Maple Leafs’ Tavares tribute uncharacteristic and unexpected

john-tavares-leafs-return

Toronto Maple Leafs centre John Tavares (91). (Nathan Denette/CP)

Waffles. It has to be the waffles; it has to be the throwing of frozen waffles onto the ice in, what, 2010? That was the last time Toronto hockey fans did something so original that it left folks puzzled. I still don’t get it, but I prefer to see it as brilliantly subversive, especially given what usually happenzzzzzzz in the stands when the Maple Leafs play at home.

Which brings us to Saturday’s display of … well, what exactly? What was all that fuss about John Tavares before the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ win over the Buffalo Sabres? I mean, I get the hashtag thing started by fans after Tavares’ rough ride in Long Island, although a more appropriate hashtag might have been directed at Mike Babcock:

#startfreddienexttime

But then the Mayor got involved. Then it became kind of corporate, with management either sensing what was afoot or at least prepared to gin it up a bit – the spotlight on Tavares as he lined up at the blue line before the national anthem while the Leafs starting lineup was announced, his teammates having circled away making it seem like it was some kind of ceremony.

Seriously, the last Leafs player to be left that alone was Freddie Andersen.

We’ve all seen how guys will sometimes pull back at the last minute when one of their teammates takes the ice for a warmup, sometimes as a joke. We’ve seen how ballplayers will linger in a dugout sometimes to let a starting pitcher take some sort of pre-game bow. But this … this was so …

So un-Toronto, to the point where my cynical self found it a little off-putting. An over the top reaction to what happened a couple of nights earlier. A silly gesture to somebody who is going to make great gobs of money here and seemed quite business-like about what went on against the Islanders.

I thought Toronto sports fans received the message that the athlete to suck up to this year was Kawhi Leonard.

But what if we just experienced some kind of collective ‘moment’ in an arena whose fans are criticized over and over for being too quiet and soulless and corporate, the swells among them in the expensive seats derided as chardonnay tipplers and sushi munchers instead of blood and guts hockey fans? I mean, it wasn’t as witty as the stuff Islanders fans came up with – credit where credit is due – but the sentiment was marked out by homemade signs and seemed to come from a good place.

Look: I thought Tavares’ return to the island would be one of those galvanizing moments for a group that seems to be tight as hell off the ice, at least if you pay attention to social media, but sometimes seems a little too cool for school on the ice. You know, like it can’t be bothered to do the stuff of mere mortals. The optimist in me wants to think that maybe the lack of pushback we see too often from this team and the detachment with which they play is a sign of some type of arrogant, cold-bloodedness that will manifest itself in the playoffs. But the realist … I just don’t know. Been a lot of unexpected stuff this year, is all …

NOW TWEET THIS

In which we wonder what would happen if Auston Matthews got seriously, really pissed off at somebody … start the Marcus Stroman countdown … salute Greg Vanney’s tactical nous … and marvel at James Harden.

• This much I do know: Auston Matthews is a man-child who can single-handedly address the issue if this team is being light in the pockets. In a span of a few days he rag-dolled Shea Weber and ran a goaltender. More, please #beastmode

• Once Dallas Kuechel is off the market, the Blue Jays expect calls on Marcus Stroman. Keep an eye on the Braves: Mike Soroka, Luiz Gohara and Kevin Gausman already have shoulder issues as does reliever A.J. Minter #1-800-Alex

• Don’t know which pain in the ass I’d less like the Raps to meet in the first round: Dwane Casey’s got a karma thing happening with the Pistons (plus I’m not sure the Raps have an answer for Blake Griffin) and the Nets are stupid enough to just keep jacking up threes #freepass

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

• When he was with the Cards, Bud Norris was fond of telling Latino players to get with the program and rode rookie Jordan Hicks so hard the word ‘bullying’ was used. My hope is he flips the script with the Jays the way Ken Giles did #renaissance

• It’s no coincidence the Angels want to get a new ballpark in Long Beach with an eye toward a whirlwind 2021 opening: Mike Trout is a free-agent after 2020 and this will either be ‘The House That Mike Built’ or a sop to ticket-holders for losing a franchise player #winwin

• Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney’s tactical nous was huge in the 2017 MLS championship, and chalk up an early win Saturday: putting faith in a deeper-lying Marky Delgado to move Michael Bradley farther up front #props

• I know he works for the owners but, man, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman needs to put his own guy in place as president in Ottawa to keep Pierre Dorion and Eugene Melnyk away from the sharp objects #hotmess

• James Harden is a video game this season, but here’s a number that puts his performance in perspective: His per-game average is 8.1 points more than runner-up Paul George, the most since Michael Jordan bettered Domnique Wilkins by the same gap in 1986-87 #dominant

Each week, Jeff Blair and Stephen Brunt tackle the most impactful stories in the world of sports and their intersection with popular culture. Come for the sports; stay for the storytelling and cigars.

THE ENDGAME

How good are these last 18 games of the regular-season schedule setting up for the Toronto Raptors? They couldn’t be easier, offering further evidence that this is a team with zero excuses. The Raptors went into Sunday with the second-easiest remaining schedule (in terms of opponents’ winning percentage), with only the Utah Jazz having an easier run-in.

The Raptors, in fact, will have just two games remaining against teams with a winning record after Tuesday’s meeting at Scotiabank Arena against the Houston Rockets — with both those games coming against the same team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, during a back-to-back set on March 20-22. Other than that road game, the Raptors play just one more time outside the Eastern time zone — with their final one of the season coming in Minneapolis against the Timberwolves.

That’s it; that’s all. The Thunder though — with an additional game remaining against the Milwaukee Bucks on the final day of the season, two against the Indianapolis Pacers and one against the Brooklyn Nets — could play a determining role in how the Eastern Conference shakes out. Oklahoma City, not surprisingly, has the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA.


Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show weekdays from 9 a.m.-noon ET on Sportsnet 590 The FAN

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