Cheers or jeers, former Leafs making their way back to Toronto

January, 5, 2009
01/05/09
3:17
PM ET
Bryan McCabe's return to Toronto on Tuesday kicks off a hat trick of return visits by former Maple Leafs over the next few weeks.

There's also Mats Sundin's return Feb. 21, with the Vancouver Canucks, and the headliner: Jan. 13, when the Nashville Predators come to town.

"That's right," tough guy Wade Belak told ESPN.com with a chuckle. "When I make my big return."

We reached Belak on Monday, just moments before he was about to send his buddy McCabe a text message wishing him good luck for Tuesday's return to Air Canada Centre.

"I'm going to ask him in the text message if they're going to roll out the red carpet and present him with a silver stick," said Belak, one of the premier jokesters in the league.

If we had to bet, we believe McCabe will be booed every time he touches the puck Tuesday night. After all, that's often what happened during his last two years or so as a Maple Leaf.

"Who knows?" Belak said. "Toronto has funny fans like that. Toward the end they booed him every game. I felt bad for Bryan, because he's a great person. He had some bad luck there. Everything that he was doing was under the microscope. It didn't matter what he did right; it was always overshadowed by what he was doing wrong.

"I think the move this year has been great for him. I just want to see him go into Toronto tomorrow night and score a goal and play well. I know he'll probably be nervous because he played in Toronto for eight years. That's kind of like his second home. Hopefully the fans respect him and aren't too hard on him."

Sundin's return, which will be a "Hockey Night In Canada" affair north of the border, will be something else, to be sure. We agree with Belak that Leafs fans will probably behave in that case.

"I think Mats will probably get a warmer welcome just because of what he did," Belak said. "He was a huge part of that hockey team. I don't think people will be upset with the decision he made of not getting traded at the deadline last year and signing with Vancouver this year. I think everybody will respect what he did for the Leafs and just knowing that coming back to that team just wasn't a good fit. He wants to win, and Toronto is going through a rebuilding phase right now. He paid his dues in Toronto."

Sandwiched between these two hyped returns is Belak. Toronto's next home game after McCabe's visit is against the Predators next Tuesday. There won't be nearly the same kind of hype given Belak's lesser role, but he was nevertheless a popular player in Toronto.

"That'll be great," Belak said from Nashville. "I've been looking forward to it. I will be nervous, and I'll have lots of friends at the game. It's a place I called home for seven years. We met a lot of good people there. Toronto will always be a special place for us."

Of course, had everything gone to plan, Belak would be taking the ice with McCabe on Tuesday night. When Belak signed a two-year extension with the Panthers last summer, he never thought he'd be gone after playing just 15 games this season.

"Initially I was pretty upset about everything, about how it was handled," Belak said. "Obviously being put on waivers without getting a heads-up, I wasn't very happy about that. I'm just glad to be out of there. I think I'm with a better organization right now. They seem to treat people better here."

Belak has dressed for every game since being dealt to Nashville in late November.

"It's nice to be wanted by a team," said Belak, who has five fights as a Predator, two against Minnesota behemoth Derek Boogaard. "I have a bigger role here, and hopefully in the long run the move here will be great for me, because I've enjoyed being here."

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