafs Zach Hyman and Connor Brown were also developed playing minor hockey throughout the GTA.
For all three, their mentors were Leafs fans.
Their families are, too.
Now that these kids have graduated to the NHL, in the same city they grew up, it has been an extra special journey for everyone who has been involved in helping them get there.
The born star
From the beginning, Marner’s coaches knew he was special. They knew he was bound for the NHL.
He was that-kind-of good.
“The first thing was just his vision and creativity. It was really a pleasure being able to watch him do the things that he did,” recalls David Cicchini, Don Mills’ assistant coach that year. “We’d just see things, and as a staff, we’d look at each other and say ‘Did we really just see that 15-year-old kid doing those types of things?’ You can see that today in the NHL. He’s doing those types of things.”
Bacon says he often receives text messages from Marner, and he still keeps in touch with his parents, Bonnie and Paul. Cicchini went to a few of the Leafs’ games and met Marner outside the dressing room, a surreal experience for a lifelong Leafs fan.
The Don Mills Flyers family is a close knit one. Other alumni like Max Domi and Darnell Nurse still keep in touch.
But Marner is different. He plays for their team.
“It was pretty evident to us that he was going to play in the NHL,” Cicchini said, “but we didn’t think the Leafs.”
The work horse
Zach Hyman’s path to the NHL – let alone the Leafs – wasn’t as obvious.
Mike Galati, now the head coach and general manager of the Markham Royals Junior A hockey team, coached Hyman for four years: three with the Toronto Red Wings in minor hockey and another with the Hamilton Red Wings at the Junior A level.
Galati said Hyman was a “phenomenal kid.” But he doesn’t use the word skill to describe the eldest of the Leafs’ Toronto-raised rookies.
“He’s just a kid who works hard,” Galati said. “And does all the little things that coaches like to see. He has turned into a real, real good hockey player. It’s real nice to see… His work ethic on and off the ice — his persistence — is something that obviously we’re getting to see on the ice. But he was like that as a kid.”
“His work ethic was second to none,” added Scott Elliot, one of Hyman’s assistant coaches between the ages of 16 and 19 in Hamilton. “He worked consistently as hard in a game as he did in a practice — if not even harder in a practice — to become a better hockey player and a better all-around guy.”
“The kid works his butt off,” echoed Robert Turnbull, who took over for Galati in Hamilton and has coached Edmonton Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot, journeyman NHL enforcer Zac Rinaldo, more than 100 NCAA athletes and professional players in Europe and the AHL.
Elliot followed Hyman’s progress when he left for the University of Michigan, going to watch him play in Ann Arbor a few times a year. When Hyman joined the Leafs organization with the Toronto Marlies, he attended games there, too. Hyman and Elliot still speak often over the phone and via text.
Hyman invited Elliot to some Leafs games, too, and they always spoke afterwards.
As a diehard Leafs fan, Elliot feels great pride when people ask him: “Didn’t Zach Hyman play for you?”
“Somewhere along the line, I had a small piece [of his career] in the grand scheme of things,” Elliot said. “I was able to coach him for as long as I did… it’s very rewarding for me as a coach.”
But when Elliot watches Leafs games, his coaching instincts kick in. He’s often left curious about the tactics Mike Babcock deploys. Now that the season is over, he plans to sit down and pick Hyman’s brain, looking back and asking “How come you do this?” or “On this specific play, why do you do this?”
Galati calls watching Hyman live out his dream, in Toronto, an “unbelievable feeling.”
“It couldn’t have happened to a better kid,” Galati said. “Especially watching him play not only for my hometown team but his hometown team.”
The little guy
Connor Brown was just worried about not getting hurt in minor hockey. At each next level, he was too small, too skinny or too weak.
But Brown had a big brother who offered something a coach – even his dad Dan, a legendary minor hockey mind in the city — couldn’t.
“I definitely didn’t take it lightly on him growing up in the backyard rink,” said Jeff Brown, who is four years older than Connor and now plays pro hockey in England. “I was pretty vicious on him — maybe a little bit too vicious sometimes. He was always smaller stature. He always had to go up against bigger, stronger, faster people, and he learned that from myself and my friends. We’d always let him join in and play, but if he was taking licks and he didn’t like it then don’t join the big boys.”
But Jeff still gets nervous when NHL games get physical because he knows Connor won’t fight. He credits his younger brother for taking hits and always getting right back up.
“He’s a different kind of tough,” Jeff said. “He’s still got some Toronto-boy toughness in him. I like to think that I was a part of that.”
Jeff knows better than anyone what playing for the Leafs is like for his brother. He can imagine it because it was his dream, too.
“It’s a dream come true for him,” he said. “It’s just cool to be close to the experience and have your brother wearing the blue and white.
“Going to [Leafs] games when we were younger was few and far between. We didn’t get to go to many obviously, so when we got to go it was special. It is just kind of a surreal experience at this point [to watch him]. As a family, we don’t take it for granted at all.”
GTA role models
These three Leafs rookies have become a teaching tool for the next generation of Toronto-bred minor hockey talent.
Elliot uses Hyman as an example when he’s talking to his team. Sometimes, he visits the dressing rooms of friends who coach other teams to tell them about Hyman’s approach and what made him special.
The kids always listen closely when Hyman is the topic of discussion.
“I always instill in them you come to the rink and you be prepared to work each and every day and you will get recognized and you will get an opportunity to play at the next level,” Elliot said. “Zach wrote the book on it. He wrote the book on coming to the rink every day.”
Marner provides similar inspiration. A few weeks ago, when Don Mills hosted the all-Ontario peewee tournament, he signed a few sweaters for the team to hand out.
When he is done playing for Canada at the world championships in France, he plans to attend a couple summer skates with the kids.
“The kids find it really cool. We definitely use that as something for the kids to think about,” Cicchini said. “It’s a plus for us as coaches to be able to draw on that and show the kids that there is something to look forward to.”
Those ongoing relationships the trio must maintain with their former teams and coaches come with an added sense of responsibility — and pressure. When Toronto-born players return home on an opposing NHL team, their families and childhood coaches naturally go to the games.
These three Leafs have that noise constantly, game after game, according to Cicchini. But they wouldn’t change it.
“It adds pressure because there’s more contact with a lot of people day-to-day, but it’s definitely a pleasure for him playing pro in his hometown,” Cicchini said of his chats with Marner.
“It’s extra special for them,” Elliot added. “I know that it is for Zach growing up and now playing for the team. It makes me very proud to say that I helped him get there.”