PARADISE, Newfoundland – Wearing days-old stubble and a weary smile, John Tavares looked every bit the new father as he arrived, a few days late, to Maple Leafs’ training camp on Sunday. And Tavares didn’t come alone – his newly re-signed linemate Mitch Marner joined him for the trip east, adding to the elation of Tavares’ big week.
“It’s been a hell of a few days,” Tavares heartily acknowledged on Sunday from Paradise Double Ice Complex. “Especially for myself, with my little guy and knowing I was going to have a partner flying in with me yesterday morning. It’s been really exciting to get him signed and get him in, but now the work starts.”
Tavares was appreciative of the mini paternity leave, allowing him to revel in the birth of his and wife Aryne’s first son, named Jace, on Wednesday. He put off flying with the rest of the team to St. John’s on Thursday, hanging back to see everything settled at home, and make some unforgettable first memories.
“[I wanted them] feeling good about everything post-delivery, and for me, feeling good about that [before] coming out here [was important],” Tavares said. “It’s a very emotional thing, and it’s still kicking in, really thinking I’m a dad, so it’s been pretty cool. I tried to soak in every minute, every little thing that he does. It’s pretty incredible.”
Once confident that wife and baby would be fine without him, Tavares made plans to head out on Saturday, but little did he know Marner would be going with him. When camp opened on Thursday in Toronto, Marner was still an unsigned restricted free agent, but contract talks intensified on Friday and the 22-year-old winger agreed to a six-year, $65.358 million deal late that night.
Marner and Tavares have been inseparable on the Leafs’ top line since Tavares joined the team last season, so it was only fitting they took off towards the start of a new campaign side by side. The ecstatic reception they received from masses of local fans following Marner’s contract news was beyond either of their expectations.
“It was pretty cool,” Marner admitted. “When we got off the plane there were people waiting for us there. When we were driving in to the hotel, you could just feel the love for us in this city.”
There was plenty of joy to go around for Marner too on Sunday, skating with his teammates for the first time since finalizing the new contract. It was the third day of on-ice activity for Toronto, but between full-speed practice reps, the ever-affable Marner still paused along the glass to take selfies with fans, and accepted hugs from coaches he hadn’t seen in months.
“[Today was] good,” Marner said after. “I thought back home I’ve been keeping up with my conditioning and all that stuff. I know it was hard to do but [I feel] good. Good practice, upbeat, good tempo. It was good to be out there.”
But as Tavares alluded to, he and Marner still face the significant task of working a new winger onto their line. With Zach Hyman expected to miss the first 14-15 regular season games recovering from an April ACL tear, head coach Mike Babcock is sliding Kasperi Kapanen into Hyman’s usual spot on Tavares’ left side.
That puts Kapanen on his off-wing, where he has limited previous experience, and he hasn’t necessarily shown the same forechecking and puck-hounding ability that Hyman boasts. But Babcock likes Kapanen’s potential to make the most of the opportunity.
“Kappy plays hard and works hard,” Babcock surmised. “He’ll have to adjust his game a bit, but he can.”
“I’ll let them do all the nice things and I’ll do the dirty work,” Kapanen added with a laugh. “Obviously when we break out I’m getting the puck a lot on my back hand and then it’s getting it to my forehand [that’s the challenge], but it’s just hockey and I’ll try and figure it out.”
Ironing out chemistry and timing with Kapanen could be a lot simpler for Tavares than balancing a busy hockey season with a more chaotic home life. Noting that the Leafs “[are] a pretty young team,” Tavares isn’t counting on many baby-rearing tips from around the dressing room, but will lean on veterans like Jason Spezza and Jake Muzzin if needed.
One way or another, he’ll have a thing or two to learn about compartmentalizing.
“You always put extra focus on [hockey] away from the rink, always trying to take care of yourself,” Tavares said. “But I think mentally it will be just an amazing thing to be a father and to go home and have him and my wife to look forward to and just cherish those times and those memories. That’s what life is all about.”
And Marner’s already hoping a new addition to the Tavares clan might have a certain positive effect on its patriarch when he is on the job.
“He might be a little looser now that he’s got a kid, which could be nice in the locker room,” Marner joked. “No, I’m super happy everyone’s healthy in the family and it’s great seeing how happy he is having a boy.”