Island is home to Leafs’ game director

Taylor Dean with Leafs’ forward Auston Matthews.

by Mike Brock

TORONTO – Like a conductor leading the most emotional, irrational and passionate orchestra in the world, Taylor Dean makes moments special—usually for 20,000 people at a time. She is a master of storytelling, a virtuoso at reading the biggest rooms in the world. As game director for the Toronto Maple Leafs, her monumental task is to create the best possible atmosphere for the Toronto Maple Leafs Professional Hockey Club and its fans. Ms. Dean leads the team responsible for putting on the “show” that is a Toronto Maple Leafs home game. She also calls Manitoulin home.

Ms. Dean grew up on the family farm in Caledon with her three siblings and their hard-working mom and dad, Kim and Ted. The Deans moved to Manitoulin a decade and a half ago and settled on Lake Manitou. A hockey fan her whole life, Ms. Dean’s first opportunity with the Leafs was as a member of the game crew, where she tossed t-shirts and wrangled four-year old intermission players during games. Now, she is in her 12th season with the Leafs, and fifth season leading the production team during games.

“You come to a hockey game, and it’s 60 minutes of play, but you’re there for three to four hours,” Ms. Dean explains. “It’s our job to entertain for the rest of the time. The music, the lighting, the video board features, fans on the boards, silly skits, the mascots, that’s us. At the very centre of it all, I’m a fan. I’ve been a Leafs fan for as long as I can remember. That heart and passion drives everything I put into the show.”

Despite the ban on fans filling the stands at Scotiabank Arena for games this spring, Ms. Dean and her crew are still passionate about connecting with their fans. The day after the Leafs took a 3-1 lead in the their series against the Montreal Canadians, Ms. Dean, Carlton the Bear and their team were busy shooting some video that will go on the scoreboard at Scotiabank Arena, as well as the team’s social media platforms. Creating stories and content that the Leafs digital and social team share with millions of fans worldwide has kept the conversation going, so it is an important part of the job. 

The impact of the show inside the arena reaches farther than you might think. Even if you are not lucky enough to be at the game, the ceremonies, special guests, even content on the scoreboard can become a part of the story. Whether you are watching the broadcast—or following along on social media—what happens in the arena is part of the event. Most importantly, the energy and mood of the game is constantly being closely monitored and enhanced by the game ops crew in the building and translates to wherever in the world you are experiencing the game. The ebbs and flows of sport represent the drama that makes it all mean so much. The silence of the crowd as a goal is under review is just as important as the roar when a goal is scored. 

“The hockey narrative usually runs parallel with the energy of the building,” Ms. Dean continues. “If the team is doing great, then the crowd is electric. Throw the show out the window, and ride the vibe of the fans. If the game isn’t a good one, then you still have to entertain people. After all, they spent good money to be there! It’s all about creating goosebump moments. Maybe we pump you up, or maybe we make you cry—whether it’s good or emotional, we try to make it memorable.”

To paraphrase the great Maya Angelou, people do not always remember what you told them, or what you did…but they always remember how you made them feel. Hockey, in Canada at least, has an innate power to bring people together and make them feel something when they most need it. The responsibility to help make that happen is one that Ms. Taylor takes to heart. 

Taylor Dean paddleboarding on Lake Manitou with the late great Dougie being a vigilant lifeguard.

One of her most memorable moments with the Leafs was borne out of tragedy. On October 22, 2014, the Leafs were in Ottawa to play the Senators. That morning, Corporal Nathan Cirillo was shot and killed while standing sentry at the National War Memorial. Adding to the national grief was the murder, two days previously, of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. The Leafs/Senators game was postponed to be played later in the season. A few nights later, at Toronto’s first home game since the tragedy, the decision was made to honour Cirillo and Vincent with a pre-game ceremony. However, both the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens were planning similar events at their respective home games at the same time. There was some concern that the Leafs didn’t want to overshadow what was to be a very emotional moment in the nation’s capital. “Why don’t we join ‘em?” Ms. Dean’s suggestion was because she was reading the room and asking the right questions: Who is our audience? And what do they need right now? Ottawa was quickly on board, and Montreal called to ask if they could “join ‘em” too. 

“We fight on the ice, but tonight we stand unified together. I felt such honour and pride to be able to build this Canadian moment out of something so tragic.”

See, it’s not just about free t-shirts and kiss cam videos.

Consider the tasks at hand for Ms. Dean on the day before a game. Scripts and rundowns need to be built and approved by internal departments like hockey operations, branding, technical, marketing—and those are just the teams inside the building. Then, the plans get shared with the National Hockey League and the team’s broadcast partners. Timing of the anthems, puck drop, intermission entertainment are all pieces of information that help the storytellers who are delivering the game to you do their job. During games, Ms. Dean is in constant contact with the producer in the broadcast truck, especially when something off-script, like an injury, or a broken pane of glass, happens.  

That kind of humanity and understanding is part of what makes Ms. Dean one of the most respected “game ops” directors in any sport in North America. Her passion and skill have even been recognized by the National Hockey League, which has asked her to work league events like Outdoor Classics and All-Star games (she’s a seven-time NHL All-Star!). A big part of her success is that she knows there is a lot more to producing the job than playing 15 second clips of arena rock before face-offs and showing fat guys with their shirts off on the big screen. There a few professionals who are deadly serious about their trade, and then there are the hordes of fans, hungry for entertainment. The real skill is appreciating the nuance to entertaining fans while maintaining the integrity of the game, and the best interests of the franchise. 

The pandemic has actually allowed Ms. Dean and her team to become even more connected to the needs of the players. This season, with no fans in the building, the most important live audience really is “the 20 guys on the bench.” While it has always been a part of the mandate, player motivation has become a keener focus recently. She watches the bench and the players during whistle stops to make sure that what is going on in the arena–music, video, lights–matches the team needs at all times. “We did exhibition games last summer in the bubble without crowd noise. The feedback from players was about how weird that was. So, for the qualifying round, we added it back in. That was a real indicator about how much the players do vibe off of what you’re doing.”

If there is one thing the pandemic has reminded us of, it is that we rely on people more than we ever thought. Obviously, front line health care workers are at the top of the essential list, but there is real, human value in the entertainment that sports are providing. Fans across Manitoulin—and Leafs fans around the globe—have been able to stay connected to their team, and the community surrounding them during the pandemic. Ms. Dean’s mom, Kim, has seen it first hand.

“My mom isn’t a huge sports fan. My dad 1,000 percent is. I’ve joked with her about being ‘essential.’ But, I know it is helping people with their mental health. Mom said, ‘I look at your father and being able to watch the Leafs and the Blue Jays, it makes him happy, it makes a difference.’ Especially in the playoffs, there’s a serious pep to everyone’s step! So, I guess that it’s nice to feel like what we’re doing is important.” 

Manitoulin, and her parents, are often on Ms. Dean’s mind, a helpful connection when being at the centre of the ‘Centre of the Hockey Universe’ and a huge city like Toronto becomes too much. 

“It’s all about my mom and dad. They did a lot for everybody else. They chose to move to Manitoulin Island, and it was one of the first things that they did for themselves. It makes them happy. Our home is now on Lake Manitou, outside Mindemoya. The world’s friendliest people. You immediately feel like a neighbour. There’s a friendliness—an immediate connection to the people and the places that are there. A wonderful escape from the hustle and the bustle of Toronto. Even though all my possessions—my dog—are here, Manitoulin feels like home.”

While Ms. Dean is looking forward to reconnecting with her family on Manitoulin, while the Leafs are in the playoffs, she’s in no hurry. “I can’t wait to get back to the Island…I just hope that it will be a little while, yet.”

OVERTIME

Favourite things to do on the Island:  Cup and Saucer. Timberlane Cottages on Lake Manitou. Long bike rides.  

Favourite Island Legend: Is Tom Selleck on Treasure Island?

Favourite MLSE Memory: In 2013, MLSE teamed up with Right To Play for a visit to Northern Ontario, and Manitoulin was one of the stops. We ran clinics at the rink, and upgraded a few facilities. We produced a documentary on it…I remember that I drove with Jamaal Magloire and gave him the tour of the Island. It was so special. A lot of the people who came from MLSE had never been exposed to this pace and its people. Hopefully, people are still enjoying some of the things that we were able to leave behind. I was able to introduce my dad to Wendel Clark.

Best game you’ve been a part of? On a professional level – the Centennial game October 15, 2016, the 100th anniversary of the Leafs. So much responsibility to tell the story properly. It was a 36-minute opening ceremony, but how do you get a 100-year history into 36 minutes?

Biggest oops: A Remembrance Day. Johnny Bower was reading ‘In Flanders’ Fields’ and I realized the vets at centre ice did not have a puck for the ceremonial puck drop. It worked out, but I remembered the panic, and I figured out a way to use it. A few years later, we planned a surprise family reunion with an active Canadian Forces member. So, I told Morgan Rielly and Sidney Crosby—the two taking the ceremonial faceoff that day—not to worry about there not being a puck. In the delay to “find the puck” we revealed the surprise. It was awesome.

Favourite song to play during a game: Hall and Oates because it’s the goal song.

Favourite all-time Leaf (to deal with off-ice): Mats Sundin. The alumni are all so great. He was my first hockey hero, and when I interviewed for the job on game crew I talked about Mats, and his leadership. Mats exceeded my expectations. He’s an even great person than he was a hockey player.

Biggest celebrity Leaf fan, who’s actually a real fan? Will Arnett. And Justin Bieber is authentically a Leafs fan.

Fun fact: Taylor Introduced Bieber and Auston – 2017 Celebrity Game at the All-Star Weekend.  

Favourite version of the anthem: I love our regular singer, Martina Ortiz-Luis, but one of my all-time favourite anthems was when Gordie Johnson from Big Sugar played it on guitar.

Go to snack in the press box: Ice cream sandwiches, not even a question.