Minutes after signing a seven-year, $77-million contract with the team he grew up cheering for, John Tavares tweeted out a photo of him as a child sleeping in his Toronto Maple Leafs bed sheets. It quickly went viral.
The Greater Toronto Area has produced an abundance of NHL talent yet seldom do elite stars like Tavares raised in the GTA suit up for the Maple Leafs in the prime of their careers.
When asked how much growing up as a Maple Leafs fan impacted his decision to sign with the team, Tavares took a stroll down memory lane.
“You grow up, you start playing the game. I remember [when I was] three years old sitting on the couch with my dad, parents let me stay up a little later than I probably should have been watching Doug Gilmour’s wraparound in the playoffs,” Tavares told Prime Time Sports on Tuesday. “I remember going to skate for the first time at Clarkson Arena (in Mississauga) close to where I grew up and you start following the Leafs and you think as a kid, ‘Oh, if I’m going to play hockey I’m going to be a Maple Leaf one day.’ When you’re five, six, seven years old that’s the way you think.”
The centre was a phenom with the Toronto Marlboros in the GTHL and was granted exceptional player status to allow him an early start to his Ontario Hockey League career. The older the diehard Leafs fan got the more he determined hockey would be a viable career option.
When he came to that realization, Tavares explained, he started to focus more on simply getting to the NHL rather than specifically becoming a Maple Leaf.
After a terrific junior career with the Oshawa Generals and a brief stint with the London Knights he was taken by the New York Islanders with the first-overall pick from the 2009 NHL Draft.
In 669 games spanning nine years with the Isles, the 27-year-old registered 272 goals, 621 points and forged countless positive relationships within that organization.
“I gave everything I had there and I had no thought about being anywhere else, especially when I signed my next contract out of my entry-level, and trying to do everything I could to help bring a Stanley Cup there and do everything I can to be the best the best player and person I could be and it’s a big reason why I’m the person I am today, why I’m the player I am today,” Tavares explained.
The longer Tavares went without signing an extension with the Islanders and the closer July 1 got the more he began pondering his options.
“I don’t ever want to look back and think, ‘Oh, I didn’t take the opportunity to see what else was out there and you start to think about some teams that could possibly be good fits and obviously with where the Leafs are at as a team and organization they were a good team to meet with,” he said. “You go through the interview process and you get more feelings, you start to get the information back from the people that are there, their message, their vision, and all that starts to kind of steer you in a direction and gives you a feeling and an instinct and that’s kind of where it came from.
“You start to think about back when you were a kid and how fun it was watching the Leafs growing up. … At the end of the day I felt like it was a rare opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Tavares said the progress the Maple Leafs have made in the past couple years plus the young group of burgeoning stars factored “a great deal” into his decision.
It’s likely the team puts Tavares on a line with Mitch Marner, but there are many tantalizing options for a Maple Leafs team that is all of a sudden the odds-on favourites to win the Stanley Cup in 2019.
For now, Tavares isn’t looking that far down the road. He’s just “ready to get to work” with his new club.
“It just seemed like the fit was right, the timing was right,” Tavares added. “I just had that instinct that this was the right thing for me to do.”