By Perry Lefko

Broadcaster Paul Hendrick is pumped about the prospects this season for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The senior host for Leafs Nation Network has been covering the team since 1996 and he thinks this year can be special. After seeing the team play in the post-season the last two years and add to its lineup with key players, the former longtime Mississauga resident thinks the team is on the verge of some big things.

Hendrick, a 61-year-old Sudbury native, said the Leafs have always been professional in his tenure covering the team, but things have fallen into place in last five years with good drafting, a culture change and stars such as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares, a Mississauga native who was signed as a free agent after playing nine years with the New York Islanders.

“If you look back to the early part of the 2000s and (head coach) Pat Quinn’s hockey team, they were within an eyelash of going to a Stanley Cup final and possibly winning it,” Hendrick said. “But this team is a step above that, with all due respect of those players and they were a great team with many Hall of Famers. This team has the opportunity to push that and I think the next few years are going to be very interesting. Providing the team is able to stay healthy, they are going to make things very enjoyable.

“Boy oh boy, I think back to the Chicago Cubs, I think back to the Boston Red Sox and what those celebrations were like when they won the World Series. If this team is able to turn the corner and achieve that – and I know they can – it’s going to be fun.”

Specifically for this season, Hendrick believes the Leafs can go deeper in the playoffs – they’ve bowed out in the opening round the last two seasons – reiterating they stay healthy.

“We saw what happened two years ago to Tampa Bay when a lot of their key players got hurt and they just missed making it into the post-season,” Hendrick said. “If the Leafs’ goaltending is good and their defence is good – and I think it’s going to be real good, better than a lot of hockey fans give them credit for – and knowing what they have up front, I think this team has an opportunity to be in the Stanley Cup mix. We’ve just got to see how things pan out next April, next May. Hopefully, for Leafs Nation and all these patient fans that have been following this club for so long, they get a chance to play hockey in June for the Stanley Cup.”

Even though he is four years away from the time some people think about retiring, Hendrick said he has no set timetable to hang up his microphone.

“If you love what you do, you’ll never work another day in your life,” he said. “Not that I’m going to be allowed to go that far, but if they allow me to and I continue work as hard as I ever, ever have, I’d love to keep going. I’ve been blessed with an opportunity to have the best job in the world. It’s as easy as that.

“The opportunity this past June to be on the ice with the Toronto Marlies – knowing how hard they worked and to celebrate a championship winning the American Hockey League Calder Cup – it was privilege. And to possibly get that chance with the Toronto Maple Leafs, knowing how long I’ve been with this club and having grown up with this club, would be a real opportunity.”

Hendrick went to Lorne Park Secondary School for part of high school and subsequently went to the University of Toronto Erindale campus (now known as the University of Toronto Mississauga) where he completed a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. He began his broadcasting career in Sault Ste. Marie, subsequently worked in Hamilton at CHCH TV and, then, began his full-time career covering the Leafs 22 years ago. His schedule is a grind, working six days a week, and even though Sundays are supposed to be his days off it doesn’t always work that way. Basically from mid-September until the Leaf season ends, he’s as active as the players.

“Sometimes it’s 11 straight days or 13 straight days,” he said. “By the time you get to the end of the season, you’re mentally and physically tired. I know the players are, but we, as broadcasters, are really tired too. It’s not your average job and the opportunities to get the adrenalin going are often in this job.

“To get the opportunity to cover a team that is now officially, I think, in the mix (to win the Stanley Cup) certainly makes working a lot easier. Let’s be honest, it’s not a job, it’s a passion.”

Photo: Paul Hendrick (right) pictured with Leafs TV broadcast partner Bob (Big Daddy) McGill.