To Toronto, With Love

By Tim Wharnsby
Updated: October 1, 2008

TORONTO — When Jamal Mayers was whizzing up and down the ice at venerable George Bell Arena in Toronto’s west end as a kid, he only imagined that one day he would make it to the NHL and wear a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater, like his friend’s father.

Who was Mayers’ chum back in those days, two decades ago? Anders Salming, son of former Leafs standout defenceman and Hockey Hall of Famer Borje Salming.

His association with the Salming family is the reason he chose No. 21 when he broke in to the league with the St. Louis Blues 12 years ago, and now will wear the number with the Leafs after being acquired in the summer for a third-round draft pick.

“Yeah, those were good times,” said Mayers, whose Leafs won 4-3 in a shootout against the Blues at Air Canada Centre Monday night. “We did a lot together. We went to a few games together to watch his Dad play, and I slept over at his house. It was neat to be around an NHL player when you’re a kid.”

Mayers, who turns 34 on Oct. 24, has been a NHL player in 595 career games. His playing days almost ended in childhood.

Mayers and his brother Allan, six years older, were raised by their mother Doreen in a single-parent home. The younger Mayers began playing hockey when he was eight, but after his first two years developing a passion for the game, his mother delivered bad news that there was only enough money for Allan to play. Jamal was crushed. Allan, who was idolized by his youngest brother, made a brotherly sacrifice the next season.

“I was his biggest fan,” Jamal said. “After one of his games, I think he saw how much I missed it. So he decided to give it up. It was tough for him to do that. I owe him a lot.”

The family’s situation began to turn around when Doreen remarried. Jamal earned a hockey scholarship to Western Michigan University and, even though he was drafted by the Blues in 1993 after his freshman year, he remained in school and graduated with a degree in marketing.

When Mayers was traded to the Leafs, he reached Salming in Sweden by telephone and asked the legend for approval to wear No. 21.

The gesture was appreciated by Salming, considering 10 players have used that number since he departed Toronto.

“It was nice to catch up with him,” Mayers said. “He’s a gentleman. I asked him about Anders and the baby their family just had.”

Mayers is hoping to meet with Borje, and possibly Anders, when the Salmings visit Toronto this season. In the meantime, Mayers’s veteran leadership and stingy defensive play will be appreciated in Toronto and missed in St. Louis.

Under Blues coach Andy Murray, Mayers developed into one of the game’s top defensive specialists.

Murray, who recruited Mayers in 1995 to play for the gold-medal winning Canadian team at the Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland, will miss him this season.

“I’ve always liked Jamal,” Murray said. “When I was coaching the Los Angeles Kings, we tried to get him. It was a treat to get to coach him. He played a lot of minutes for us. He was very committed off the ice. He comes from a great family. I just like the guy.”

Mayers has a mutual respect for his former coach.

“He put me in the right situations,” Mayers said. “He put me in as a top penalty killer and against the other team’s top lines. I felt I took a lot of strides playing under him.

“He entrusted me with an important role, and I think that’s one of his strengths as a coach that he puts players in roles and expects them to do their job.”

Mayers, whose wife Natalie is from St. Louis, will live there in the off-season. He still does plenty of charity work and runs the Hockey Academy of St. Louis with former teammates Barret Jackman and Bryce Salvador.

Another former teammate, Brad Boyes, put the Blues up 1-0 in the first period Monday night because of a turnover by Toronto forward Alexei Ponikarovsky. Leafs defenceman Pavel Kubina tied the game in the second period, when his shot pin-balled in off teammate Niklas Hagman.

After falling behind 2-1, the Leafs went up 3-2 before Blues forward Andy McDonald scored midway through the third period to send the game into extra time.

Toronto defenceman Luke Schenn scored in the fourth round of the shootout for the win.