TORONTO – The Toronto Marlies can be excused for feeling a little out of their element on Wednesday.
For starters, their game with the Grand Rapids Griffins started at 11:30 a.m. ET. And it was played before nearly 7,000 fans – the majority of which were screaming schoolchildren. It was easily the largest and loudest crowd of the season for the Marlies.
“It was nice to see a lot of (behinds) in the seats,” coach Greg Gilbert said after Toronto’s 6-1 loss to Grand Rapids. “It was awful noisy. The (kids) sure like screaming and sometimes you’re trying to talk to a player on the bench and you can’t even get your point across.
“It’s unfortunate we came up with a bad effort.”
The loss was Toronto’s worst of the season and was one their parent NHL team might recognize. Poor games like this one have been pretty rare for the Marlies, who remain atop the North Division with a record of 13-4-0-2.
That hot start has gone largely unnoticed in a market where the struggles of the NHL’s Maple Leafs have been dissected and debated in a manner bordering hysteria. Five minutes down the road at the Ricoh Coliseum, the Marlies are flying under the radar.
The American Hockey League team is now in its third year playing in Canada’s largest city and has seen its attendance drop each season. Even with the 6,966 fans it got Wednesday, Toronto has played to an average crowd of just 3,751 through 10 games this season.
Only a handful of AHL teams receive that little support. It seems that the Maple Leafs cast such a large shadow that even the success of their minor-league affiliate gets lost in the noise.
“They’re the biggest team in the world other than the Yankees,” said Marlies forward Kris Newbury, who has played 22 career games for the Maple Leafs.
The relative anonymity might be the only downside of playing in the same city as the NHL team. The Maple Leafs have called up far more AHL players in recent years than they ever did when the franchise was based in St. John’s, N.L.
In fact, more callups could soon be on the way. Maple Leafs assistant GM Jeff Jackson was among those who took in Wednesday’s game.
Newbury concedes that the Marlies have been keeping tabs on the Maple Leafs.
“I think it’s good motivation for some guys to see the big team doing not as great as they should be,” he said. “It pushes them a little more. It gives them the edge that they think if they play to their potential that maybe they’ll get a chance.”
That might be one of the reasons the players were so disappointed with the poor effort against the Gryphons. In addition to the Maple Leafs management in attendance, at least one other NHL team had its assistant GM here.
Gilbert held a lengthy post-game meeting with his players.
“We can’t get complacent,” said the coach. “The last week and a bit there’s been times where our practice habits haven’t been good …
“We’ve got guys in there that need to push themselves harder. The last little bit it’s been slipping just a touch.”
Forward Ben Ondrus, who has played 38 NHL games for the Maple Leafs, believes the Marlies will ultimately get more recognition if they continue to play well.
The players realize they have an opportunity with the NHL team struggling and will be relying on each other to make the most of it.
“I think that guys know that personal success comes with team success,” said Ondrus. “That’s why we’re so pissed off in here.”
That will sound awfully nice to coach Gilbert.
He bristled when it was suggested that his players might be distracted by all the negative attention the Maple Leafs have received over the past couple weeks.
“I don’t know why they would be,” said Gilbert. “I’m sure they care that things aren’t going as planned up top but a lot of the stuff that’s being talked about and all that is garbage. You know what, let the hockey people do their jobs and things will turn around.”
In the meantime, it’s hard to imagine what it will take to turn more Torontonians into Marlies fans. Winning more games hasn’t helped so far this season.
Inviting schoolchildren worked for one day but doesn’t offer much of a long-term solution.
“If we never play at 11:30 again I don’t think anybody in here will care,” said Ondrus.