TORONTO — Mitchell Marner doesn’t consider his two blocked shots in the final seconds Monday to be acts of bravery.
In the mind of the Toronto Maple Leafs forward, that’s what you do to win, even if it means you might take a puck in the face.
“There’s dentists for a reason, so whatever,” he said Tuesday.
Marner has a win-at-all-costs attitude. The most recent example: diving in front of those two David Pastrnak shots to preserve Toronto’s 3-2 victory in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Boston Bruins at Scotiabank Place on Monday. The Maple Leafs lead the series 2-1 entering Game 4 here Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS, NESN).
Paul Marner, Mitchell’s father, and Mark Hunter, his general manager in junior hockey, were not surprised that he did not try to shield his face and instead stared down Pastrnak. For them, the fact that he refused to be intimidated on the ice was nothing new.
“He’s fearless,” Hunter said Tuesday. “He’s not afraid of anything out there, even if it means sacrificing his body.”
Marner’s skill has never been questioned. The 21-year-old has been the Maple Leafs’ best player other than goalie Frederik Andersen in the series and has three points (two goals, one assist), tied for the Toronto lead with linemate John Tavares.
As for the defensive side, Marner, Tavares and Zach Hyman were matched up against the Bruins’ top line of Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand and held them without a point Monday. Bergeron’s line has two points at 5-on-5 in the series.
The intangible with Marner is that he’s not scared on a hockey rink. Never has been.
“That’s what makes him so special,” Hunter said. “He’s such a complete player.”
Paul Marner recalled when Mitchell weighed 85 pounds at age 12 while playing peewee hockey for the Vaughan Kings.
“He was only about 4-foot-10 and he was playing a year up,” Paul said Tuesday. “He only came up to the armpits of some guys and he still had 185 points. He was playing against guys like Connor McDavid. And all the while, he was fearless out there.
“People watching the games couldn’t believe how the little guy out there could survive. My wife Bonnie and I never thought anything of it. Then, years later, we watched video of those games and realized how much bigger those boys were than he was.”
That’s where Marner’s elite hockey IQ came in. It helped him avoid putting himself into vulnerable positions.
“That’s how I learned to see the game, not put yourself in situations where injuries might happen,” Marner said. “I grew and am obviously bigger now (6 foot, 175 pounds) but I was always susceptible. It was a matter of survival.”
To do that, a player needs to dissect the flow of a game very quickly. Paul Marner said his son had that talent at a young age.
“The remarkable thing about that was that he knew what offsides were at 4,” Paul said. “That’s pretty young to be able to process a concept like offside. That’s when I knew he had a special mind for the game.
“We’d be watching TV when he was growing up and he’d point out things that he said would happen in the game. And they did.”
By the time he was in his teens, Marner’s gifted mixture of mind and motor had caught the attention of Hunter, GM of London of the Ontario Hockey League. Marner was playing for the Don Mills Flyers minor midgets of the Greater Toronto Hockey League.
Hunter went to Toronto to see the kid play. It didn’t go as planned.
“I wasn’t good,” Marner said.
No matter. Hunter saw something in Marner that wowed him. He drafted him No. 19 for London in the 2013 OHL Draft. Two years later, he was picked No. 4 in the 2015 NHL Draft by the Maple Leafs at the urging of Hunter, Toronto’s assistant GM at the time.
“I knew his makeup and I knew his desire,” Hunter said.
Marner also had a driving urge to learn. Dale Hunter, Mark’s brother who is the London coach, would often arbitrarily quiz his players about all things hockey during team meetings. Marner answered so many questions correctly, the coach finally asked him to let some of his teammates try to get them right.
Such is the forward’s competitive nature.
“We won a Memorial Cup (in 2016),” Mark Hunter said. “He’ll keep pushing to win a Stanley Cup, because that’s what he’s all about.”
The rest of the hockey world is starting to find that out.
“Mitch Marner just showed the whole @NHL what type of player he is,” former NHL center and current NBC Sports broadcaster Jeremy Roenick tweeted after Game 3. “Not only can he score, but he can block shots in the most important time of the game. Respect to him!”
Hunter said such respect is well earned.
“I watched him block those shots,” he said. “That’s Mitch. Whatever it takes.”