When Toronto native Tom Wilson plays his first NHL game at Air Canada Centre, it won’t be anything like what his coach went through.
Adam Oates was a rookie with the Detroit Red Wings when they visited Maple Leaf Gardens on Nov. 23, 1985. He remembers his father and other family members being at the game but more vividly what happened just before.
“They sat me out after warm-up and we lost 9-3,” Oates recalled. “I got sent to the minors the next day.”
That, Oates said, was how coaching worked back then. For a kid from Toronto it was a dream to play there, but when it actually happened later in the season it wasn’t quite the same.
“I don’t remember what happened that night,” Oates said.
After going through that experience, Oates knows what it means to Wilson to face the Maple Leafs in his hometown. The big right-winger will get the chance to play 28 years to the day of Oates’ disappointment.
“It’s obviously circled on the calendar, for sure. From family and friends, they all know it’s happening and they all know it’s coming up,” Wilson said Wednesday at the team’s practice facility in Arlington, Va. “There’s going to be a ton of people there.”
Wilson said he was buying a fair amount of tickets, adding that a lot of his friends already have them. The 2012 first-round pick isn’t far removed from his days as a fan at Air Canada Centre.
That’s what will made Saturday night unique for him.
“I think the weirdest thing is that I’ve been going there so long to watch hockey, sit with the fans and cheer and be a fan,” Wilson said. “It’s going to be pretty cool to be down on the event level and the ice surface.”
Wilson has been on that ice surface before, for his Grade 4 city championship game. He’s only 19 years old, but that’s still long enough ago that he doesn’t remember much about it.
That was right around the time the Leafs fell into their losing ways and began missing the playoffs. Wilson said he was “somewhat” of a Leafs fan growing up, but his first jersey was a Steve Yzerman Red Wings one, and he admired other leaders, too, like Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin.
The Leafs couldn’t hold his admiration.
“They were good when I was young, but sort of through my teens it was tough to be a loyal Leafs fan,” Wilson said. “It was good going for a while there when I was growing up and then kind of hit a rough patch for a while.”
But that certainly doesn’t diminish the value of Wilson’s first game in Toronto. He’s getting the chance now because he outgrew his value of his time in junior in the eyes of Washington’s brass.
The six-foot-four, 210-pound right-winger was more than a point-a-game player for the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL last season. He made his Capitals debut in last year’s playoffs and has one goal and two assists in his first 22 regular-season NHL games while playing on the fourth line.
Wilson is considered the No. 2 prospect in the Capitals’ organization behind only Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is currently playing in the KHL. As far as the pressure of one regular-season game goes, facing the Leafs could be a challenge for Wilson, but Oates said he’ll offer some simple advice.
“I’ll just talk to him about enjoy it, try and handle it, don’t try and win the first star on the first shift,” Oates said. “Let the game come like he’s been doing and enjoy the moment. It’s a special moment, it’s a special feeling. Buddies will be there, family. You can only conquer it so much.”