PARADISE, N.L.—Not that the Maple Leafs necessarily had to, but they endeared themselves even more to the people of Newfoundland with a weekend of open practices and autograph sessions, while also availing themselves of the local culture.
Auston Matthews, Morgan Rielly, Tyson Barrie and Frederik Andersen even went to a bar on famed George Street in St. John’s to get themselves “screeched in.” It involves eating bologna, taking a shot of Screech — the local rum — and kissing a cod to become an honourary Newfoundlander in a ceremony presided over by a bartender.
“A wave comes over you and you just feel like a Newfie, it’s pretty nice,” said the Vancouver-born Rielly. “They played Irish music, turned the lights down, had a big speech. Then you eat something, take a shot and kiss a cod. We had a fun time. I got my little diploma, so I’ll be hanging on to that.”
Matthews went first.
“That was interesting, for sure,” the American centre said. “I figured I wanted to kiss it first and (Rielly, Andersen and Barrie) could have sloppy seconds.”
Defenceman Barrie seemed the least impressed.
“It’s quite the scene,” he said. “I like rum, and that didn’t taste like rum. And I was last in line to kiss the fish. It felt a bit slobbery by the time it got to me.
“I kind of knew the gig, but I definitely made a mistake going last. Freddie got it before me and it was just all wet. It looked disgusting.”
It was clear that the four had a good time, and others — including coach Mike Babcock — planned to follow suit.
“I’ll get screeched in,” the coach said. “I’m not leaving without it.”
The Leafs have understandably been the talk of the town — which has a loyal fan base, even if the odd Habs and Bruins supporters get in a few chirps — and played tourists. Some took a tour of St. John’s Harbour, climbed Signal Hill, golfed and went for a helicopter tour. On Monday, they’ll visit a local hospital. Alumni were also in town for a charity game including Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark and Nik Antropov.
On Tuesday, they’ll get down to business with their first exhibition game against the Ottawa Senators at Mile One Centre in St. John’s, after three days of camp at a double rink in Paradise about 20 minutes away.
“Oh my gosh,” said Elizabeth Laurie, deputy mayor of Paradise, when asked what it meant to have the Leafs visit. “To hold an event like this is absolutely amazing. It’s been great, and a great opportunity for our residents and the residents nearby. Everybody loves the Leafs.”
Her 3-year-old daughter Laurie Furlong watched practice with Leafs logos tattooed on her cheeks.
“Her last words last night going to bed were ‘Go Leafs go,’” said Laurie.
Centre John Tavares, a late arrival after the birth of his son, and winger Mitch Marner, who missed the first couple of days until his contract was signed, were greeted like the Beatles when they landed on Saturday.
“It’s amazing to be here,” said Tavares. “The reception with me, Mitch and Kyle (Dubas, the GM) landing here yesterday, just when we stepped off the plane, getting to the hotel, just the way everybody’s been.
“It was all the people working at the airport, all with their Leafs gear, excited to see us. The volunteers driving us back to the hotel. Fans outside the hotel waiting for us. Really excited about Mitch getting signed. An amazing way to start camp off.”
Marner got a nice ovation when he was introduced at the rink. During breaks in practice, he would skate to the boards and pose for selfies with fans.
“It’s a nice feeling in front of this fan base, especially down here, the love for our team is awesome. It’s a lot of fun,” said Marner. “It’s great to be back on the ice.”
One native son who was beside himself was Zach O’Brien, a right winger with the ECHL champion Newfoundland Growlers who earned a camp invite.
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“The buzz around the city was crazy, and to see the guys get screeched in, I’m sure (Newfoundlanders) loved that,” said O’Brien. “To be able to come watch a practice, I’m sure everybody had a real good weekend. I never thought I’d be in an NHL camp in my hometown of St. John’s. It’s pretty cool.”
It’s the fifth year in a row that the Leafs have opened camp on the road. Two years in Halifax were followed by two in Niagara-On-The-Lake. This seems bigger than both, with fans lining up overnight to get in and standing-room-only crowds for practices and scrimmages.
“Tremendous part of the country, a community that loves their Leafs, loves their hockey,” said Tavares. “Such a unique place. It’s amazing to experience.”