On July 1, 2018, John Tavares shocked the hockey world by choosing the Toronto Maple Leafs. This is the inside story of that decision, according to those at the heart of it.

The 2017–18 NHL season began with optimism on Long Island. The Islanders had gone 24-12-4 after Doug Weight became head coach the previous January. Charging from dead last in the Eastern Conference the day Weight took over, they missed the playoffs by one point.

The biggest storyline, though, was that John Tavares hadn’t signed. The team captain was saying and doing all the right things, which created an internal confidence things would get done. Islanders ownership believed it would gain the rights to build a new arena, which was seen as the biggest hurdle to finalizing a new contract at the time.

We all know the result: It didn’t work out as planned for New York. On July 1, Tavares signed a seven-year, $77-million deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs, radically altering the course of both franchises.

In the aftermath of one of the biggest free-agent moves in the history of the league, it’s clear there are people who believe he was never coming back to the Islanders — that he was gone when he didn’t sign the summer before. “That makes me crazy,” one of his friends says. “People who say that have no idea what they are talking about.”

Adds a former teammate: “If you would have told me last September that John was leaving, I wouldn’t have believed you. And the people who really know him — not the people who claim they know him — felt the same way.” He paused. “But it was the perfect storm. And it happened at the worst time for the Islanders.”

HE’S NO. 1
Tavares was the face of the Islanders since the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, when the team drafted him first overall.

From the moment Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky took over as majority owners on July 1, 2016, they worked hard at changing the way the Islanders had been perceived under Charles Wang. Ledecky became the public face, engaging with fans at all opportunities. He also went on a massive “listening tour,” meeting people all around the sport, asking for ideas and input on how to revitalize the team.

It was Malkin who cultivated a relationship with Pat Brisson, Tavares’s agent. There were numerous rumblings that the owner offered Brisson the team presidency. “It didn’t go as far as was reported,” Brisson said earlier this month. “There have been other times where the possibilities were much more serious than this.” (Note: Any person quoted in this story is not used as an anonymous source.)

What is true is that Malkin constantly asked for meetings and conversations with Brisson. Another GM says that, aside from “the unique situation” between Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux, he’s never heard of an owner that engaged with a player or an agent. Brisson (who also represents Crosby) declined to say much about those talks, but, according to several sources, ownership consistently let him (and, by extension, Tavares) know that things were going to be different.

They spent $7 million to remodel the practice facility. They hired a chef. At every step, they wanted the captain’s input — signed or not. “Some of us joked about it,” one player says. “We started telling him to ask for other things, and he’d say, ‘Guys, I don’t want to take advantage of this.’ We’d be landing from a flight, and get a group text that there was practice in eight hours. We’d say, ‘John, get us the day off.’ If he honestly thought we needed it, he’d agree. If not, he wouldn’t do anything. He never took advantage, always took it seriously. He’d only ask for things he thought we really needed.”

Another teammate confirms that account. “[It was] as much power as I’ve seen any player have. The way he went about it, he left the Islanders much better off. That’s his legacy. He’s not here, but the things he changed will make us better. We see that, if other people don’t.”

But not everyone agreed the situation was good for Tavares in the long term.

“Please, please, please understand what I’m saying here,” says one former Islander. “I think [Malkin and Ledecky] have their hearts in the right place. They want to be great owners and do right by the fans. But going to John with everything was a mistake. It added pressure and stress. He wants to concentrate on hockey. This gave him things to worry about that he shouldn’t have had to worry about. He won’t have to concern himself with any of this in Toronto.”

The Islanders could extend Tavares starting July 1, 2017. It’s believed they let him know that money and term were not going to be problems, with the structure open for negotiation. But he wasn’t ready to commit, and everyone knew why. The move to Brooklyn hadn’t worked for anyone. Business wasn’t as good as hoped. Players and fans hated the commute. The ice was a major problem, with teammates publicly criticizing it after Tavares suffered an injury that prematurely ended his 2016–17 season.

In October 2017, Ledecky and GM Garth Snow met with media members at a Manhattan restaurant. It was the first time ownership publicly addressed submitting a proposal to build an arena at Belmont Park. Asked if the team would be moved if things didn’t work out, Ledecky replied, “We’re planning on winning this thing.”

The Islanders were quietly confident about the arena, and what would happen afterwards if they got it. Knowing Tavares’s loyalty to the organization, they took him at his word that he wasn’t considering anything else. He had a new apartment with his then-fiancée (now wife), Aryne. He had a favourite organic farm-to-table place he bought food from on Long Island’s east side. And the NHL had just seen another marquee player, Steven Stamkos, go through an interview process to the brink of free agency — then decide to stay put in Tampa Bay.

Franchise players rarely left their teams. History was on their side. It was a gamble, but the odds seemed in their favour. “It was a very good gamble,” one friend says. “You have to know John. He’s patient. Deliberate. He thinks things through. He wanted to see everything: the team, the new arena, the full picture. That’s what it was about. Seeing it all together. That’s what he needed.”

“You know what Tavares said before [last] season started?” one source says. “He said, ‘Mathew Barzal is going to be a good player for us.’”

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Barzal would win the Calder Trophy, but that was one of only two things to go right for the Islanders. The other happened Dec. 20, when they won the right to build their 18,000-seat arena at Belmont Park. It was a celebration, with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo prodding NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to have the team play at the old Coliseum in the interim, and Bettman agreeing if Billy Joel (in attendance that day) would open the new building.

Tavares, though, stood out, simply by being his typically stoic self. “For my situation it’s really exciting news,” he said. “I’m not going to say it’s going to change or ultimately make my decision, but everything that’s involved in my daily life plays into it and going to the rink — playing games — is a big part of that.”

The Islanders and their fans were hoping for a more emphatic statement of jubilation. The night before, they’d lost 6–3 to Detroit and were 3-6-1 in December. At the start of the month, they were fourth in the Eastern Conference. They’d dropped to eighth, the final playoff position. They averaged more goals per game than anyone other than Tampa Bay, but their 3.50 goals against was the worst in the league.

And it stayed that way.

According to several sources, as the trade deadline approached, ownership was told there were some in the organization who felt it was better to deal Tavares than risk losing him for nothing. Those people felt that, even as a rental, Tavares would bring a strong return. (Former GM Garth Snow and coach Doug Weight — who doubled as assistant GM — both declined to comment for this story.) With the team very much in the playoff race, there is no way Tavares would have wanted a trade. But Malkin made it very clear that was not an option. Snow publicly announced it to make sure everyone knew.

“He wanted so badly to make the playoffs, and we could see it slipping away. He’s the captain. He’s our best player. He knew the responsibility was on him.”

What Tavares wanted was help. The Islanders woke up on Feb. 26 — the NHL’s trade deadline — two points behind Columbus, out of a playoff spot. It’s believed Snow took a run at Minnesota’s Matt Dumba, but a trade didn’t materialize. “Snow went after a lot of people,” says one opposing GM. “You name a defenceman, he tried.”

Hoping he’d make a desperate move to impress his franchise player, rival execs made enormous asks. Barzal’s name came up. Snow rejected that. From what I understand, the next most-requested package involved one of their two 2018 first-round draft picks (both of which ended up in the lottery) and 23-year-old KHL goaltending prospect Ilya Sorokin. “If [Snow] knew Tavares was locked in,” says the above GM, “I think he would have done that to get someone.”

With the uncertainty, Snow chose not to. The Islanders made two moves: a third-round draft pick to Edmonton for Brandon Davidson; and Jason Chimera to Anaheim for Chris Wagner. “The most disappointed I ever saw John with the team was when Kyle Okposo left [before the 2016–17 season],” says one former teammate. “He almost never showed it, but he was upset at that. He really leaned on Kyle. This [deadline] was worse, though. Everyone was down.”

Another former teammate adds: “When you’re losing, you’re unhappy. When you’re unhappy, all of the other things — like the commute to Brooklyn — bother you more. When you’re winning, the drive isn’t so bad.”

One week later, the Islanders began a Western Canadian swing with a game in Vancouver they absolutely had to win. They blew a 2–0 lead and fell behind. With 1:04 to go, Tavares and Barzal set up Jordan Eberle to tie it. It was an ecstatic celebration. But a poor decision in overtime sent Brendan Leipsic in all alone to win it for the Canucks. Tavares looked devastated in the post-game. “I would say he was more stressed than devastated,” says a then-teammate, talking now. “He wanted so badly to make the playoffs, and we could see it slipping away. He’s the captain. He’s our best player. He knew the responsibility was on him. And… you know the rest.”

Three weeks later, a 3–0 loss to Florida officially eliminated them. On April 9, the Islanders went their separate ways. “I’m hoping that I’m coming back,” Tavares told reporters. “I love it here…. [But] I think I’ve earned the right to take my time. I don’t know if it’s going to be a week, two weeks, a month, two months.”

Less than three months later, he was a Maple Leaf.

Where did it really change? When did John Tavares turn towards Toronto? “When he went home and had time to think,” says one friend. “There were no games to play. The playoffs were on. There was nothing to occupy his mind, except another year without competing in them. That’s where it turned.”

Although Tavares had physically left the city years earlier, his friends admit there was always a strong connection. He lived and trained there in the summers. And, like most great players, he is acutely aware of what was going on in the league. It was not unusual for him to listen to Toronto sports radio to hear what was happening with the Leafs as he drove to and from practices or games. “We used to roll our eyes at it,” one teammate laughs.

Friends begrudgingly admit that during the tough moments after the deadline, the thought of leaving must have entered his mind. But they get noticeably angry (even over a phone line) at the suggestion he’d checked out. “He played as hard as he could until it was over,” says one. “That’s it.”

Says an Islander: “John is programmed a certain way: ‘Game tonight? I’ll worry about that.’ ‘Okay, that’s done? Now on to practice tomorrow.’ ‘That’s done? What’s next?’ He doesn’t get too far ahead.”

Not long after the regular-season ended, Tavares and Brisson met in Arizona. (Brisson confirmed the meeting, but would not provide details.) According to a couple of sources, he presented Tavares with what Chris Johnston later reported was a 77-page book. It was what you would expect: detailed rundowns on prospective teams. This was well before the free-agent period, but it was probably the first time he seriously started doing research into what was out there.

Then the landscape changed.

On April 30, the Maple Leafs removed Lamoriello as general manager, moving him to a senior advisor position. The Islanders asked for permission to talk to Lamoriello, and news broke on May 21 that they were going to hire him. The twist was that he’d already met with Tavares five days earlier.

According to multiple sources, the new GM laid out a plan. He said that if Tavares re-signed, they were going to get “a difference-maker” in goal and a coach to drill Lamoriello-style structure into their play. He recognized how much the players disliked the commute to Brooklyn and said he’d fight for more games at the Coliseum. And given Lamoriello’s history, Tavares had to know that anything outside of hockey wasn’t going to be his business.

Tavares had to wait and see if any of this would happen, but there’s no doubt he was impressed with Lamoriello’s delivery. “He definitely got our attention,” Brisson says. “Lou is very convincing.”

“John likes guys like that,” says a friend.

“I would like to have seen what would have happened if Lamoriello was hired two weeks earlier,” says one Islander.

“The biggest problem for Lamoriello was that John is 28,” says another source. “If he was 23, it probably works.”

Like owner Scott Malkin, Lamoriello kept in constant communication with Brisson. In the days leading up to the draft, rumours increasingly pointed to Tavares re-signing. Those intensified when Lamoriello delivered on two promises. All along, the new GM had eyes on Barry Trotz, who’d coached the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup. When Trotz and the trophy winners parted ways, the Islanders pounced.

The hire was announced on June 21, the same day it was revealed the team would add eight more games to their Coliseum schedule — bringing the total to 20 for 2018–19. Adding a goaltender remained on the to-do list, but Lamoriello was waiting on Tavares for that.

“We were four days from the free-agency window,” Brisson says. “By then, we figured it was so close, we should just hear what the teams had to say. I thought it was 70-30 he was going to stay in New York.”

Most of his friends and teammates agreed that New York was the favourite. But one didn’t see it that way. “I just thought it would be hard for him to take his hometown through the process, and reject it,” he says.

Tavares, who was getting married in August, spent draft weekend on his stag in Oregon. Friends say he was starting to feel the pressure. “You’re not really supposed to sleep during your stag,” says one. “But he was sleeping even less than you’d expect.”

Says another: “He never misses workouts. Never…. [But] he was missing workouts.”

Tavares keeps a notebook with him at almost all times. He’ll think of something, write it down, go back to it later. Friends joke that if you slightly move a pen on his desk, he can tell immediately. “This process was not made for John,” the above friend adds. “He’s deliberate. He thinks things through — the most methodical person I’ve ever met. Suddenly, he had, what, five days to make a decision? That’s not him.”

“When we walked out, I said, ‘If he doesn’t pick us, we’ve just told him all of our secrets.’”

On the morning of Mon., June 25 — the day after the free-agency window opened — Tavares was in Los Angeles with Brisson.

“Initially, John wanted only three meetings,” the agent says. “He felt that preparing, listening and breaking them down after would take so much time he couldn’t do more. But we felt that wasn’t enough.”

Some hopefuls were rejected. One GM says he was told his team could pitch, but that they weren’t going to be in the mix. He passed. As you know by now, the final meeting schedule included Toronto (Mike Babcock, Kyle Dubas, Brendan Shanahan) followed by the Islanders (Lamoriello and Trotz) on the Monday; San Jose (Pete DeBoer, Hasso Plattner, Doug Wilson) and Boston (Bruce Cassidy, Cam Neely, Don Sweeney) on Tuesday; Dallas (Jim Lites,
Jim Montgomery, Jim Nill) and Tampa Bay (Julien BriseBois, Jon Cooper, Steve Yzerman) on Wednesday. Vegas did a presentation by phone.

Tavares’s trusty notebook was there, and it got a workout. Aryne was in every meeting as well. Some of the teams indicated their research told them to make sure she was part of the pitch. Tavares wanted her to see everything first-hand so she would understand his decision. “I had just gone through that with my own hiring, having my wife (Shannon) as an important sounding board,” Dubas says. “I knew how important that element was. My wife is vocal; so is Aryne. I know the impact it would have on John, even though his situation is much more important than mine was. Wherever they were going, they were both coming in together.”

The various delegations were impressed with the quality of conversation. “He asked us about our power play, breakouts, neutral-zone play, sports sciences — everything you’d want a player to care about. When we walked out, I said, ‘If he doesn’t pick us, we’ve just told him all of our secrets,’” one executive laughed.

Boston, Dallas and Vegas were considered the longshots. Tampa Bay’s representatives stressed their team’s quality, pointing out that the favourable tax situation in Florida would overcome the fact they couldn’t pay Tavares the same base salary he’d get elsewhere.

The Islanders continued their recruitment, with Tavares getting to meet Trotz face-to-face. I’ve never figured out what kind of contract they offered, but assume it was in Connor McDavid territory.

San Jose had the only owner show up, and that impressed Tavares. It took Plattner two-and-a-half hours to drive from where his plane landed to the meeting. Wilson doesn’t like being called a great salesman — “I don’t think it’s selling to talk about how proud we are of what we’ve built here” — but if you’ve ever seen Glengarry Glen Ross, you’ll know that he is allowed to drink coffee, because coffee is for closers.

Wilson wouldn’t discuss San Jose’s pitch, but word is he told Tavares, “You are the final piece for us.” It has also been rumoured (but never confirmed) that the Sharks were willing to pay $13.5 million per year for seven years. “That was a confident group,” one source says. “They felt they were the best option for John, and they showed it.”

One of the hardest workers in the NHL, Tavares brought his characteristic attention to detail to the free-agent process.

Two years ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs sat down with Steven Stamkos, but, by their own admission, blew it. “Within two minutes,” one member of the organization later said, “we knew we’d lost him.”

That presentation focused on “the hometown boy’s return” and “this is how you can make even more money by playing in Toronto.” It was, by all accounts, a total whiff. This time, they were determined to avoid the previous mistake. “The focus for us with John was only on hockey,” Dubas told the 31 Thoughts podcast last July. “That was the major thing that we wanted our focus to be…. ‘Here’s who we are as a hockey team,’ and ‘Here’s who we are as a program to help you reach your potential.’ ‘Here’s what we do on the development side.’

“If you rewind it [to] two years ago, we were going in and saying, ‘Here’s what we are going to become,’ and ‘Here’s what we intend to be,’ so it was trying to sell them on what we intended to be as an organization that had just finished in last place and picked first overall, versus now in 2018…. It was much easier…. To me, it has to be always about hockey. The periphery stuff that comes with playing in whatever market it is, that’s up to the player and his representative in terms of what he does and doesn’t want to do.”

Toronto pushed hard on the practical reasons for Tavares to come — the talent in the organization; the young core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. But the Maple Leafs also pulled some emotional strings.

So far, the video shown to Tavares remains private. But Dubas says they didn’t show Tavares with the Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup or holding a parade.

“I just have a strong leniency to not tempting karma,” he says. “I think we just wanted to show John what it would be like if he was a Toronto Maple Leaf and that’s what we did. It’s nothing spectacular or special, I don’t think — just about the people he’s going to be here with…. I think it’s a very personal thing to John…. If there ever comes a day he wants to share what it was all about, I will leave that to him because it was a very personal presentation.”

We know they put the ice back in Scotiabank Arena and filmed Marner under theatre-style lighting, showing his tremendous skill.

“[Dubas and Babcock] wanted me to go on the ice for a quick little thing for an acquisition for the off-season,” Marner told David Amber in an interview as Toronto opened training camp. “You kind of get a feeling… of who it’s going to be for. Just did some things on the ice, nothing too crazy. The video I saw, it was pretty cool. It was really well done…. Just put him in that atmosphere of [being] a Toronto Maple Leaf before he was. I got shivers watching it.”

According to a couple of sources, the narration made it very clear to Tavares that with him, “We can be forever remembered in the city.” The Stanley Cup was there, but not held by any of the Maple Leafs.

And there was a Tavares banner in the rafters of Scotiabank Arena.

The video was shown in the theatre of CAA’s offices. It’s the place in the powerful agency where major releases are screened. That added an extra layer of energy to the moment. “Whatever they showed, it got to John,” one friend says. “I know he asked for a copy.”

“I would say that it helped,” Brisson says. “But it wasn’t the reason he went to Toronto.”

No, that came down to the roster. On the podcast, Dubas gave his highly quoted answer to the question of whether or not he could keep all four of Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Tavares: “We can… and we will.” Tavares demanded that commitment. If he was going to make the leap, he craved assurances the team would not go backward.

“The depth and promise in the system was crucial to him,” the above friend adds. “Dubas laid out a plan to keep the best of them, and John believed in it. He was impressed.”

“For me, it was never about going somewhere and subtracting,” Tavares said at the NHL/NHLPA player availability in September. “It was always about going there to add to what’s already been building or what’s already been very successful.”

States Dubas: “John Tavares doesn’t come to Toronto without the players that are here.”

“That’s true,” Brisson says. “Two or three years ago, the timing might have been different from a roster standpoint.”

The final home game of the 2017–18 season was a win against the Rangers. It proved to be the last for Tavares with the Isles.

As the week progressed, most of the media speculation surrounded the Islanders, Leafs and Sharks. At the September media event, stars such as Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and Connor McDavid said they heard Toronto was a serious possibility a few days before the official announcement. “When we left the meetings, I didn’t have a feeling for how it went,” Dubas said last week. “We were the first team to present. It wasn’t until late Wednesday, early Thursday that I heard our presentation was well-received.”

Meanwhile, Tavares’s peers were all over him. The fierce recruiting battle was underway, with players from every suitor reaching out in an attempt to snare the big fish. He was back in Toronto by Friday, June 29. “My gut was just tearing apart,” Tavares said at the July 1 media conference. “My heart was tearing apart trying to figure out what I wanted to do.”

“I’d be lying if I told you I was one of the guys closest to Tavares,” one Islander says. “But it was really hard on those who were. On the Friday, we knew it was a serious possibility that we were going to lose him. Those who were his best friends, they agonized over what to do. They wanted him to be happy and knew he deserved the right to make his choice. But they wanted him to stay, too. Do you be a friend, or do you try to convince him to stay? They were trying to be as objective as they possibly could, but were conflicted and torn.”

“I think for a lot of us,” says one friend, “we just tried to give him his space. You want to support him without getting in the way.”

“I don’t think the hardest part was picking Toronto or any other team,” another friend adds. “The hardest part was deciding to leave. He was definitely stressed out by what Islanders fans would say about him. Abandoning that group of players was tough. He was worried they’d be angry at him, but I guarantee not one guy on that team is mad.

“John is not afraid to challenge himself. He began to see it as not something to fear but something to embrace — playing in an intense market, going home. But the thing he wanted most was the challenge of a legitimate chase for the Stanley Cup. Toronto gave him that.”

“I told him I wanted to come. ‘Let’s get it done.’”

As word spread that Toronto was a serious option, sources say Lamoriello went all-out to pull Tavares back to Long Island. We spoke briefly for this story, but, with a new season about to begin, the new GM did not wish to re-visit the past.

“John was a gentleman through this process, first-class… as was Aryne,” Lamoriello says. “He earned the right to make his decision. He’s a quality human being, and a quality player.”

Before making that decision, Tavares chased the answers to some important questions. He needed to know that if he was signing for seven years, Matthews would be there with him. He had the GM’s assurances, but he wanted the player’s, too. So Tavares came right out and asked, one cornerstone to another. “He said 100 per cent without a doubt,” Tavares says. “I know how committed he is and how bad he wants to be here.”

Matthews confirms: “I just wanted to make sure he knew that myself, everybody else, wanted him here.”

By Saturday, Brisson was informing other teams that Tavares’s interests were elsewhere. Some asked to be kept in the loop if anything changed. He also approached Toronto and said it was time to start talking. Brisson wouldn’t go too deep into the negotiations, but, according to a couple sources, the Maple Leafs were not told they were the only team left in the running. They still believed they were negotiating against at least one other club.

Also, the free-agency window is a tricky thing. According to a 2014 league memo intended to clarify what is allowed: “Please be advised that clubs are permitted to discuss the potential interest in as well as general parameters of a potential future contractual relationship with another club’s pending RFA or UFA during the applicable interview periods. The clubs may not enter any agreements or make any binding offers, promises… oral or written concerning the terms of a potential SPC (standard players contract) with another club’s pending RFA or UFA.”

Tavares knew the Sharks were in huge. He had another massive deal from the Islanders, if he wanted it. He recognized he was getting less in Toronto, but understood that. The question was: What’s the acceptable number?

It’s believed the Maple Leafs were initially thinking between $10 and $10.5 million per year. They wanted him bad, but were mindful of the cap. “Saturday was when we took the plunge, knowing we had a real chance at this,” Dubas recalled last week. “But you are trying to be respectful of the rules. And this has to work. We couldn’t come over the top with an outlandish offer. John himself said we could not lead to subtraction. That was the major point he and I discussed.”

At approximately 9:00 p.m. Eastern time on Sat., June 30, Tavares called Dubas. “I told him I wanted to come,” Tavares says. “‘Let’s get it done.’”

The Maple Leafs committed to $11 million. It was over.

Tavares made an auspicious debut with the Maple Leafs, scoring four goals in five pre-season games.

As Tavares spoke to the Maple Leafs, Brisson informed the Islanders, who were crushed by the news.

Many of Tavares’s friends say he informed them Sunday morning. For his part, Dubas says he wasn’t 100 per cent sure he had a done deal until then. “I knew he had slept on it. It allowed the chance for any changing of the mind, and he said he was going to begin his correspondence to the fan base of New York — which was very important to him — that he wasn’t going to return. I knew that it was final.”

As with many other teams, the Islanders’ players have a group text. It’s there to confirm schedules, set up team events and generally goof on each other. When a player leaves the organization, he sends a goodbye note and removes himself from the chat. Tavares texted a heartfelt goodbye, and his name was deleted. “Yeah, that sucked,” one Islander says.

Tavares did make it to Anders Lee’s wedding on July 7. Teammates were accepting, but the reaction on social media from both Islanders fans and Leafs detractors was swift. Many accused him of disloyalty and ring chasing. Some burned their Tavares jerseys. “The thing that bothers me most about this,” says another ex-teammate, “is that people say he took the easy way out. He did the exact opposite. The easy thing would have been to stay where he was. He could be captain of the Islanders forever. He knew the area; he was comfortable there. He was going to be paid more than he got. He wasn’t going to be under the microscope of Toronto. He knew Islanders fans were going to be angry. The easy thing was to stay. And he agonized over it.”

“Takes a lot of guts to do that,” Hart Trophy-winner Taylor Hall says.

Drew Doughty, who avoided his own free-agency saga by signing an eight-year, $88-million extension with Los Angeles, told Sportsnet’s Donnovan Bennett in July that “I texted [Tavares] right after he signed. I was like, ‘Congrats man, you got big cojones. That’s huge.’ I probably wouldn’t be able to do it if I had waited another year, so for him to do that is big on him.”

So where are we three months later?

John Tavares and Aryne Fuller were married Aug. 4 in Niagara-on-the Lake, about 90 minutes southwest of Toronto. The emcee was Edmonton Oiler Ryan Strome, a former teammate. “So, Strome opens the night by saying, ‘I had this fantastic speech written, but I had to change it on July 1,’” one of the guests says, laughing at the memory. “People were dying.”

As you would expect, Tavares showed up at Toronto’s camp looking great and ready to go, with five goals in four exhibition games. Maple Leafs fans are more wound up for this season than any since 1994. Meanwhile, the Islanders start the 2018–19 season with five players (Josh Bailey, Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin and Adam Pelech) who have Toronto-area ties. “If they go farther this season than we do,” one player laughs, “none of them will want to go home for the playoffs. They won’t be able to stand it.”

He adds: “I was worried about how things were going to be here. I know people haven’t always liked what Lou Lamoriello’s been saying. But, as much as we like John, we needed it. He and Barry Trotz know what they’re doing. We know we’re underdogs, but we’re excited.”

The biggest impact from Tavares’s decision is yet to come. Stamkos went through the free-agency process, but ended it four days prior to July 1. This was seismic. It was a star player who switched teams after listening to seven pitches.

“Guys noticed,” says an NHL star. “He might have been the first, but he won’t be the last.”

Photo Credits

Opening Image and Design by Drew Lesiuczok
Getty; Claus Andersen/Getty Images; Dave Sandford/NHLI/Getty Images; Bruce Bennett/Getty Images; Mike Stobe/NHLI/Getty Images; Claus Andersen/Getty Images