John Tavares spoke frankly, and often emotionally, about what it means to him to become a Toronto Maple Leaf.
Yes, it’s the childhood team of his dreams and he invoked the names of Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, Mats Sundin and Steve Thomas.
But it was joining a young team on the rise for the next seven years — not the accompanying $77 million U.S. of his contract — that seemed to be the tipping point in his decision about where to pursue the Stanley Cup.
“I believe this team has a great opportunity, and not just for the first few years of my contract,” said Tavares. “For me what was important was all seven years. I really believe there is a big window here to win and be a part of something special.
“To be from here, you start to get those emotions coming. It just felt right. It’s what I wanted to do. I know it’s a bit of an uncomfortable thing for me to do, but I didn’t want that to hold me back from a great opportunity.”
It was a surreal Canada Day, with workers switching over the signage from the Air Canada Centre to Scotiabank Arena and a real feeling that things are different around the Maple Leafs. A franchise that was once a laughingstock now has one of the game’s premier players choosing to come here. A couple of years ago, Lightning captain Steve Stamkos declined this same opportunity.
But the Leafs are a very different team now. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander have moved from prospects to stars. From finishing dead last to setting a franchise record for points, the Maple Leafs have stepped forward into Stanley Cup contention.
Tavares is a big reason why the Leafs will be considered in that conversation for some time. With Matthews, Tavares and Nazem Kadri, they boast three terrific centres.
“It’s special,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “So we’re going to be deep down the middle and that is exciting for us. You look at the teams that have success, they are deep down the middle, they have a good defence and are solid in net. We think we are set up pretty good in that way. John being older and John going through the hard knocks of the National Hockey League already, no different than Patrick Marleau when he arrived, the impact he can have on our young people is going to be immense.”
Obviously happy, Tavares was exhausted after mulling over his future for nearly a week. He spoke only of getting a good night’s rest as the way to celebrate the lucrative contract.