Birth of son, Marner deal, love-in on The Rock cap Tavares’ unforgettable week

Shawn McKenzie and Chris Johnston discuss the Toronto Maple Leafs and their time spent in Newfoundland.

PARADISE, N.L. — This is a week John Tavares will never forget.

None of the Toronto Maple Leafs will, come to think of it, not with the way St. John’s and its neighbouring communities have wrapped their arms around the team during the first few days of training camp.

Tavares hadn’t even stepped off the plane before feeling the love. That’s because airport workers wearing Leafs gear were there to welcome him when his flight with Mitch Marner and general manager Kyle Dubas touched down here Saturday afternoon.

The 28-year-old had stayed back in Toronto for a couple days following the birth of his son, Jace, on Wednesday. That the Leafs managed to end their contract stalemate with Marner — his linemate and primary set-up man — amounted to a nice bonus for the highly focused centre.

"It’s been a hell of a few days, especially for myself with my little guy," said Tavares.

"And then knowing I was going to have a partner flying in with me."

There was a legitimate buzz in the air at Paradise Double Ice Complex for Sunday morning’s practice. Yes, practice. Young kids pressed their faces against the glass to get a look at Tavares and Marner back on the ice with the Leafs, and a big cheer went up when they participated in a series of routine drills.

Talk about gracious hosts. The folks in Newfoundland have made a strong case for bringing another camp back here in the future. They’ve also provided perspective about just how strong and wide-reaching the Leafs brand is.

"The fanbase here, it’s a lot bigger I think than all of us thought," said Marner.

"I kind of saw what the (ECHL’s) Growlers did here last year in winning it all. Seeing it first-hand, it’s pretty amazing."

Perhaps that’s why there is such an air of optimism around the Leafs in these early days of preparation for a new season — although Marner’s signing, Tavares’s growing family and the promise of a captain soon to be named have to be thrown in the mix, too.

This is part of what drew Tavares home to begin with.

The chance to be part of a team overflowing with talent and possibility. By his own admission, he feels more comfortable reporting for his second training camp with the Leafs because the rhythm and routine is familiar.

The only change is happening away from the rink as he and wife Aryne wade into parenthood.

"Well, I’ve got to give family a lot of credit," said Tavares.

"They’re already helping us out quite a bit, from my mother-in-law to my parents stopped in a couple times, siblings and whatnot.

"It’s been pretty incredible. It’s a very emotional thing and it’s still really kicking in thinking I’m a dad."

It’s impossible to go through that kind of transition without gaining a new perspective or view on the work-life balance. But there Tavares was an hour after flying into St. John’s, working out by himself on a foam roller at the arena.

Even after posting career-bests with 47 goals and 88 points in his first season in Toronto, he feels the need to prove himself all over again.

"He’s serious about his craft, he’s very professional, he’s very driven," said Leafs coach Mike Babcock.

"Knows what he wants and he’s not letting people get in his way and what he wants done."

Those are the kind of traits you hope rub off.

It’s difficult to imagine any of the Leafs coming away from the least stressful days on the NHL calendar without some reminder about what’s at stake. Here we are a two-and-a-half-hour flight from home and they’ve painted the town blue and white.

Hours after Tavares and Marner were cheered through a practice Sunday, hundreds of people lingered in the parking lot outside the arena to try and get an autograph from Auston Matthews.

"It definitely makes you appreciate even more being a Maple Leaf and how special it is," said Tavares. "You can’t take this opportunity for granted and what you’re playing for."

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