Imagine cheering for a cursed franchise your whole life. Imagine desperately hoping for a Stanley Cup or, heck, a trip to the final for the first time since 1967. Or how about just winning a series for the first time since 2004? Or beating the Boston Bruins for once? Or no longer choking away massive leads in playoff games?
Imagine enduring those trademark longings of every beaten-down Toronto Maple Leafs fan…while playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. What does the rollercoaster feel like when you’re driving it instead of riding it?
We can ask John Tavares. He lives a waking fantasy. He’s two years into his career as a Leaf and one year into his captaincy, and when he talks about his experience, he does so as someone who never fully separated himself from his childhood fandom. The “jammies,” which were actually bed sheets, by the way, can attest to that. Because he lives the dual existence of a diehard supporter who just happens to play for the team he loves, Tavares is more uniquely suited to the burdensome role of Leafs captain than any player on earth. The player-coach no longer exists in the NHL, but he is the league’s unofficial player-fan.
To understand how Tavares, 30, navigated his first season as Leafs captain, it’s best to look at it through the lens of those Blue and White diehards who sip Tim Hortons coffee and “plan the parade” after every win.
Leaf fans dream. They assume great players always want to sign in hockey’s most smothering, pressure-packed market. They were sure Steven Stamkos would come in 2016. In 2018, Tavares turned Leafs Nation’s wishful thinking into tangible joy when he signed a seven-year, $77-million deal. “ ‘Now you play for the Maple Leafs,’ ” Tavares said, quoting his own realization. “Even though I grew up around it and am from the area, when you are a part of the team, you feel the connection and how the team is so intertwined with the culture of this city, the community, the people, just the history of the Maple Leafs and the game of hockey and how much that is a part of who the people are, what the city is all about. It’s just amazing, the history and tradition of the Maple Leafs, so that has been tremendous to experience and now to be a part of. Just how passionate people are about the team and wanting to win the Stanley Cup, that’s been phenomenal.”
Leaf fans know their history. They masochistically drag half a century’s worth of heartbreak around like a rusty anchor. They lament Kerry Fraser’s missed call and Nazem Kadri’s suspensions. They ignite Twitter with troll jobs any time the Leafs take a three-goal lead into the third period. Tavares gets it. He lived it as a kid. He understands the pain of Leaf fandom. He’s now on a mission to cure it but, so far, he’s played on teams that have added to it. Toronto led the Bruins 3-2 in their 2019 playoff series and couldn’t close it out. While the Leafs staged an all-timer of a comeback in Game 4 of their 2020 play-in series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the blown 3-0 lead in Game 3 still cost them the series in the long run. Tavares wears that, too, and he vowed to get better after Toronto bowed out in its opening-round series for a fourth straight year. “I know it starts with me being the captain of the team and the example I set, the responsibility I have, so I know I have to be a lot better and do the best job that I can,” he said.
Leaf fans are obsessive. They expect constant updates and gobble up news tidbits and soundbites daily. Tavares craved that information as a young fan, and that prepared him for the role of captain now. He’s the first one to talk to reporters after every game, win or lose, and he’ll often talk longer than is expected of him. Is it a big change compared to wearing the ‘C’ for the New York Islanders, who are a relatively small fish in a massive pond of major pro sports teams?
Yes, Tavares says, but he doesn’t feel overwhelmed by Toronto’s media attention. He gets excited by the support if people stop him in the street. They’re usually respectful, he says, and give him the space he needs. He feels his job as captain isn’t simply to be one of the team’s best players and lead his teammates. He fashions himself as a conduit between the team, the media and the fans. He enjoys his time away from cameras with his wife Aryne and one-year-old son Jace, but he’s far more comfortable in the public eye than most stars. It’s not that Tavares is a gregarious quote machine. It’s that he understands what Leaf fans expect from their captain, as he’s walked in their shoes. “The biggest thing in Toronto is, with the following of the team media-wise and the fan base, you are the voice of the team,” Tavares said. “There’s that constant communication and representing how the group is doing, how the guys are doing, how we are doing as a team. You need a good understanding of all that. You are the messenger to the fan base and to the community.”
Leaf fans are often stuffed with knowledge and factoids about the team. They memorize salary-cap figures and know which players can be squirreled away on LTIR. They can tell you Travis Dermott’s 5-on-5 expected goals against. They use online roster-building tools to act as GM Kyle Dubas and sculpt their own future Leaf lineups – somehow shoehorning Alex Pietrangelo onto the 2020-21 payroll, of course.
While Tavares doesn’t offer opinions on how to build the roster, he does know the team like few others. A fan would be proud. He has an intricate understanding of his team’s chemistry, and that proved particularly important last season. When the Leafs fired Mike Babcock as coach, AHL Marlies bench boss Sheldon Keefe parachuted behind the bench in mid-November. He leaned on Tavares to learn as much as he could about his new charges. They also worked closely together during the COVID-19 shutdown, analyzing what the team had to work on. “In my new situation with so many new things to deal with, from being a mid-season hire to the pause and preparing for Phase 2 and Phase 3, my communication and relationship with John was vital,” Keefe said. “He was very helpful to me, giving a sense of where the pulse of the team was and what the team needed from me and also what I needed from him and our team. Through our communications together as well as our regular leadership group meetings, we were able to share ideas and really be clear about how both sides feel. That relationship is important to me.”
Before the Leafs unveiled Tavares as captain on 2019-20’s opening night, there was some buzz about Auston Matthews getting the job. Whether the incident in which he allegedly dropped his pants (not his boxers) in a parking lot in front of a female security guard impacted the decision to name Tavares captain, we’ll never know. What we do know is Tavares has been an ideal fit in his role in the eyes of his teammates. They speak glowingly about his work ethic and the example he sets.
But Tavares is quick to downplay his influence. What he says he learned about leadership in his five seasons captaining the Isles is that it’s not a solo job. He defers a lot to the team’s leadership group, which includes alternate captains Morgan Rielly, Matthews and Mitch Marner, goalie Frederik Andersen, defenseman Jake Muzzin and winger Zach Hyman. “He’s been great,” Marner said. “He brings that steady leadership, that calmness to our team. He comes in with that attitude every day of making sure everyone’s going to try and get better and push himself to the limit.”
The limit, however, hasn’t been good enough yet. The Leafs set a franchise record for points the season before Tavares arrived. Since then, they’ve regressed in points percentage in consecutive seasons and haven’t won a playoff series. Tavares has done his part to help his team, sure. Only nine NHLers have scored more goals since he joined the Leafs and, among 340 forwards to log 1,000-plus minutes at 5-on-5 the past two seasons, he’s 24th in points per 60. But the Leafs have played four games the past two seasons in which they were facing elimination and/or had a chance to eliminate their opponent, and they’ve gone 1-3 and been outscored 15-7.
They haven’t developed the cold-hearted finisher’s mentality as a group. It was clear they couldn’t enter 2020-21 with the same lineup. The dismantling began in late August when Dubas shipped out winger Kasperi Kapanen for a 2020 first-round pick and continued in October with the signings of defensemen T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian and forwards Wayne Simmonds, Jimmy Vesey and Joe Thornton. “When we have high expectations, and we don’t come close to meeting them and we’re in the situation we’re in, obviously there will be questions,” Tavares said. “People may expect large changes to the significant look of the team or whatnot. For me, we have tremendous youth, and it’s been talked about a lot. The harder thing to do is stay the course of the group and for us to look internally to each other, asking a lot of tough questions and challenging each other to be better.”
Tavares may champion the core group and express his belief it can remain mostly intact and mature into a winner, but he can’t forget about the Leaf fan side of him. That side should recognize this team still has holes and needs to transform from an all-finesse structure to a multifaceted one. John Tavares the captain may not admit that. Perhaps John Tavares the fan knows it deep down. A Stanley Cup run depends on it.