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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO — John Tavares still can’t remember the end of his last game. He doesn’t particularly want to. 

The Maple Leafs’ captain has heard the details, though. He knows it was early in Game 1 of Toronto’s first-round playoff series against Montreal last May when Ben Chiarot knocked him to the ice and Corey Perry’s knee inadvertently connected with his head. The blow knocked Tavares unconscious; he came-to in a panicked daze, and was stretchered off to the hospital.

Fortunately, Tavares recovered quickly. But the Leafs’ first-round implosion robbed him of another opportunity to play. So he’s been patiently waiting for that next chance, which will finally come on Saturday in Toronto’s exhibition game against the Canadiens. 

“I'm excited. And honestly, there's probably a little more to it for me than some other years in exhibition [because of] just coming off the injury,” Tavares said following the Leafs’ morning skate. “So I’m just turning any of that nervous energy or anxiety towards [a return] into excitement. This is another step towards [a new season] so I'm just excited about getting out there.”

Tavares re-iterated that he did hear from both Perry and Chiarot after the fact last spring, and felt their messages were “thoughtful and genuine.” All along, Tavares has expressed his belief there was no ill-intent on anyone’s part in what happened. He’s also been steadfast about not feeling a need to see the re-play of it for himself. 

But Tavares has reflected on the sequence at length. He's questioned if anything he did - or didn't do - contributed to the outcome. In the end, Tavares found those internal conversations to be fruitless and counterproductive in getting back to what he loves. 

“It was obviously such a weird play and incident from how everyone has described it to me and even my memory up until basically when I was trying to sidestep Chiarot,” Tavares said. “It's just one of those things that is out of my control and you can't really look to [whether] I could have done something better or differently. It’s just moving forward and trusting in my continued commitment, and just enjoying the game. It’s obviously brought so much good into my life since I started playing when I was three years old so I think just appreciating each and every day [is key].”

Given what Tavares endured, head coach Sheldon Keefe didn’t hesitate to put him in the lineup for the Leafs’ first preseason game. And Tavares will have a totally new-look line for the outing - he’s flanked now by free agent signee Michael Bunting and his former New York Islanders teammate Josh Ho-Sang, who’s with Toronto on a professional tryout.

“We wanted to get him in just to get it out there [and done],” Keefe said. “We didn't scrimmage in our first two days [of training camp]. But even if you're at a scrimmage, no one is going near John Tavares in our scrimmages so this is game-like for him; it's a big step. He's put a tremendous amount of work in from what I've seen from him in the first two days and this morning skate today - he's ready. He's focused. He's prepared.”

Tavares didn’t leave any of that to chance for the coming season, either for himself or his teammates. The 31-year-old invited a bunch of ​Leafs teammates to his cottage in late August to participate in some intense training sessions and equally-serious bonding time. Wayne Simmonds said on Friday that those in attendance “got real” about how last season ended, and Tavares said that more relaxed environment was the perfect place to do so. 

“It was a little change of scenery for a lot of guys, a good time to get out of the city and get to know some of the new guys more, especially away from the rink,” Tavares said. “You really can open up and get to understand people, get them feeling comfortable in their own skin and you break those barriers down before training camp. We put in some good work, pushed each other on and off the ice and built that chemistry and those bonds that we want.”

Playing on a line with Ho-Sang has also allowed Tavares to re-ignite the relationship they had for a couple of years in New York. Ho-Sang hasn’t taken the most linear path since his last NHL action, during the Islanders’ 2018-19 campaign. After bouncing around the American Hockey League in 2019-20, Ho-Sang suited up for Orebro HK and Linkopings HC in the Swedish Hockey League last season.

Ho-Sang spoke at length on Thursday about the impact that experience in Sweden had on him personally and professionally. Tavares concurs there is something different about the 25-year-old winger he’s getting to know again now. 

“He seems a little more comfortable in his skin I think,” Tavares said. “He's put in a lot of good work here in the last 6-8 weeks in the facility and preparing for training camp and I think that's given him a bit of an understanding of how we do things here and just being a little more comfortable there too. He's matured on and off the ice and is excited about the opportunity and wants to make an impact.”

Tavares is ready to help Ho-Sang do that on Saturday. Preseason games are usually just about shaking the rust off for veterans, but when that puck drops again for Tavares, it just might be for the most meaningful exhibition match he ever plays. 

“It's been very fortunate the way that it's worked out, not just that he's ready to play here tonight but also that he bounced back quite quickly all considered when it happened,” Keefe said. "We were very fortunate because it could have been a lot worse. This is one last little box to check here for his return and turning the page.”