Toronto had a momentous week with the signing of big ticket NHL free-agent John Tavares.
Tavares made headlines in the Luso-Canadian and Luso-American communities as the first NHL player with Portuguese roots to be drafted first overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, the same draft that saw the Leafs draft Nazem Kadri at seventh overall. This dubious honor of choosing first overall is given to the last place team which selects the number one prospect with hopes and dreams of turning their fortunes around and eventually winning the Stanley Cup.
It was a move that had a few expecting it may be a possibility, but most Leaf fans have gotten used to seeing the long list of prolific players spurn Toronto for more money or warm weather or cities in more tax-favorable states/provinces. What made this such a rarity is the fact that Tavares was a first overall pick in the NHL – something that hardly ever happens. Why? Because that player would almost always be signed with the team for a the minimum of 9 years, which is plenty of time to build around him and become competitive. During that time the player will sow roots in the community – get married, have children attending local schools, purchase a home in the area and so on. There is also the fact that the team that drafted him has the right to negotiate an extension with that player a full year before any other team can offer him a contract. Almost always the player is comfortable where he is, as he is paid as much money as any other team was going to offer and would likely want to continue the pursuit of the Stanley Cup with his teammates.
What John Tavares did took many by surprise because there were other motives at play. He left money on the table, having been offered more money by both San Jose Sharks and his previous team the New York Islanders, signing for less money to pursue a childhood dream of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was a decision that was made easy by how well structured and promising the Toronto Maple Leafs are right now. They are a blisteringly fast team as well as incredibly talented, with the generational 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews leading the way. Something that head coach Mike Babcock said upon his hiring has now been proven to be true – players will want to come play here, “we are going to make players want to come home and play for their team they grew up cheering for.” It means a ton to the city of Toronto that an athlete of this stature, a “homeboy” decided to come to the Leafs. The recent turn-around of the Leafs gained Toronto’s team respect and offers up boundless amounts of hope. The city is buzzing with the anticipation that this is the final, massive piece to the puzzle which will bring the Stanley Cup back to Toronto for the first time in 51 years. This is hardly a guarantee that we will win it, hockey just doesn’t work like that, but it has the Leafs primed as Vegas’s best odds at winning the cup, listing them as 7/1 odds upon the announcement that John Tavares had signed with the Leafs.
Those 2 factors were the biggest ones that made John Tavares choose Toronto, but it would not be enough for many others. Toronto is a notoriously difficult place to play, because Toronto is so hockey mad. In this city LeBron James signing with the Lakers is second page news behind Tavares becoming a Leaf. The media here can be ruthless and combined with the fame of being a Maple Leaf can create pressure that can be hard to handle especially for a person like Tavares who tends to shy away from the spotlight. In New York John could take the subway to games – in Toronto going to the mall without being recognized will be a challenge.
Although anyone who plays for the Leafs is under a media microscope this situation is unique. Currently the Leafs have a few stars, most notably Auston Matthews and John Tavares does not need to be the saviour. He does not need to be the only one to shoulder the expectations of the city. Will there be pressure? Absolutely, but not as much as if he was the only star. The pressure should be on the team as a whole. The Leafs are a team that is very much a sum of its parts and although he will have his own self-imposed pressure to do well Tavares can go about doing what he does best. With two bona-fide number one centers, it gives the Leafs enviable options of rolling out practically two first lines with so much talent spread over the lineup.
Within our Luso-Canadian community, we have always had a big sense of pride in John Tavares’s accomplishments in the NHL. So much so, that he was inducted into the Portuguese Canadian Walk Of Fame in 2015 alongside Jose Correia (President and Co-Founder at Bee-Clean Building Maintenance), The Honourable Madame Justice Maria Linhares de Sousa and singer Shawn Desman. John is now poised to add to that a likely first nomination as the next captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and what will immortalize him would be if he can become one of the perennial pieces to help bring the Stanley Cup to Toronto. That right there, would make every Leaf fan around the globe be proud that our John Tavares had chosen to come home and live out his childhood dream.