Monday, September 11, 2006

Taking on the NHL
York in tough against pro prospects

It may not have been a game to remember on the scoresheet, but Kevin Druce will never forget Saturday night’s 7-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ rookie squad.

The York Lions’ netminder, who grew up in Mississauga watching the Leafs, had a chance to stare down shots — 46 of them, in fact — from 20 skaters clad in the NHL team’s jersey.

“This is a thrill for us,” said Druce, 22. “York has never had the chance to play in an NHL rookie tournament, or anything like that, and usually we just compete with other universities. We hope to do it again next year.”

The Lions are one of four teams — including the Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Florida Panthers — taking part in the four-day tournament at Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum. Saturday’s lopsided defeat was the second in two nights for the CIS team, who lost 6-1 to the Panthers on Friday.

CIS teams facing National Hockey League rookie squads is nothing new.

The B.C. Thunderbirds square off against the Vancouver Canucks’ youngsters each year, and the defending national champion Alberta Golden Bears are set to meet the Edmonton Oilers’ freshmen on Tuesday. (The powerhouse Golden Bears even have a five game winning streak in the annual contests.)

Far from being a championship contender, however, the Lions had a 10-11-1-2 record last season and currently have 15 freshmen on their roster. Saturday’s game headed for blow-out territory early, as the Leafs’ youngsters held a 6-0 lead and a 30-9 shots on goal advantage midway through the second period.

Despite the fact his team is overmatched in what is essentially a pre-training camp NHL tournament, York head coach Bill McGuire says the games have provided necessary learning experience for his green crew.

“We’re in tough, but our guys are working,” he said. “That’s all we’re asking them to do.

“The score and this situation, it’s obviously not in our favour, but there are a lot of positives we can get out of this.”

Toronto Marlies head coach Greg Gilbert, who is manning the Leafs’ bench during the tournament, offered some diplomatic praise for the Lions after the game.

“You know what, they work hard — they never quit,” said Gilbert. “We got some lucky breaks and bounces to create opportunities… but they were a hardworking team. It was a hard-fought game out there.”

“We’re the underdogs here,” Druce said, standing in the deserted hallway outside of the Lions dressing room. “None of our guys are drafted or anything like that. All the guys we’re playing have bright futures in hockey — maybe not in the NHL but pro hockey somewhere — and only a handful of us will.”

Down the hall, Leafs prospects Jiri Tlusty and Brent Aubin signed autographs at a table for a gaggle of fans, as other hopefuls were trotted out from the dressing room to answer questions from the media in attendance.

The York room was silent after a second-straight humbling loss, with the only discussion centring on when the pizza delivery guy would arrive. The Lions will have another chance at redemption on Monday against the Canadiens.

“That’s also going to be a tough test for us, but I’ve just got to pick up the pieces and do it again Monday night,” said Druce.

“I think the best thing about this tournament is giving guys like myself a chance to showcase my skills in front of three team’s general managers and scouts. That’s great for me because I want to go on to play pro hockey next year.”

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