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Tavares homecoming to Maple Leafs comes with extra pressure

Picking Toronto brings 'unique challenge' of playing where he grew up

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

John Tavares used to return to Toronto quietly. He would go back to his hometown each summer and skate at the arena where he played for the Toronto Marlboros of the Greater Toronto Hockey League as a 12-, 13- and 14-year-old.


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"He could hide in the shadows," Marlboros president Jim Nicoletti said. "Nobody even knew he was around. But now?"

Nicoletti laughed. Tavares signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs as an unrestricted free agent Sunday. Even before his introductory press conference at Scotiabank Arena, formerly known as Air Canada Centre, fans bought new No. 91 jerseys.

"It's a whole different thing," Nicoletti continued. "I don't think Johnny Tavares has ever experienced anything like this. It's going to be a unique challenge for him. This is a totally different environment. But if there is one guy who can do it, he can do it."

Video: John Tavares on his new deal with the Maple Leafs

Playing at home isn't for everyone, especially when home is Toronto. There is a particular pressure to perform in front of family, friends and hometown fans, and in the so-called Centre of the Hockey Universe, where the media glare is intense and the Maple Leafs haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967.

Another star center and captain from the Toronto area, Steven Stamkos, could have gone home as an unrestricted free agent two years ago. He listened to a pitch from the Maple Leafs during the interview period, as Tavares did, but decided to stay with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that selected him No. 1 in the 2008 NHL Draft.

Tavares almost did essentially the same and stayed with the New York Islanders, the team that selected him No. 1 in the 2009 draft. He's a loyal, low-key guy.

"It's sometimes even harder for those players to come home," said Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, who grew up in the Toronto area too. "They have to sort of feel safe, that this is a place where they're going to be given every opportunity to have success, because it's not just you. It's your family, it's the people you grew up with, that are going to go on that journey with you."

But Tavares could feel safer at home now than Stamkos could have then. 

Two years ago, Toronto had finished last in the NHL and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs 10 out of 11 years. Forward William Nylander, the No. 8 pick in the 2014 draft, had played 22 NHL games. Forwards Mitchell Marner, the No. 4 pick in 2015, and Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick in 2016, hadn't debuted in the NHL yet.

Now Toronto has made the playoffs in back-to-back years. Nylander, Marner and Matthews aren't prospects anymore; they're key players. General manager Kyle Dubas said the Maple Leafs could pitch "who we are rather than what we can be," though they can be much better with Tavares, Matthews and Nazem Kadri down the middle.

Two years ago, the Lightning were coming off losses in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and the 2016 Eastern Conference Final.

Video: Brian Burke on Tavares' deal, Isles' needs and more

The Islanders now? They have missed the playoffs in back-to-back years and six times in Tavares' nine seasons. Though they added stability and credibility by hiring general manager Lou Lamoriello on May 22 and coach Barry Trotz on June 21, they had to pitch what they can be rather than who they are.

After meeting with six teams at his agent Pat Brisson's office in Los Angeles last week -- the Islanders, Lightning, Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Dallas Stars and San Jose Sharks -- Tavares flew home to Toronto.

"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 me become the man that I am today," Tavares said. "My gut was just tearing apart, my heart was tearing apart, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And yesterday was one heck of a day. You 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's at, where the team's at, obviously the connection of being from here. I believe that this team's got such a great opportunity and not just for the first few years of my contract. But for me, what was important was all seven years, to really believe that there was a big window here to win and be a part of something special."

In the end, Tavares turned down an eight-year contract, which only the Islanders could offer him under the collective bargaining agreement and left the only NHL organization he'd known. He turned down more money and better weather and chose more attention and pressure.

"I knew it was maybe a little bit of the uncomfortable thing to do," Tavares said. "But I didn't want that to hold me back from taking a chance at a great opportunity."

Coach Mike Babcock couldn't have said that better himself.

After the news broke Sunday, Tavares tweeted a picture of him sleeping in his bed as kid cocooned in Maple Leafs sheets. He also tweeted a statement that concluded, it was "time to live my childhood dream."

"This is a real, true, honest-to-goodness Canadian kid who made good and is coming back to his hometown," Nicoletti said. "He can do something for this city, this country, the game, that nobody else can do. … We're so proud of him, and now he's coming home. It's great. Great. Great. Great."

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