When you talk with Thornhill, ON native Mitchell Marner, he uses the word ‘special’ frequently. And while he uses it as a form of appreciation for the opportunities and experiences he has, it can also be applied to the 5’10” winger’s game.
A game so special, he could find his name called right after the consensus top two in this year’s NHL Draft.
“It’s been a special year. It started when I got invited to the U18 camp, making that team, and winning gold with that team,” Marner said. “Then it continued coming here, having a rough start, then after that, hitting it off. Ever since then it’s been a real upwards journey for me — since then the team’s been rolling. This year for myself, personally, it’s been a special year. You’re lucky to get 100 points and I’ve been able to get that in my 17-year-old year, too.”
The 5’10”, 165-pound Marner admitted that trying to do too much to impress early on was a factor in his slow start. Once he decided to let the draft play out as it will, he relaxed and got back to his game.
“I think I just kind of relaxed a little bit and just forgot it was my draft year,” he said. “Once I did that, things went perfectly fine. I think that’s a big part of it.”
Marner had 59 points in 64 games in his rookie OHL season. In year two, he held the pole position in the OHL scoring race for much of the year, overtaken only in the final game by his good friend — and fellow draft-eligible — Dylan Strome. Marner finished the year second overall in points with 126 in 63 games, a total that included 44 goals. Strome ended the year with 129 points, buoyed by a massive final game.
The two friends kept tabs on each other throughout the year, with Strome earning the bragging rights in the end.
“Yeah, we were always texting each other and joking with each other about the points,” Marner said. “It’s good for him to get the six-point night and it’s really special for him to win it after doing that. I texted him afterwards saying congratulations and that I was happy it was him.”
Marner’s pace increased in the playoffs, as he scored nine goals and added seven assists in just seven games. Unfortunately for Marner, an upper-body injury in Game Two of the Knights’ second round series against the Erie Otters ended his season.
Marner said his dramatic jump in Year Two is due to a couple of factors: one is the opportunity that comes from filling the role of graduating players, and the other is getting back to his game — a lesson he learned early on in his rookie campaign.
“I think more minutes has been a factor. Playing a lot more minutes and playing against better guys,” he said. “I think at the start of [last] year I wasn’t ready for that and I thought I was too good for that. I think I just set back a bit and went back to my game a bit the first year — moving the puck a lot more and being unselfish.”
Marner is a phenomenally gifted passer and frequently has the fans shaking their heads with some of the passes and stick work he displays during the game. Though he stands fast to the successful formula that unselfishness has brought to his point totals, he knows — and hears — that he needs to curb that mentality. A bit.
“When I started [being more unselfish] I started putting up the points and I’ve continued doing that — being unselfish with the puck — I’ve been told a couple of times to shoot a bit more, so it’s going the other way now,” he said. “You have to be 50/50 — you’ve got to keep surprising people. But I think it’s the ice time and I think at the start of last year, I was being a little bit too selfish with the puck. Now I’m moving the puck a lot more.”
“They just said don’t really focus on it too much; just play your game. And when the season ends, that’s when you start paying attention to the draft,” he said. “When you’re playing hockey, just focus on playing hockey and the team. I started doing that after my little rough start and ever since then it’s been an up ride for me. That’s what I’m going to keep doing, and when the season ends, that’s when I’ll focus on the draft.”
Having that resource of elite veterans is something the Knights strive to create in its program, Hunter added.
“I think it’s great. It’s something that we try to strive for — in any team, in any league, in any sport, you need older guys to help bring the younger ones along,” Knights’ assistant coach Dylan Hunter added. “With Max [Domi] and Bo [Horvat], then Tinners [Chris Tierney], they had guys that would bring them along and now they’re doing it for Mitch and Devo [Christian Dvorak].
“It’s good to have a coach talk to you, but it’s better to have a peer who has been through it. I don’t think anybody had more outside pressure than Max, with everything. I know they talk a lot about it.”
In the end, helping Marner keep things in perspective is a role shared by many players and coaches alike.
“You put a big deal on it when you’re 17 and then after it’s done, you’re like, I guess it wasn’t that big of a deal. It’s a weight off your shoulders,” Hunter said. “The majority of our job is developing relationships with the players. For him to be able to vent to you and to give him advice. But it’s moreso not just showing him video or saying, ‘You have to do this,’ but if he has a problem or looks down, it’s going up and saying, ‘How are you doing today?’ or being there for him as somewhat of a mentor.
“That way he doesn’t have to think it’s always just hockey with us — it’s more that he can blow some steam off. Even sometimes at practice we can see that he’s wound up and we can just let him cool off and just talk to him and say, ‘It’s just a game; you’re doing fine.’”
Marner also said that playing in London has helped keep the focus on the ice. Playing before a packed house of 9,000-plus each night has made it easier to not see certain eyes in the crowd.
“There are a lot of fans here, so you can’t really see any scouts out there at night. You just look around and see our fans cheering loudly,” he said. “You want to go out and do the best you can for them. They spend their money and their time here a lot with us. It’s special coming out here every Friday night and seeing a full crowd. You just focus on the crowd and playing the game.”
Those fans are treated to some breathtaking displays of skill. It’s something that Marner said has always been a part of his game, but is quick to credit one person in particular for helping him improve, hone, and refine his game.
“Every time, in the summer, I go home and I train with Rob Desveaux, he runs 3 Zones Hockey in Ajax. I go home and see him once a week,” Marner said. “He’s a guy that not a lot of people know; he’s kind of under the radar, but he’s a guy that watches for the little things. I think that’s a large part of why I’m so successful now. He’s a guy who gets mad if your stick is up in the air.
“He’s been helping me since Day One — I’ve been going to him since I was four — and ever since then, my skills have been getting better and better. He’s a big reason why my skills are getting better because he’s always out there, watching me, and encouraging me to do better. He really pushes me to the limit, which is also really good.”
The biggest advice that Desveaux has given him? Focus on being elusive.
“He just says keep moving your feet. If you’re moving your feet, then it’s hard to touch you,” Marner said. “He tells me I’m a silky guy and if I keep moving my feet, it’s going to be hard for ‘D’ to contain me, no matter how big they are.
“He says if you’re moving your feet a lot, then ‘D’ can’t handle you and that’s been a big part for me, ever since coming into this league.”