It wasn’t that long ago when being sent to the ECHL was akin to hockey banishment. Out of sight, out of mind.
But that was then and this is now. “The organization,” said center Giorgio Estephan, speaking of the Toronto Maple Leafs, “has proven that we’re not forgotten about down here. There’s a feeling within this team that we really are part of the Leafs’ organization, that we really are part of their plans. That’s a good feeling to have.”
Almost as good, if you’re Estephan and the plethora of fellow rookies on the Newfoundland Growlers, as the feeling of winning a Kelly Cup title. The Growlers won the ECHL championship in their first year of operation, dispatching the Toledo Walleye in a six-game final, with Estephan, the 22-year-old from Edmonton, scoring a pair of goals and adding an assist in the series-clinching 4-3 win.
Estephan was one of 11 first-year pros to dress for the Growlers in the post-season. It’s all part of the grand plan of Leafs GM Kyle Dubas to align the ECHL Growlers and AHL Toronto Marlies in the same vein as baseball’s minor leagues, with players breaking into AA ball (ECHL), before climbing to AAA (AHL) and perhaps, down the road, to the big leagues (NHL). “Absolutely, 100 percent,” Dubas said. “Our plan for the organization in terms of the Growlers has been to have this team be a starting ground for our prospects when they enter pro hockey and graduate up to the Marlies and one day the Maple Leafs.”
It’s a plan that’s not lost on players such as Estephan, who signed an AHL contract last season after playing for the Memorial Cup following a WHL title with Swift Current. On top of the 69 games he played with Newfoundland this year, he also got a three-game taste with the Marlies. “As a player, you’re always trying to raise the bar, for yourself and the team,” he said. “You do whatever you can do to aspire to be a better hockey player and just hope somebody is watching. In this organization, we know they are. We know we’re not just an afterthought down here.”
Estephan was actually drafted by Buffalo in the sixth round (152nd overall) in 2015 but never signed with the Sabres. He uses that snub as motivation. “Oh yeah,” he said, “that lit a fire under me to prove myself even more.”