If you were a kid who grew up playing minor hockey in Toronto, chances are you grew up cheering for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Members of Leafs Nation, as their fans are called, often have an all-encompassing passion for the team that has been passed on from generation to generation.
John Tavares was one of those kids, and he dreamt of one day playing for the team he loved. Five months ago, when Tavares became a free agent, several teams lined up to try to sign him—including the Maple Leafs. On July 1, in one of the most significant signings in NHL history, Tavares agreed to a seven-year contract worth $77 million to play for Toronto. Now the 28-year-old is literally living his childhood dream!
Tavares was a prodigy in his minor hockey days and was the first player to be granted “exceptional status” by the Canadian Hockey League. This meant he was allowed to play a year earlier then normal. The New York Islanders selected him first overall in the 2009 draft, and Tavares spent the first nine seasons of his career there, the last five as their captain.
As a child, Tavares loved watching the Leafs and looked up to everyone on the team. He had a white Maple Leafs jersey he would wear all the time. “I remember being really young and watching Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark; they were great Maple Leafs,” says Tavares. “I dreamed of being like them and playing for the Maple Leafs, so it’s kind of surreal now to think that the possibility came true. I’m doing something that I thought about and dreamed about since I was five, six, seven, eight years old.”
The numbers athletes wear are often important to them, and when it comes to the best in hockey history, numbers such as 66, 87, 97, and 99 are familiar to even the most casual hockey fan. Players may have their favourite numbers, but that doesn’t mean they always get to wear them.
Growing up, Tavares wore number 19, but when he changed teams, he had to change to the 91 that he wears today! “My best friend was playing for the Toronto Marlboros when I came to the team,” Tavares recalls. “He was wearing 19, and I wore 19 up ’til then. He wanted to keep his number, so I said that was good with me. There weren’t too many guys wearing 91 at the time, so I flipped the 19 into a 91 and had a really good season. Ever since then, I have worn it. It’s kind of funny and we chuckle about it sometimes because it's amazing the way those things impact your life.”
The day he signed with Toronto this year would be another moment that would impact not only Tavares’ life but Leafs Nation as well. “I felt very fortunate to be in the position I was in, where I had not just Toronto but numerous teams that were interested,” he says. “To have that kind of interest at this level and this league is something you don’t take for granted. I knew there was a lot of positive things happening in Toronto, and they certainly proved to me why this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Once he signed, it was time for Tavares to move back to Toronto, but he didn’t settle back in to his old neighbourhood, instead choosing to live closer to downtown.
“I wanted to be a little closer to Scotiabank Arena, our practice facility at the MasterCard Center, and the airport. I’m not right in the heart of the city, but in a nice suburb where my wife and dog and I all live.”
Toronto is a vibrant, active city with many interesting things to do not related to hockey. “I think there are lots of good things to do, whether it’s just going around town or taking our dog for a walk—trying a lot of great restaurants, enjoying some of the many great parts of the city,” he says. “I really enjoy Evergreen Brick Works quite a bit; I think it is a great market.”
He is also really enjoying the atmosphere Leafs Nation brings to home games. “It’s pretty cool, the buzz around town and how much people love the team—what the team means to the city not just as a sport, but a way of life, and the way it impacts people on a daily basis,” he says.
For Tavares, the draw of coming to Toronto was not solely based on realizing his childhood dream. It was largely based on the team’s projected success on the ice, with the added bonus of playing in front of family and friends. “The most important thing for me as I went through the process was focusing on having success on the ice and what would be best for my career and whether it was the right fit for me as a hockey player,” he says.
Tavares certainly had a special bond with his Islanders teammates over the nine years he played there. Having to start fresh with new teammates is not always easy, but he’s excited about the next phase of his career in Toronto. “We have a great group of guys who are extremely committed to doing the best we can to represent the city and the team to get where we want to,” he says. “It’s a learning process, but when you play on a line with guys like Zach Hyman and Mitch Marner—they’re so talented. They make the game easier for me; they do so many good things that put me in a good position to succeed. I just try to be as great as I can be, to play my game and make plays for them.”
Tavares is a hero to many kids, much like Gilmour and Clark were to him. “I feel very fortunate to be a role model and be something that kids aspire to,” says Tavares. “It’s definitely pretty cool, and I try to be the best I can be and impact someone positively.”
His advice for kids wanting to follow in his footsteps? “Have fun; fall in love with [hockey],” he says. “It’s a great game, and you develop so many friendships and meet so many people along the way. My closest friends are guys I’ve played with.”
John Tavares is now living his childhood dream, and the excitement in Leafs Nation is the highest it’s been in many years. He plays in front of his family and friends almost every night, just like when he was a kid.
“New York was a great city to live in, and my family and friends visited often, but certainly being here and having them around more is an added bonus,” he says. “I know how much effort and sacrifice my parents made to give me the opportunity to play hockey as a kid, to have this dream, to live it for real and have this career. I’m very thankful.”
Top photograph by Abigail Dove