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Leafs' military retreat has personal meaning for Liles

Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel, right, celebrates scoring the game winning goal with teammate John-Michael Liles as Ottawa Senators' Colin Greening skakes past during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday Oct. 8, 2011.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press/Chris Young/The Canadian Press

It was a field trip that held different meaning for everyone.

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson saw it as an excellent chemistry-building exercise and a good excuse to get out of town with a rare week off between games.

Centre Tyler Bozak called it "playing real life COD" in a reference to the war simulation video game popular with many players on the team.

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Teammate Mike Komisarek filled his cellphone with pictures by the first day.

But for veteran defenceman John-Michael Liles, the Leafs' three-day stay at Canadian Forces Base Trenton left him thinking about his family – and specifically his little brother, Joe.

"He's a navigator on a P-3 in the U.S. Navy," Liles said, referring to the Lockheed P-3 Orion aircraft commonly used by naval forces to detect submarines. "He's stationed up in Washington State."

Despite the distance between them, the pair remain close. On the navy hockey team's website, Joe – now 26 – lists his brother as the person he most admires "because he overcomes every obstacle that comes his way."

Both of the Liles brothers were high flying, undersized defencemen growing up in Zionsville, Ind., but it was John-Michael who first decided to attend Culver Military Academy at 13.

With their parents' blessing, he moved two hours away from their hometown, which then paved the way for Joe to do the same four years later.

While the older brother caught the eye of the U.S. national development program, the younger wasn't quite as big of a star and went into the navy.

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Their relationship is why, for John-Michael, the days his team spent in Trenton riding on transport planes and handling M16 rifles reminded him mostly of his brother's tour of duty in Iraq and how difficult life in the military can be.

"It definitely touched guys in different ways," Liles said. "For me, it was something that hit really close to home. I felt like I could relate to a lot of those guys [on the base]

"It is tough sometimes. Especially when he's over there serving. There's times where you don't talk to him for four or five days and it can weigh on you. It's one of those things that you just hope you talk to him sooner rather than later."

Second on the Leafs in ice time through two games, Liles is one of eight newcomers joining the team this season – a group that includes two rookies and a slew of veterans collected via signings and trades in the past 3 1/2 months.

Their unfamiliarity with one another was the main reason for the team retreat, as the team as a whole hadn't spent any time sequestered in a hotel and still doesn't have its first road game until next Thursday in Boston.

Wilson believes the three days together created some newfound chemistry in time for the Leafs' game Saturday against the Calgary Flames.

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"Some of the team building has worked really well," Wilson said. "Just getting to know your teammates, their likes and dislikes, all the little things that go on in a team that make it fun to be around. The humour. Understanding what makes guys tick. That is huge.

"You want to develop a cohesiveness, obviously on the ice is the most important place, but that gets easier to do when you're a tight group off the ice. I think we managed that this week."

For Liles, the highlight was a ride in a C-17 transport plane – although he readily admits he didn't take to flying quite as well as his brother does these days.

"I plastered myself to the window for a bit," Liles said, chuckling. "I was able to kind of reorient myself… I kept my lunch. I had a couple people ask me if I was okay, but it wasn't too bad. It was fun."

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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