When someone asks me whether I’d still consider myself a “fan” or not, I struggle a little and usually end up with a response of “it’s complicated”.

On one hand, it’s easy to get desensitized when your work life revolves around the game. When there’s no break, it ceases to be an escape. Every outcome comes with a task at hand; rarely is there a time to pause to appreciate it.

Not to mention, it’s not like the hockey world has been super rewarding to me from the fan side. The two teams I’ve invested the bulk of my time into since I was three years old have routinely risen, neared the finish line, and fallen apart just before they’ve crossed. Many favourite players have come with excitement and gone on sour, unfulfilled notes. Architects have shown up with great blueprints that end up getting built with insufficient or straight up shoddy materials. You begin to lose trust in it all.

At the same time, you still recognize the big moments when you see them, and they still feel big. When it’s all you know, it’s hard to escape that. Then there’s the part that so many others in media use as their cop-out – cheering for people. The game eventually becomes personal; friends and acquaintances are the ones end up in boardrooms, on benches, on the ice. If the vast majority of those people find themselves in one organization, though…

Yeah, I guess I’m still invested a bit. More than 99% of my hockey watching time will go without showing so much as a facial expression, but the moments still exist where the outcomes matter to you. This summer, there was no bigger evidence of that for me than the night of June 30th.

It’s a little after a friend’s birthday party, one where I distracted myself with arcade games (I’m partial to Galaga), pizza, and craft beer. We’re sitting in this park somewhat near Liberty Village with a couple of cider cans we grabbed from the only place that was still open. I pull out my phone. Scroll through a Twitter list of industry people I’ve figured out to be the closest to helpful for information coming out of the Leafs, Sharks, Islanders, and CAA. Nothing definite, but one promising Tweet, perhaps an accidentally-on-purpose hint. Pop over to Facebook Messenger, and see a message from a friend. “Get some sleep soon. You’re going to need it tomorrow.”

A little more at ease, I put my focus back on my friends for a little while longer before finding my way home.

John Tavares represents a bit of a bookmark in my hockey life. He’s the last player that I was really able to “look up to” as a fan, being a little older than a year older than me with draft rivals that were in some cases within months apart. The following year was going to have players younger than me in it, and, especially when you’re a teenager, it’s hard to idolize someone younger than you.

Young Tavares was a special player. He still is, but watching him chase records and keep the OHL in the casual spotlight even in the big markets was a sight to behold as a kid. Singlehandedly, he was the reason why I started paying more attention to junior hockey, and the buzz about the Marlies attempting to circumvent the rules to sign him in his draft year made me think more about the AHL. He wasn’t bulldozing opponents, he wasn’t torching them with elite footspeed, but the release of his shot was staggeringly quick for a kid his age, his hands were slippery smooth, and most importantly, he was always in the position to make something happen.

That’s what made him a can’t miss player; not quite seen as “Generational” like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were a few years prior, but a true cornerstone. We talk a lot about “guys you win with” in hockey, and when you hear the old-school guys describe what they think that means, you find that it’s not completely without merit. They tend to use it as an excuse to back players who aren’t particularly good at what they do, but there is one element that rings true, and it’s that these guys they find themselves in love with are ones who put themselves in positions to succeed.

After all, hockey is, by design, the sport most dictated by sheer luck. But luck is a funny thing; you’re more likely to find yourself in a lucky situation if you give yourself more opportunities to be lucky, and if you’re good at what you do, you’ll harness those moments and turn it into something. That’s what made Tavares so special; he knew exactly were to be, worked always worked hard to get there, and had the talent to make the most of his opportunities. He was the guy you trusted the most to capitalize on the opportunity, the guy who always kept his cool when doing so, and also the guy who could generate the most of those opportunities. If it didn’t work once, you knew he was going to get another one.

That’s never stopped for him, and it’s a big part of why Tavares has remained one of my favourite players. The composure has never gone away, the constant strive to be available and get better has never slowed down, and he himself has sped up; not that anyone will confuse him with Connor McDavid, but all concerns of him keeping up with the pace of play are long gone.

Since coming into the league, he’s been a force. From his rookie season on, Tavares ranks 5th in the league in goals, 15th in assists, and 9th in points. Een on a per-game basis, to account for guys who haven’t played in all nine seasons, he remains 9th, 20th, and 12th respectively. What makes it so impressive, too, is that he’s done it on a team that has perennially struggled, and has found a way to elevate so many of his teammates. Time and time again, the Islanders would find players who were good in their own right, stick them with Tavares, and they’d soar. Good leaving the Islanders to make great player money became routine, though the organization was never really able to string to get much time with their own fully assembled group.

Through all that, though, Tavares was respected. The league knew that he was a guy who rose to the occasion; be it as the third period and double overtime hero in the Islanders’ first playoff series victory since 1993, or his insane International record; be it World Juniors, World Championships, World Cups, or The Olympics, Tavares has become one of the top performers in Canadian men’s hockey history.

That ability to elevate himself and that unbelievable knack of on-ice situational awareness were no doubt what made him a player of interest for so many teams. Even for a team as deep up front as the Maple Leafs, he is likely to be a game changer. Perhaps more so, actually; his presence takes pressure off an already stacked group, you know you can play him with just about anyone, and in any situation. Not to mention, the type of player, and the type of person that this team is trying to build; smart, methodical, creative, talented, and driven. That injection of talent speaks for itself, but it’s just as important for them to have the completed blueprint of what they’ve hoped for in front of their faces for the foreseeable future.

So yeah, there’s a lot of nostalgia and memories involved in why I was hoping that one of my favourite players would play for a team that I’ve watched almost every game of since I was a young child, and will continue to watch. There’s a lot of practicality, knowing that he’s the level of talent that could positively alter the course of even the deepest, most talented franchise.

But there’s more to it than that.

John Tavares came home. But we’re doing a disservice to the how and the why that matters and the what that means by simplifying it. The next evening, the same friend who told me to get some sleep the night before and I were walking by the newly-named Scotiabank Arena. Inside the team store, jerseys were already hanging on the walls, ready to be sold the next day (by the following morning, the store had run out of the letter “A” for the nameplates). They were surprised at how big of a deal the signing already was. My response, maybe a bit overdramatic, was along the lines of:

“This isn’t a normal hockey move. It’s bigger than hockey. It’s a message. It’s cultural.”

It was a superstar player coming home, but it was more than that. It was a superstar player coming home in his prime. It was a superstar player coming home, in his prime, long term. It was a free agent signing that was among the most substantial in the history of the sport, one that could change the landscape forever, and it was because someone wanted to come here.

Not just any superstar either. It was the one that the team tried to cheat the rules to get as a teenager. It was the one that they bottomed out to try to select in his draft year. The one that they patiently waited for, but seeing him appear to be happy in a somewhat far away land, gave up hope would ever show up. But now he was here, against all odds; the one that most wanted above all the others, but felt least likely to actually get, had chosen to come home.

Home, after years, decades, of Toronto being talked as an opt-in death sentence. That there was no way anyone would be crazy enough to do it.

But what was important was that it wasn’t a decision that was made out of delusion, out of tied hands, or any other weird outside factor. It was an extremely deliberate one, that came right down to the wire, made by an extremely detail-oriented player, with a lot of respect for the pieces that most of us didn’t dream this team would have when we were first hoping to see him wear blue and white, presented by a group of people who tapped directly into his deepest interests that may not have been able to give their proper pitch without a shift in the boardroom just weeks prior. It was the sensible decision, the logical decision, but still an emotional one.

When Tavares steps on the ice tonight for his first proper, official game, that’s what will make it one of those special moments for me, above all else. Something I’ve realized most of all when wrestling with how I’d define “fandom”, is that caring about this team is first and foremost about the fact that they represent a city that I’ve lived my entire life in and have loved for every moment of it. When I was younger, the Leafs were still our main outward expression to the world, and for most of my youth, that wasn’t a good thing. But Toronto has grown in a lot of ways over the years; socially, politically, culturally, physically (be it by population or by a mess of skyscrapers), or even through the presence of our sports teams.

It’s all been coming together here for the last little while, into a city that you can show off to the world with legitimate pride rather than just ingrained over-confidence. The only thing that was left, really, was for this tangled mess of a hockey team to sort itself out and become something that most people from here could be proud to show the world as well, once again. They were well on their way without making a splash as big as this, but Tavares’ decision to come here; one that was as shocking as it was deliberate, was what truly tipped that over the edge.

After all, it’s not so much about a better hockey team, about a guy coming home. It’s about home meaning something again, perhaps more than it has in a long time.

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