In Tavares, Maple Leafs have captain who embodies understated excellence

Watch as the Toronto Maple Leafs unveil John Tavares as the 25th captain in franchise history.

TORONTO – When your proud, tortured hockey team has waited three years, seven months and 23 days between captains, what’s a few more minutes to soak in the significance, to hear the people roar?

In what swiftly flipped from the city’s best-kept secret to its worst-kept one, homecoming king John Tavares was crowned the 25th captain of Toronto Maple Leafs franchise history Wednesday night during a pre-game introductory ceremony at Scotiabank Arena that was, at once, classy and loud, subtle and dramatic.

“The way we did it was really special, then to follow it up with the way we played just made it that much better,” said Tavares, following a 5-3 win over the Senators. “We all want to feed off it. Opening night. And I think a great way to show to the city and show to the fans who it’s going to be.”

No skater wore a letter during pre-game warm-ups. Then, after the rest of the club had been introduced per opening night tradition, the lettered men of the Maple Leafs core with the best crack at bringing the Stanley Cup to Toronto in more than 50 years were brought out, one by one, to waves of ovation — an unveiling plan hatched by Leafs media director Steve Keogh.

Tavares appeared last, adorned with a “C.”

“Obviously a lot of buildup, so I’m glad it’s over,” alternate captain Morgan Rielly smiled. “We enjoyed it. I thought the fans really reacted well, and they should. John’s our guy.

“Johnny’s the perfect guy for the job.”

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The "C" stitched just above Tavares’s heart stands for consistency over cool, courage over creativity, clockwork over combustibility.

"A calming presence" is what general manager Kyle Dubas said he was searching for in his dressing room leader, and a John Tavares headshot popped into your mind like the 47-goal scorer does in that home-plate area in front of the opposition’s net where games and reputations get decided.

"He wants to win more than he wants to score," head coach Mike Babcock said. "His commitment to play defence since he arrived here has been unbelievable, and yet he’s still scored the most he’s ever scored."

Listen beyond the noise. The Leafs have scored with this one, too.

Tavares’s style of play seldom ejects you out of your seat the way a freewheeling, ankle-breaking Mitch Marner does. He’s never been gifted with the laser shot of Auston Matthews, the most-expensive and most-intriguing Leaf. Nor the wheels of Rielly, the longest-tenured Leaf. (Each of those other three core pieces were presented as alternate captains for this season and the foreseeable future, while Dubas noted Jake Muzzin, Frederik Andersen and Zach Hyman as critical pieces of the leadership group.)

But the 29-year-old’s ironclad reliability and persistent professionalism are characteristics that have earned him the respect of everyone from the trainers to the owners.

Not long after Tavares decided to sign on for this bid to bring a Stanley Cup back to the team patterned on his boyhood bedsheets, the p.r. staff was floored that he didn’t need to be prodded to speak to reporters. He just did it.

Because he understood that being available to fans, through the media and public appearances, was part of the gig. He’d been doing it for five years on Long Island, since he earned his first NHL captaincy at age 22, and views giving a little extra of himself as simply a small reimbursement for all the game has given him.

“He’s everything that we thought he would be, and there’s nothing negative about him whatsoever,” Dubas said.

Former Leafs captain Doug Gilmour played a round of golf with a young J.T. in the autumn of 2013, back when Tavares was first finding his C legs, and gave Tavares this advice about becoming a captain.

"Just be the best player in practice. Be the best player in games. Everybody will follow. You don’t have to yell. You don’t have to scream. You’ll lose your teammates that way," said Gilmour, unknowingly passing a torch. "Give everybody the same status, respect, and just go play hard."

The excellence of Tavares has always been understated. The timbre and tempo of his voice, of his shifts, seldom fluctuates.

“He does things his own way. He’s incredible to be around because he makes you a better coach—not scared to tell you things, not shy, not scared to tell the guys things,” Babcock said.

“I don’t know if he ever suffered from peer pressure in his life, but he doesn’t now.”

Throw him a standing ovation or pummel him with plastic rats and spitty vitriol. Whether you’re throwing bouquets or bullets or asking him to rehash his and Marner’s chemistry for the 16th time, he shows up.

"He says things when he has to. He’s not a big rah-rah guy. The biggest thing for him is he just leads by example. He does everything the right way, whether it’s on or off the ice, and comes prepared every day, whether it’s Game 65 or Game 1," said ex-Leaf Connor Brown, who grew hearing legend of Tavares as a GTA minor hockey rink rat.

"You kinda understand what kind of skill he has, for me, all the way up. Then you play with him and realize it’s not an accident and how much he puts into the game and how much work he puts into the things that don’t come naturally to him. That’s what you appreciate."

Just because Tavares is the safe choice in the delayed succession of Dion Phaneuf, whose reign ended not in parade but trade, doesn’t mean he’s not the wise choice.

"We didn’t name a captain for a long time because we didn’t think it was obvious," Babcock said. "We talked to our players about it, we talked to our staff about it, we talked to our management team about it. And, in the end, we made the right decision for the Leafs."

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Gilmour, Darryl Sittler, Wendel Clark, Dave Keon, George Armstrong, Mats Sundin… Tavares joins an exclusive group that needn’t ever pay for a beer or scrounge for a book deal in this town.

So when Clark and Sittler swung by the Leafs room after Wednesday’s victory to congratulate Tavares?

“It meant the world,” Tavares said. “Those guys set the precedent. They’re the foundation of the organization that set the standard here.”

"You just don’t take something like that for granted. Certainly for a franchise here like the Maple Leafs with its history and tradition, I don’t want to look at things differently just because you’re given a responsibility. You’re given that responsibility because of who you are and the way you’ve carried yourself to that point.

"You don’t let something like that change you."

The surprise scratching of Jason Spezza and the whispers that, perhaps, the electrifying Matthews would’ve been given the C had he not rankled management with news of his off-season disorderly conduct charge should not detract from Tavares’s honour.

"Now, there’s going to be narrative. This is Toronto. There’s narrative on all this stuff," Babcock said in a sit-down with Christine Simpson.

The GM and coach both refute the notion that the Matthews allegations factored into the decision.

"When you announce your captain, and the players think they picked it, and the management thinks they picked it, and the owner thinks they picked it, and the fans think they picked it – you announced the right captain," Babcock said.

While fans were treated to the news on-ice, Tavares and his family were surprised privately by the club Monday evening, the player walking into a room and seeing his three-week-old son, Jace, swaddled in No. 91 Leafs sweater with a C on the lapel.

A jersey reveal party.

“I can’t even describe it,” Tavares said. “When I walked in and seeing my son wearing the jersey and break the news to me was a moment I’ll never forget. A tremendous way they did it for me.”

Tavares conceded that he "may address things differently" in Toronto than he did on the Island, in light of the market’s scrutiny, but his mindset will never waver. Nor will his reliance on fellow leaders like Marner, Rielly, Matthews and Muzzin.

A smart captain is a conduit to the coaching staff. He’s aware of the issues going on with the group and knows when they need a bag skate or when they need a practice off. He leans on his teammates just as they lean on him.

"You realize how important the people around you are. You don’t have all the answers," Tavares explained. "You’ve got all those guys around you to lift you up and help you when things aren’t going well."

For some, the pomp and circumstance of being anointed captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs might go to their head.

For blue-collar Tavares, it’s a day at the office. A pretty good one.

"It’s opening night. I don’t know how you need anything else to get you going," he said.

"This is what it’s all about—playing the game at its highest level in a tremendous hockey city with tremendous passion. And it gets to be all for real."

Finally.

Deservedly.

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