TORONTO — Jake Gardiner’s locker was still full of his equipment as he stood in front of his stall in the rink he’s called home for the last eight seasons, dressed in a blue Toronto Maple Leafs t-shirt and black shorts on locker cleanout day, talking about the emotion of the moment without quite showing it.
Hands resting on his hips, his attempt at a playoff beard gone, Gardiner addressed the disappointment of another first round Game 7 loss, but as similar as the too-soon end of 2018-19 feels compared to last year, it’s also very different for the veteran defenceman, because of the unrestricted free agency that lies ahead this summer.
"I’ve been here a long time," Gardiner said, in his first time addressing media since the loss two days earlier in Boston. "It’s definitely an emotional time, for sure, potentially leaving here and not being with the guys I’ve been with for so long. I think even my wife, she was pretty emotional yesterday. That might be the last time we’re here, so we’ll see how it goes."
It couldn’t have been easy for Gardiner to look so composed while he said that. The 28-year-old Minnesotan wants to stay. And that’s in part because he really has been here a long time — longer than any player on this roster, except Nazem Kadri, who beats him by a hair.
Gardiner has played for the Maple Leafs most of eight seasons, the blip coming in his sophomore year when he spent more time in the AHL than the NHL, prompting his former agent to famously tweet: #FreeGardiner. Nobody freed him: Gardiner eventually played with the big club, he made his playoffs debut in Game 2 that season, and he stuck.
The arena has even changed names while Gardiner has been a Maple Leaf. Four different head coaches have rolled through, and one first-overall pick. Gardiner has played 551 regular season games for this team, scored 45 goals and had 200 assists. He has never made it past the first round of the post-season. Still, he wants to stay.
"I’ve been through the ups and downs," he said, while trying to address the legacy he’d leave behind if this is in fact it for him in Toronto. "Obviously, when we first came here [in 2011-12] the team was not great. Naz, myself and Morgan [Rielly] are kind of the last guys here that have been around for a long time, and I’ll be pretty proud of what we’ve done here and the way we brought this organization to a team that’s something we can be proud of. Playoffs obviously didn’t go the way we wanted to, but this team has a real good future and bright future ahead of ‘em."
"This team," and "‘em" sure makes it sound like he figures he’s already out the door. You can’t blame Gardiner for being less than optimistic that a deal will get worked out to bring himself, Lucy (his wife) and Henry (their seven-month-old son) back next season. GM Kyle Dubas hasn’t been shy that priority No. 1 is signing Mitch Marner to what will be a big, fat contract, then the Leafs will see what they have left to work with.
If Gardiner’s time with the Maple Leafs is done, this past Game 7 his last for this team, he’ll have played his swan song with Toronto at less than 100 per cent, with a back injury that kept him out 18 regular season games and made him question whether he’d be back in time for the playoffs at all. The first six games of the series, Gardiner clocked far fewer than his usual minutes and he didn’t look his fluid smooth-skating self. "I definitely wasn’t 100 per cent, but I’m not going to use that as an excuse," he said.
Gardiner was on the ice for just one five-on-five goal against through the first six games of the series. Of course, that’s not what anyone will remember.
His giveaway in Game 7 will be the moment that stands out for most. And really, that Gardiner’s gaffe —an attempt at a reverse behind his net that turned into a Bruins goal— led to the game-winner was basically cruel poetry. Game 7s have not featured Gardiner’s finest moments: He’s an NHL worst -10 in those series finales, and last year, when he finished a 7-4 loss at minus-five, he took the blame, telling reporters with tears in his eyes that: "I didn’t show up."
Gardiner isn’t beating himself up about this latest loss, his dad, John says. John texted Jake after the game Tuesday, with basics like "a couple tough bounces" and "sorry about the loss" and "tough series," and Gardiner got back to him with a simple: "Thanks, dad. I appreciate it." And that was that.
"Obviously it was a bad read on my part," Gardiner said on Thursday, of the reverse, which Auston Matthews called a miscommunication. "Could’ve done something else with the puck. Stuff like that happens all the time in games and it doesn’t end up in your net, but when it does, it’s obviously a pretty big deal, especially at that time of the year."
What makes Kyle Dubas "sad," the GM says, is that moments like those will be used to define Gardiner’s days in Toronto.
"I think that one of the things that is a bit sad for me particularly about Jake, is Jake has been the driving force in having this team, from 2014, the first day walking in here to where it is now, it’s night and day difference," Dubas said. "As I told him today, his contributions and what his legacy is to the Toronto Maple Leafs, people try to tie it to small, tiny events, like the question earlier about Game 7 and what does this mean and that mean. Jake has been a huge part of turning this franchise around, and I don’t think one game or a series of games will judge that.
"I think in time, the way that people will view Jake will be so positive and people will realize the contributions that he’s had to the group."
Louder today is the vitriol from some fans and media, though Gardiner wouldn’t say he feels he’s been treated unfairly.
"That’s just how it is here, I think," he said. "It’s good and bad, you know? If you’re winning, you’re the best player on Earth. If you’re losing, you suck. Some people see it differently than others and they’re not always going to agree with you. You have to deal with it, whether it’s fans ripping you or media, it’s all part of professional sports and you’ve got to get through it."
And the fact is, that passionate fan base and following is one of the main reasons Gardiner doesn’t want to leave Toronto, if you ask his dad. "He loves the fact that every game is a really, really important game to these people," John says. "I think he’s been in enough other rinks where he’s seen they don’t have that atmosphere. In Toronto, you’ve got 19,000 people that are really, really into every single game. That’s a big part of what he loves, the energy."
The mean energy he loves, less so. "He’s got thick skin and I think he handles that probably better than most," John says. "He’s probably been scrutinized as much as anybody. I don’t think he loved it. Who would, right? But it comes with the territory. He’s a professional athlete, and he’s dealt with it."
Certainly Gardiner can let that thick skin shed a bunch of layers if his next contract is outside of Toronto.
Rielly laughed when asked whether it’s safe to say Gardiner doesn’t get the respect he deserves outside of their dressing room: "Yeah, I’d say that’s probably pretty accurate." And then he repeated it again, for about the fourth time: "We want him back."
That sentiment was echoed in the dressing room on Thursday, while it was being cleaned out. "Having a guy like Jake beside me to learn from is perfect," said Travis Dermott, the 22-year-old who was paired with Gardiner during the playoffs. "He’s very unique in his game play and the way he skates and handles himself on the ice is unique, which I think makes him very special."
There was so much talk about Gardiner and so many questions about his contribution to this team that Rielly was quick to point out: "He’s not gone yet."
No, not yet.
Soon, Gardiner will head back to Edina, Minn., where he lives with Lucy and Henry during the off-season. His parents live nearby in Minnetonka, where he grew up.
If Gardiner doesn’t make his way back to Toronto in September, if this is it for him as a Maple Leaf, what will he miss most about playing for this team and in this city?
Gardiner took a deep breath while he thought about it.
"A lot," he said, his blue eyes turning glassy, just before he walked away. "But probably the guys in this room the most."