Dallas, Tampa Bay, San Jose, Boston, Toronto and the Islanders all made in-person pitches to Tavares last week in Los Angeles at CAA Sports’ head offices — he noted he was impressed by each of them and struggled to finally come to a decision.
Tavares was in Toronto Sunday afternoon and met the media for the first time as a member of the Maple Leafs. Here are some highlights from the Q&A session, from when and why he decided to sign with Toronto, to if he envisions himself as the next captain of the team, and more.
A BRIGHT FUTURE AND COMING HOME HELPED TIP TAVARES TO TORONTO
As we’ll see throughout, Tavares struggled mightily with his decision to leave the Islanders. But off the top, he made sure to point out the very promising future the Leafs have and the prospects coming up as a reason why the window for them to win a Stanley Cup goes beyond just the next year or two.
“It was quite the process. One of the toughest weeks and obviously I say that knowing the position I’m in and how fortunate I am to be in this position. It was tough. You’re in one place for so long you get so embedded, your roots are so deep in there, and you care so much about the people and the people that have cared about you.
“It really took the right opportunity and fit. I thought the timing couldn’t be beat and certainly being from here, and I think with where this team is at and how good and young their core players are, and obviously seeing in recent weeks how the Marlies did and what the future holds, with much more talent and the job they’ve done here, it was just hard to turn down. It was hard to turn down this opportunity.”
Tavares on many occasions alluded to the attraction of returning home and having a chance to win the Stanley Cup there. On social media he shared a childhood photo of himself asleep wrapped in Maple Leafs covers, and talked about how forceful that pull was on him today.
“As a kid cheering for the Leafs growing up, you start to get those feelings again. Once I went through the interview process and got that and just what it was like as a kid watching the Leafs and following my favourite players I just thought the timing was too good and it was an opportunity I didn’t want to turn down. I’m very fortunate to be here and happy to call myself a Maple Leaf.”
TAVARES DISCUSSED HIS PROCESS WITH STEVEN STAMKOS
Two years ago Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos went through this exact process, weighing his options for free agency with the hometown Maple Leafs being one of the teams interested in his services. At that time, though, Toronto was fresh off a last-place finish and drafting Auston Matthews first overall, but he hadn’t played an NHL game yet.
Since Tampa Bay was one of the teams in on Tavares this time around, he said most of the conversation with Stamkos had to do with Tampa Bay, but that it was nice to have a friend around who had gone through a similar situation.
“I think he understood what I was going through. As similar as the situations are there’s definitely some difference and that’s probably the reason why I’m here today and he probably felt differently then. Without him making that decision, who knows, but maybe this doesn’t become a possibility. He’s someone I’ve known for a long time, played a lot of minor hockey together, played against each other a lot, some great experiences with Team Canada, so he was great in just chatting and getting to know his perspective on things.”
WILL JOHN TAVARES BE THE NEXT CAPTAIN OF THE MAPLE LEAFS?
When Matthews arrived and the Leafs found immediate improvement, it was generally assumed he would be the next captain of the team in the future. But with the hometown boy choosing to come here via free agency, as the now-former captain of the Islanders, now many are wondering if the captaincy was part of the pitch to bring Tavares to Toronto.
“No, that never came up in our conversations over this past week. They definitely expressed me coming in and wanting to use my experiences as a captain and things they believe I can use as leadership qualities. Like I said, just trying to be myself and bring what I can to the group to help contribute and be a piece of the puzzle.”
GM Kyle Dubas continued by noting that, in his experience, rushing to choose a captain never works out well, so No. 91 will not get the ‘C’ right away.
WHEN AND HOW TAVARES DECIDED ON TORONTO
We know how hockey fans have been on the edge of their seats for the past week, waiting for word of any sort to indicate even which way Tavares was leaning, to no avail. The teams involved, too, were waiting for any sort of word so they could either move on or pop the champagne cork to celebrate getting the top UFA in NHL history.
But what was it like from Tavares’ perspective? After all, the next few years of his life hung in the balance and his career would head in a whole new trajectory if he decided to leave the Island. So how did having to make that decision impact him? To hear Tavares explain it, everybody really did have a chance to get him but, in the end, it came down to Toronto or New York.
“All the teams I met with were awesome. I took it very seriously, the commitment that meant for those teams to come all the way out to Los Angeles to present to me. I didn’t want to include anyone in there to waste anyone’s time. I wanted to be thorough, very honest and very open to everything.
“But certainly once we got into the process and my feelings were developing over the few days — every team made a great case, made me feel like there was some great potential with what could be there. But as we got back from L.A., I just felt like my heart was in two places: where I’m from and a place where I’ve been for a long time that helped me become the man I am today. My gut was just tearing apart. My heart was tearing apart trying to figure out what I wanted to do.
“Yesterday was one heck of a day. You can ask my fiancé just the amount of times I walked up and down the pool at my house just trying to get a sense of what I wanted to do and the path I wanted to take. I just felt this opportunity was just so rare. The timing of where this organization is at, where the team is at, obviously the connection of being from here. I believe this team’s got such a great opportunity and not just for the first few years of my contract, but for me what was important was all seven years. Did I really believe there was a big window here to win and be a part of something special?
“And to be from here you start to get those emotions coming and it just felt right. From the meeting we had, to my feelings over the few days, and then yesterday just feeling right and it was what I wanted to do.
“I knew it was maybe a little bit of the uncomfortable thing to do, but I didn’t want that to hold me back from taking a chance at a great opportunity.”
THE IMPACT OF MIKE BABCOCK ON THIS SIGNING
In a vacuum, it can be hard for a player to leave an organization they’ve been in as long as Tavares was with the Islanders, because you get to know the people, become familiar with the expectations, and where you fit into the whole culture and on-ice plan.
In Mike Babcock, Toronto has a coach who Tavares is familiar with from Team Canada. Babcock was also there for Toronto’s pitch in Los Angeles and Tavares noted that having that relationship with his new coach also played a factor into this decision.
“There’s definitely a comfort level with Mike. He was tremendous in the meeting just trying to get me to feel how I can be a part of this team and how I can contribute. And just his energy and vision and his work ethic are second to none. He’s gotten results everywhere he’s been.
“And definitely, yeah, you develop a comfort level and we had some great results the last two times we’ve been together, so it got me excited on how I could fit into the team and contribute and obviously we want to repeat what we’ve done before. It’s a process, it’s a long journey but it was great definitely having that relationship beforehand.”
TALKING ABOUT LEAVING THE ISLANDERS NEARLY BROUGHT TAVARES TO TEARS
On his own Twitter account, Tavares left a note to Islanders fans thanking them for their support over the years.
But in case you still think Tavares was always going to leave the Islanders, or feel cheated by the fact he chose to depart, you need to see how Tavares closed out his press conference. When he was asked what message he would send to Islanders fans, you can see how this decision really tore him apart and how he agonized over it. Tavares struggled to keep it together with his final answer.
“That place means a lot to me. Everything I’ve been through there, the impact people had on me, the things we went through as a group, the teammates that have been through there. It was such a hard decision because just really how special it was. It’s a great organization, a tremendous fan base, tremendously loyal, tremendously passionate.
“If you’ve ever been to a game with Islanders fans, it’s something really unique. I think my messages, I made some statements on Twitter today and I think I tried to put some things that really came from the heart.
“What I want to reiterate is, ‘Thank you.’ Thank you for the impact you’ve made on me. I don’t know if words can describe how much I appreciated my time there, the impact everyone made on me. And I think the organization is in great hands. Some great people there, obviously some new faces that are going to do some great things I believe and there’s some great talent there. You’ve got some great pieces and obviously leading with the kid who won the Calder Trophy this year. Just an amazing young kid. I think the future’s bright there.
“I know it’s been a bittersweet day and tough at times for me the last couple days, just how close I’ve been connected to so many people in that organization. But I really believe they have a bright future ahead of them.”