TORONTO – Wayne Primeau has no shortage of supporters around the Toronto Maple Leafs. When the veteran forward gets in his first exhibition game on Friday night, everyone from coach Ron Wilson to captain Dion Phaneuf will be pulling extra hard for him.
At age 34 and with almost 800 NHL games under his belt, Primeau has reached a crossroads.
He’s attending training camp with the Maple Leafs on a pro tryout and might only appear in Friday’s exhibition game against Philadelphia before the organization makes a sweeping round of cuts over the weekend. With little desire to toil away in the American Hockey League, Primeau could be down to his last chance.
“I have a special spot in my heart for Wayne,” said Wilson, who also coached Primeau in San Jose. “But it’s an uphill climb for him. We’ll get him a game here tonight—he’s gotten the job done in the scrimmages, but again, we’re pretty deep in the middle. …
“I hope Wayne has a great game tonight. If not for us, for somebody else who might be watching.”
Primeau has taken a long look at the Leafs depth chart and knows there’s not much room there for him. He’s the kind of player the team has in excess—a hard-working checking-line centre who provides energy.
One thing that does separate him is experience. The Leafs have an extremely young dressing room and will likely start the season with only one player who has a resume that includes more than Primeau’s 774 career NHL games: Tomas Kaberle.
“On this team I’m old,” said Primeau. “I was playing all training camp with (prospect Greg) McKegg, and we got talking and stuff. He’s (born in) ’92 and I was drafted in ’94—he was two years old, it’s crazy.
“I enjoy this team because of the youth. I’m 34, and I still feel like I can contribute somehow or another.”
It’s something he managed to do last season for the Maple Leafs.
Primeau took pleasure in mentoring his younger teammates, something that could be seen the first day Phaneuf showed up for practice after being acquired in a trade from Calgary. The veteran went out of his way to welcome his former Flames teammate—chatting with Phaneuf between drills and jostling him from time to time.
They may have seemed like small gestures, but it clearly relieved some of the tension that came with a day where both Phaneuf and goaltender J.S. Giguere arrived in town. It’s little wonder why Phaneuf remains such a big Primeau supporter.
“He’s a guy who works hard night in, night out,” said Phaneuf. “It’s great to see him get a chance in a game to show his stuff. He’s played in the league for a long time, he’s a very experienced guy.
“He’s one of the hardest-working guys, if not the hardest-working guy on the ice—whether it’s a practice or a game. It’s really good to see him get in.”
Primeau was selected in the first round of the 1994 draft by Buffalo. His NHL career started with the Sabres and has included stops in Tampa, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Boston, Calgary and Toronto.
It’s been a good run and Primeau seems to be at peace with the situation he’s now in.
“I guess you could say it’s just like people in the every day world,” he said. “Eventually, there’s younger guys that come in.”
With his family now comfortably settled in Toronto, he’s going to be picky about any opportunities that come his way if he’s released by the Maple Leafs.
Primeau is reluctant to sign a two-way contract that would easily allow a team to assign him to the AHL. He hasn’t played a game in the minors since the 1996-97 season and has no desire to go back to riding the bus.
“Right now I don’t foresee it,” said Primeau. “I feel that after 14 years (in the NHL), if it’s not meant to be, I’ll just have to look to the future and start a new chapter in my life.
“I’d like to still continue to play in the NHL, but only time will tell.”