Children were placed closest to the blue ribbon that divided fans from the Maple Leafs near the end of the second intermission, which meant Luka Milosevic was a few rows back as players trudged towards the ice for the third period. He was, according to a handwritten sign, the world’s biggest Michael Bunting fan.
The 21-year-old, attending his first game at Scotiabank Arena, was in a custom-made Bunting jersey, and kept a close watch on the players passing by. He caught a glimpse of Bunting — the two men both grew up in Scarborough, but this was the closest they had ever come to meeting — and raised his hands to his cheeks in disbelief.
“I saw him, I screamed his name,” said Milosevic. “That was the closest I’ve ever gotten to him. It was one of the best days of my life.”
Bunting was enjoying a pretty good evening, too. He scored in the first, drew a penalty in the second and apparently managed not only to get under the skin of the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning, but also one of the on-ice officials. And to top it off, Toronto emerged with a 4-1 win.
The goal was the 100th point Bunting has collected in the NHL, a level he consistently reached only after spending the better part of six seasons in the American Hockey League, with a cameo in the ECHL mixed in for good measure. It also meant he has scored in four of his last five games with Toronto.
“Not everybody’s journey is the same, right?” said linemate Auston Matthews. “He obviously had to work his way up the ladder. I can’t say I’ve walked in his shoes — obviously, he has his own story — but just getting to know him, we’re really close, and so it’s been a lot of fun hanging out with him.”
On top of scoring to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead, Bunting was also involved in the most unusual moment of the game on Tuesday. Lightning forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare triggered a scrum near the end of the first period after slamming into Leafs winger Mitch Marner as the clock ticked down.
Bunting was involved in the fray. Linesman Dan Kelly began directing him towards the tunnel near the home team’s bench, leading towards the dressing room. Bunting was not eager to walk away, and Kelly did not seem eager to show the player much patience, shoving the Leafs forward to the point where he nearly knocked him off balance.
Bunting, visibly shocked and vaguely bemused, appeared to question the shove with an expletive.
Leafs out here getting bodied by…the officials? Soft pic.twitter.com/y5Cfos2ECk
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) December 21, 2022
Neither Bunting nor Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe seemed eager to discuss the shove after the game.
“It happens,” said Keefe. “It’s an emotional game.”
“It’s hockey,” said Bunting. “It’s not really that big of a deal.”
Bunting was asked if he had a history with Kelly.
“No history,” he said with a smile. “I don’t know. I probably have a history with everybody.”
Bunting drew a penalty in the second period, when Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov drilled him into the boards from behind. The Leafs did not score on the ensuing power-play, but they did get to save an extra two minutes of game time without a dangerous player on the ice for the opposition.
And what of reaching the 100-point mark after all that time spent in the minors?
“When you think about his path and all of that, it’s a significant milestone,” said Keefe. “I believe he’s beyond all of that. It’s all part of his story, but he’s an NHL player. He’s solidified himself now, and he’s a very important player to our team.”
In that sense, Keefe said, he does not see it as a major milestone.
“I have lots of confidence he’s going to get to 200,” he said. “I know he’s got bigger things ahead.”
Down the hall from the home team’s dressing room, Milosevic said he was new to hockey, and that it was Bunting who had drawn him towards the Leafs. Tickets to the game were a Christmas present, and various connections had gotten him close to the tunnel as the team headed out for the third period.
On his first game in the arena, he saw his favorite player score.
“I have a minute-and-a-half video of me freaking out and then flipping off (Andrei) Vasilevskiy,” he said with a smile. “No dis, great goalie, one of the best of all time. But I got really excited.”
Watching a linesman shove Bunting also raised his tongue, but also made him smile.
“That was some bulls–t,” said Milosevic. “Let the guy talk, man. He got pushed. You’re not going to push a guy back after you get pushed? That’s what I love about him: He stands up for his boys, and that’s how hockey’s meant to be played.”
(Photo: Claus Andersen/Getty Images)