John Tavares signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday.
The 27-year-old center, who was New York Islanders captain since 2013-14, was selected by New York with the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft. He grew up a Maple Leafs fan in Mississauga, Ontario.
"It was quite the process," Tavares said at Scotiabank Arena. "… It was tough. You're in one place for so long, you get so embedded, your roots are so deep there and you care so much about the people, and the people that have cared about you.
"It really took the right opportunity and the right fit. I thought the timing just couldn't be beat. Certainly being from here, and I think with where this team's at and how good and young their core players are ... it was just hard to turn down. It was hard to turn down this opportunity. It's obviously one of the premier organizations, not just in hockey, but in sports.
"As a kid, cheering for the Leafs growing up, you start to get those feelings again, once I went through the interview process and got that and what it was like as a kid watching the Leafs and following my favorite players. I thought the timing was too good. It was an opportunity I didn't want to turn down. I'm very fortunate to be here and call myself a Maple Leaf."
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The Maple Leafs were one of six teams Tavares spoke with in Los Angeles last week, including the Islanders, Boston Bruins, Dallas Stars, San Jose Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning.
"I think we were very hopeful, we thought we made a very good case," Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas said. "All we did was present the people that we have here, the coaching staff, the leadership from Brendan on down, and the rest of our staff here.
"I think the most important part was presenting the players that John was going to play with, and in the end ... that's why players want to come to different places, because the players that they're going to play with and be with every day on the team. And our guys were very, very good letting him know how we operate and what he could expect here."
Video: Tavares introduced as a member of the Maple Leafs
The maximum contract he could have received from any team other than the Islanders was seven years; it is believed New York offered him the maximum eight years.
"I think all the teams that I met with were awesome and obviously I took it very seriously," Tavares said. "The commitment that it meant for those teams to come all the way out to Los Angeles to present to me, I didn't want to include anyone in there to waste anybody's time. I wanted to be very thorough, I wanted to be very honest and very open to everything.
"But as we got back from L.A., I just felt like my heart was in two places: where I'm from, and a place where I've been for a long time that helped become the man that I am today. My gut was just tearing apart, my heart was tearing apart trying to figure out what I wanted to do."
Tavares could have re-signed with the Islanders any time after last July 1. He took his decision all the way past the midnight deadline Saturday to become a free agent.
"I knew it was maybe a little bit of the uncomfortable thing to do, but I didn't want that to hold me back from taking a chance at a great opportunity," Tavares said. "I'm just going to try to put my best foot forward and do the best I can and obviously, hopefully we can do some special things."
Lou Lamoriello was hired by the Islanders as president of hockey operations on May 22 after three seasons as general manager of the Maple Leafs. Lamoriello took over as general manager of the Islanders on June 5 after he fired GM Garth Snow and coach Doug Weight and said then that the changes had nothing to do with Tavares. Barry Trotz, who coached the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup last season, was hired June 21.
Those moves weren't enough to convince Tavares to stay in New York, where he played all of last season with his long-term future uncertain and repeatedly said it was his intention to return.
"The New York Islanders would like to thank John Tavares for everything he has done for the franchise throughout the past nine seasons," Lamoriello said in a statement. "John has achieved great individual success on the ice, as well as devoting a tremendous amount of his time and energy to the community. We wish him and his family all the best."
Video: Rosen and Tanguay take a look at the Tavares decision
In the modern era of NHL free agency, which began in 1995, a No. 1 pick had never chosen to leave the team that drafted him to sign with another.
"[Saturday] was one heck of a day," Tavares said. "You can ask my fiancée just the amount of times I walked up and down the pool at my house, just trying to get a sense of what I wanted to do and the path I wanted to take. I just felt this opportunity was just so rare. The timing of where this organization is at, where the team's at, obviously the connection of being from here … I believe that this team has got such a great opportunity, and not just for the first few years of my contract. For me, what was important was all seven years, to really believe that there was a big window here to win and to be a part of something special, and to be from here, you start to get those emotions coming. It just felt right. From the meeting we had, to my feelings over the few days and then [Saturday], just really feeling right and it was what I wanted to do."
The Maple Leafs have qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past two seasons but have not won a series since 2004 or the Stanley Cup since 1967. They finished third in the Atlantic Division last season (49-26-7) and lost to the Bruins in the Eastern Conference First Round in seven games.
"Late last night it became apparent that this was the way John was leaning with his decision," Dubas said. "Then we had to work out a contract, obviously, very, very late last night into the morning and this morning."
Tavares had 84 points (37 goals, 47 assists) last season and his 621 points (272 goals, 349 assists) rank fifth in Islanders history and first among players who didn't play on New York's four consecutive Stanley Cup championship teams from 1980-83. He led the Islanders in scoring in seven of his nine NHL seasons and has finished no lower than second.
He has scored at least 24 goals in each season and has 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in 24 playoff games. He scored in the second overtime of a 2-1 win against the Florida Panthers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference First Round in 2016 to give the Islanders their only playoff series win since 1993.