John Tavares made the radio rounds on Tuesday evening, calling into Prime Time Sports and TSN Overdrive to discuss the decision to join the Toronto Maple Leafs. Full remarks below.
It’s official now. How does it feel to be a Maple Leaf?
Tavares: It’s still kind of sinking in. It’s a very special moment for me and I think my family as well. It all kind of came together timing wise. It just seemed like it was the right fit. I’m just looking forward to playing for a very historic organization that I think is really headed in a great direction. Obviously, I have a great connection in growing up here. Very unique to play around family and friends, and looking forward to enjoying that part of it.
Maybe the most telling photograph was one you tweeted out of you as a young kid lying in bed asleep with your Toronto Maple Leaf bedding all around you – the pillow case and the sheets and everything. How much would you say growing up as a Leaf fan wound up impacting the decision that you had to make?
Tavares: I think the best way to describe it for me, and I don’t want to be too long winded, is that you grow up, you start playing in the game… I remember, three years old, watching on the couch with my dad. My parents let me stay up a little bit later than I should’ve been watching Doug Gilmour’s wraparound in the playoffs. That’s a memory. I remember going to skate for the first time at Clarkson Arena close to where I grew up and you start following the Leafs. As a kid, you think, “If I’m going to play hockey, I am going to be a Maple Leaf one day.” When you are five, six, seven years old, that’s just the way you think.
As I got older, as I got the opportunity to potentially pursue hockey as a career, you start to realize how fortunate it is to play on a team in the NHL and how many great organizations there are and great places to play. Your goal is to make the NHL. I was fortunate enough to be drafted first by the Islanders – a place and an organization and a fan base that completely embraced me as a young kid. I gave everything I had there. I had no thought about being anywhere else, especially when I signed my next contract out of my entry-level. I was trying to do everything I could to help bring a Stanley Cup there and do everything I can to be the best player and person I could be. That’s a big reason why I am who I am today and why I am the player I am today.
Obviously, as I was getting towards the end of this process or getting closer to July 1st, I still hadn’t signed an extension and started looking at possible options and thinking about that maybe this is my only time to go through something like this and see what else is out there. Maybe it is something worth pursuing just because I don’t ever want to look back and think, “Oh, I didn’t take the opportunity to see what else was out there.” You start to think about some teams that could be good fits.
I didn’t just want to look at the first three or four years of my contract. I want to be a good player and play at a high level for a long time… I believe the team will still be performing at a very high level all the way through my seven years.
– John Tavares
Obviously, with where the Leafs are at as a team and organization, they were a good team to meet with. You start thinking about the possibilities in the couple days up to the interview period and then you go through the interview period and you start to get more feelings. You start to get the information back from the people that are there – their message and their vision. All of that starts to sort of steer you in a direction and give you a feeling and an instinct. That’s kind of where it came from.
You start to think about back on things when you were a kid and how fun it was watching the Leafs growing up, but it’s not something I thought about for a very long time. It kind of all started to come back. You try to take the information you get from all of the teams, or when I was meeting with the Leafs, on how they saw how I fit into the team and the future of the team. They’re obviously trying to win a Stanley Cup and build a team here that is going to be competitive for a long time. That was important for me to be on a team that was going to be good not just for a part of my contract but really the full length of my contract. I really felt that is kind of how everything came together.
It was a very difficult decision because of what the Island means to me and the people there and how fortunate I have been and how I have been treated by that fan base and organization and everything I put into there. Really, my heart was in two places as I got into the end of the week on Friday into Saturday trying to make that decision. At the end of the day, I felt it was a rare opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.
Steven Stamkos was in a position similar to yours. He had an offer from Tampa Bay and he shopped around and looked around. Toronto made him an allegedly valuable offer. Like you, local guy with a chance to come home, but at a time when the Toronto Maple Leafs had finished last in the NHL. He didn’t sign. How much of the last few years – the progress the Leafs have made in the past two years and the kind of young players they acquired – did that factor into the decision?
Tavares: A great deal. No question, the timing was very unique. Everything was kind of the right fit at the right time. The connection of being from here, I kind of saw that starting to come together and then the comfort level and the understanding I got from management when I met with them and talked to them over the interview process – it just seemed the fit was right and the timing was right. It was a great opportunity and very rare considering where I was at in my career. I just had that instinct that this was the right thing for me to do. It was just something I couldn’t pass up – a shot playing in Toronto and being a part of a great young group that has done some great things over the past couple of years. You’d like to think everyone still has a lot of growing to do and a lot more hockey ahead of them and a lot of really good hockey that can lead to a lot of success.
Things on Long Island – you’ve been incredibly loyal. You’ve really kept quiet in terms some of the challenges there. The uncertainty as far as where the team was playing, the fact that the team is rebuilding… they’ve got Lou Lamoriello and hired Barry Trotz, both incredibly credible hockey guys. You talked about the pluses on the Toronto side. Was the uncertainty on the Island on those levels a factor as well compared to how Toronto has everything locked down and going for them? The timing seems to be everything, right?
Tavares: I think more so than all of the things you stated with the Islanders. I think there are really good people there. From ownership to Lou to Barry, they were tremendous in this process. Their patience with me, their understanding of my situation and being very open about many things, they were tremendous. I really think they are going to do great things on the Island. I really think that the team and the organization is headed in a great direction. Obviously, ownership securing the new arena in Belmont is a huge step for the team the organization, and bringing the team back on Long Island, where I really believe the identity is and the fan base is obviously passionate about that. It’s a very passionate fan base and they love their Islanders. There are a lot of positives with the team and there is tremendous young talent and established talent. I just felt that this opportunity in Toronto was extremely rare and this timing and fit was something I couldn’t turn down.
You talked about how it was very tough to make your decision. You were pacing back and forth and thinking about leaving the only NHL team you’d ever known. There was another factor for your family – a pretty important soccer game that day.
Tavares: Yeah. Portugal, if people don’t know, I have a very strong Portuguese background. My dad’s family immigrated here when he was seven and he brought that Portuguese tradition with him. That means, when the World Cup comes around, everything kind of stops, no matter what is going on, when they are playing. They are into the game Saturday afternoon and I was in shambles pretty much trying to figure out what the thing was I wanted to do and my dad was just dialled in watching Portugal play. It was a heck of a day for myself and the family and I’m sure the Portuguese community as well.
You made a decision your family is very happy with, but would it have been more disappointing for your dad if you decided to go back to the Islanders or the fact that Portugal lost?
Tavares: Probably that Portugal lost. I remember how happy he was a couple of years ago when they won the European championship. I remember watching when I was young when they hosted the European championship and they lost to Greece in the final. That crushed him. Obviously, a great moment for his home country a couple of years ago. Saturday was fun for him.
You talked about this a lot over the weekend – your connection to the city and how you grew up a Leafs fan. Take us inside the room during the pitch. It sounds as if Kyle Dubas and company was more interested in relaying what this team is about and how good this team is now and how good they can be over the next seven years. How often during the pitch did your connection to the city come up and your fandom as a kid?
I just felt that this opportunity in Toronto was extremely rare and this timing and fit was something I couldn’t turn down.
– John Tavares
Tavares: Certainly, I think Kyle, it was amazing how he kind of carried himself and delivered his message and vision on why I would be a good fit here as a hockey player. I think him and the management team and everyone that was there… obviously, at some point, they presented to me not just this vision of where the team is at but you coming home to where you grew up and being a piece to that puzzle and getting this team over the hump and what it would mean to be a Maple Leaf and possibly to win here. He made a strong message about that and that certainly really got some feelings going for me. It was a great dialogue we had going back and forth just about the team and the fit and how I could contribute. Obviously, Babs saw me having a good influence and also I think it was important that I wasn’t coming here to be a saviour, if that’s the right thing to say. I was just coming here to join a really good young group of players that have done so much already and are on a great track. I can come in and be a big part of that and try to help out.
I think, also, what was important to me in general and what was very positive about the Leafs was that I didn’t just want to look at the first three or four years of my contract. I want to be a good player and play at a high level for a long time. With how young the team is, and obviously you see what the Marlies have accomplished and the depth in the organization and the youth, I believe that I can still play at a real high level and still contribute and the team will still be performing at a very high level all the way through my seven years.
Was there anybody in particular that helped influence you to make the decision to come home to Toronto?
Tavares: Mostly, I think the conversations I had with Leafs management and just their belief in how I could fit here and just that message. Making me feel comfortable about playing in my hometown in a place like Toronto, because of my connections here. Obviously, I know a lot of people and have a lot of friends and family and that can add a lot of things to your plate but also it is a great support system you have. I think just relaying those messages… you look at all factors.
You look at, obviously, where the hockey team is and the organization and where things are headed, but you still spend a lot of time away from the rink. So there was a lot of dialogue about that. I think, obviously, my parents and my fiancé… I talked to a few players from the Leafs. I talked to a few players from other teams and players and close friends on the Island. But I also didn’t want to overwhelm myself with too much of what everyone was saying. I knew I had to sort through my feelings and instincts and the information I had in front of me. This had to be my decision.
I just tried to go about it in the best way possible. I tried to treat everyone with respect and understanding and just tried to go about it the right way. I hope I did that.
One of the things the Leafs talked about is that during their presentation, you had some questions for them. They were impressed by the questions you asked. What specifically did you want to know from them about your decision?
Tavares: First, I didn’t want to come to a team and feel like a team had to subtract what they had. Obviously, I recognize the young talent that is here. On the business side of the game and the way the system works, there are a lot of factors and moving parts. You don’t try to look into one, two or three years. You try to look down the road. I really tried to get the big picture. I think that was the big thing for me. Obviously, I just wanted to understand – obviously there are a lot of positives, but – what are the challenges with where the team is at? Where can the team get better? I can take some of that information and understand, “Okay, maybe I can help with that.” Or, “That’s something that shouldn’t be too much of a hurdle for the team to overcome.”
I think you try to get a really broad view and understanding of all of those things. I know I did that with every team. It was a lot for a lot of these teams to fly across the country and meet me in LA and be prepared and I considered each team very strongly. That’s why I had them. I gave them my full attention and effort and wanted to get all of the knowledge as best as I could and all of the questions I had answered as best I can to make an informed decision but also a decision I had a feeling about – that instinct you kind of have and that’s just kind of how it played out for myself.
You are from Toronto and you spend your offseasons in Toronto working out. Prior to going to LA for these meetings, obviously, your name has come up in the last couple of months. People were just curious about where you wanted to go. How aware of that were you throughout that process, being up here in Toronto and how much people in this city were buzzing about it and the excitement of people hoping you’d come up here?
Tavares: I was definitely aware of it. I’ve certainly got friends that are Leafs fans. No one really kind of gave me a hard time or really made it a point to talk about. I think everyone that I am close with really respected my position and understood what the Islanders mean to me and everything that I put in there and why I think it’s a great place and how fortunate I was to be there as long as I was and all of the people that impacted me. Certainly, as the process kind of got to the point where I feel like I have to see what other possibilities there are, you start to think about a lot of different scenarios in a lot of different places. You are aware of what is going on, but I am not a guy who is going out there looking for what everyone is talking about or what the narrative is. I just try to be myself and make my own decision for my own thoughts and feelings and the information that was presented to me. I think I have a general sense of what the Maple Leafs mean to the city and the Toronto Maple Leafs as a franchise in general — not just in hockey but in the sports world.
I would hope that people are excited. I feel very thankful that I get this opportunity to be a Toronto Maple Leaf. I won’t take it for granted and I’ll put my best foot forward and give it everything I have every single day. I don’t let that try to become a narrative for me. I just try to be myself and worry about what I can control, I guess.
Leafs vs. Habs at the Scotiabank Arena opening night. What do you think that’s going to be like walking onto the ice on opening night?
Tavares: I can only imagine right now in my head, but I assume it is going to blow it out of the water. I am assuming that the butterflies will be flying, that’s for sure. I am really looking forward to that opportunity and that moment.