TORONTO – When Calgary Flames coach Bob Hartley looks at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, he sees “one of the bigger stages in the NHL.”
It’s a stage three young Flames players will share milestones on Tuesday night. Bryce Van Brabant will make his NHL debut, Sean Monahan from nearby Brampton will play his first game at ACC, and former Maple Leafs forward Joe Colborne will play his first game here against his former team.
Van Brabant, from Morinville, Alta., is the 10th Flames player to make his NHL debut this season, joining goaltenders Reto Berra (now with Colorado) and Joni Ortio, defencemen Chad Billins, Christopher Breen and Tyler Wotherspoon and forwards Monahan, Corban Knight, Markus Granlund and Kenny Agostino.
Hartley figures if management considers these players to be the future, why not play them?
“The best way is to put them in game action,” he said. “Tonight it’s a great night for this young man (Van Brabant). It was his boyhood dream to play in the NHL, and here he is in Toronto.”
Van Brabant, 22, signed as a college free agent after three seasons at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. The six-foot-three, 205-pound forward previously played for the Spruce Grove Saints of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
Naturally he was excited to find out he was going to play against the Leafs.
“It’s not every day you get to play a NHL game,” Van Brabant said. “I’ve been talking to Coach and they’ve been keeping me up to speed and teaching me what to do out there. The biggest thing he’s kind of proclaimed was just: ‘You’re going to make mistakes, don’t worry about it too much, don’t over-think it. Just go have some fun and enjoy it for what it is.'”
Colborne started his NHL career in Toronto and was dealt to the Flames just before the start of the regular season. The 24-year-old has 10 goals and 16 assists this season.
“It has been a constant progression, and right now he’s really moving,” Hartley said. “Both sides of the puck, offensively, he’s creating a lot for us. Very smart player, unbelievable hockey sense, great hands, defensively he has improved a lot. I think he has been a great acquisition for us.”
Colborne, who played 16 games with the Leafs over the previous three seasons, has dressed for 73 for Calgary. He’s enjoying the chance to contribute with the young Flames more than he likely would have in Toronto.
“A lot of it’s confidence,” said Colborne, a natural centre who has been moved to the wing. “The coaching staff here has given me a great opportunity to play with some good players, maybe have a bigger role than I would’ve had here, which is something that you can’t change that. If they’re set down the middle in Toronto, then that’s the way it went and now I’m happy to be here and playing the wing with a guy like (Monahan) in the centre.”
Monahan has been a revelation in his rookie season in Calgary, recently becoming the first Flames forward since Jarome Iginla and first Flames player since current Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf to score 20 goals.
The 19-year-old first-round pick in last year’s draft was relieved to finally hit the 20-goal mark Sunday after enduring an 11-game scoring drought.
“Obviously there’s a stretch there where I couldn’t put the puck in the back of the net, but scoring that goal it’s a relief, and I’m just going to build on that,” said Monahan, a strong candidate to play for Canada at May’s IIHF world championship.
Monahan returned Sunday to Ottawa, where he played junior hockey with the 67’s. Tuesday represents another important first for him: playing in front of friends and family in Toronto.
“It’s special,” Monahan said. “Obviously I’ve got a lot of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins who, obviously, they don’t always get to see me play live. I think to have them here today, it’s going to be awesome and it’s something I’m really looking forward to.”
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