Johnson: Colborne coming of age as he gets set to face off against the team that gave up on him
Improving Calgary Flames centre among many looking forward to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ visit to the Saddledome on Wednesday
It’s not as if Joe Colborne arrived here having paid an on-the-sly visit to the Imperial, Seven Crowns or Tat-a-Rama in the Big Smoke to get a Maple Leaf stencilled with indelible ink symbolically on the left side of his chest. Or any other unspecified part of his body, for that matter.
This isn’t exactly Davey Keon steeling for his first engagement against a fabled organization he’d grown to symbolize. Sixteen games in made-to-measure big-league blue-and-white over bits of two and a half seasons — as compared to 150 in off-the-rack AHL Marlies duds — doesn’t qualify anyone as, say, Borje Salming, Darryl Sittler or Wendel Clark.
Be that as it may, Kid Colborne is feeling a tinge of nostalgia as he — and literally thousands of other Calgarians steeped in Toronto Maple Leaf lore, who doggedly hold tight to 1967 as a high-water mark in the annals of humankind — awaits Wednesday’s arrival of (Quote) Canada’s Team (Unquote).
“There are a lot of guys,” Colborne’s saying, “you get to be close with. Jake Gardiner and I, we still talk probably four or five times a week, just texts, keeping up to date. We’ve been close friends for two, three years now. So it’s fun to catch up with those guys.”
A small smile.
“But I’ll be looking forward to finally getting the chance to run him through the boards, maybe.”
The Leafs cut might’ve cut him loose, cast him adrift, given up on him, but Colborne steadfastly denies grinding any axes, holding any grudges, plotting any manner of nasty personal revenge with Wednesday’s visit fast approaching.
“You always want to show well against your old team. But I’ve moved on from that. I’m so excited for the opportunity we have here as a team. Right from Day 1, they’ve given me a great opportunity, especially these last two games playing with some great players. I couldn’t be happier with where my career is right now.
“I have nothing but good things to say about the (Leaf) organization. It’s a big test for us. I’ve seen first-hand the culture they’ve brought into that organization. It’s going to be a battle.”
Thing is, Joe Colborne is beginning to battle. To finally find his way. Back in his hometown, wearing the livery of the team he grew up idolizing, that blazingly bright future predicted by acclimation when the Boston Bruins drafted him 16th overall five years ago seems, if far, far from a sure thing, at least now, today, more plausible.
“Confidence,” he says, “is a huge thing and that comes with being given an opportunity that the coaching staff has given me and that I’ve gone out there and I’ve worked for and they’ve rewarded me with.
“They’ve said right from Day 1 ‘You have to go out and earn every opportunity.’ I started not even being in the lineup and then injuries kinda took over and I’ve been able to work my way up.
“It’s a great atmosphere they’re starting to cultivate here. I see a lot of similarities to what we saw in Toronto when I first got there.”
The numbers — a goal, three points, plus-3 and only six shots through 10 appearances as a Calgary Flame — are, to be fair, a trifle misleading. His ice time and responsibility have continued to grow, his linemates to grow in stature, as the games roll on, as he becomes assimilated more and more into the group.
Colborne’s improvement, the precociousness of rookie Sean Monahan and return from injury of Matt Stajan has pushed Mikael Backlund down the pecking order at centre. Suddenly, the middle of the ice is if not a stronghold then at least not as wide and deep a black hole as Flames’ backers had feared.
“There’s always someone,” volleyed back coach Bob Hartley, “who wants your ice time. This is the law of the jungle in the NHL. Everyone wants your job. The day that you get a job you can’t get satisfied because there’s someone pushing you right in the back.”
After spending only a fourth-round conditional pick on Colborne and on the hook for nothing more than a modest $600,000 stipend to the end of this season, the Flames really had nothing to lose bringing him aboard. And the move could turn out to be an inspired one. A mere mention of Colborne to anyone in the organization elicits a happy, self-satisfied response. Quiz Hartley about the Kid’s fast-tracking and, honest to gosh, he seems to go all goose-bumpy.
“Conditioning-wise, improvement-wise, I’ve rarely seen a learning curve like this,” gushes the boss. “He’s an unbelievable student, lots of fun to work with. He wants to compete, he’s learning to compete, and he’s using his size to his advantage. And he has great hands. Here’s a guy who has great hockey IQ.
“He’s raw, he’s young, so we’re doing tons of video with him. We’re working with him in practice. But he’s a sponge. You’re talking to him and his eyes are staring at you. I can’t say enough about his attitude.
“There’s a ways to go. He knows this. A little bit of the same thing with what we did with Backlund, we’re doing with (Sven) Baertschi and we’re doing with Monahan. It’s baby steps every day. But it’s baby steps in the right direction.”
More and more Joe Colborne is beginning to play to his size. Big guys — and at 6-4 and 213 pounds, Colborne certainly qualifies on that score — aren’t much good if they play small. Granted, he still looks a bit stringy, hardly the After panel on a Charles Atlas ad, but at 23 there’s still room to fill out and the appetite for contact, for collision, is growing.
“It’s been a progression over the last few years. I was a tall kid when I was drafted. A twig. I was six-four and 180 pounds and no matter what I’m doing, I’m not going to be running guys over. Now I’m at a weight I’m comfortable with and I feel that I can go out and assert myself a little more.
“Again, it’s still a work in progress, but I think it’s kinda been steadily improving of the last few years. It’s not like I flipped a switch or anything, that I focus on. It’s just something that I keep continuing to incorporate into my game.”
A game that Wednesday leads him to a date against his former mates. No hard feelings, he insists. No grudges. Not a first chance to show the Leafs how wrong they were but another opportunity to keep convincing the Flames of how right they were.
“Randy (Carlyle),” says Colborne, “is such a detail-oriented coach that if you’re not doing things exactly his way — and he ingrains that in everyone — you’re not going to play. So I spent the whole last six months gearing up for that.
“Then you come here and Bob might even be more of a detail-oriented guy. So it’s almost a shift on focus you have to go through. The thing is, they’re both always on you, making sure you’re doing things right, so I was kind of able to develop those habits right from Day 1.
“And I think it’s starting to kinda come to fruition.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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