John Tavares on signing with Maple Leafs: ‘It just felt right’

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John Tavares spent his Saturday afternoon pacing at his home, torn between two cities.

After a week in Los Angeles where he met with representatives from six teams, Tavares’ list of potential destinations was whittled down to two: the Maple Leafs and Islanders. On one hand, he had the comfort of staying on Long Island and remaining with the franchise that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2009. The tug in the other direction was going home to Toronto and joining a team on the rise, and one that could potentially change into a Stanley Cup contender if he decided to join them.

Speaking to the media on Sunday afternoon, Tavares explained that his decision to sign a seven-year, $77 million deal with the Maple Leafs, which he finally decided on late Saturday night, “just felt right.”

“It was quite the process, one of the toughest weeks,” he said. “It was tough. You’re in one place for so long. You get so embedded, your roots are so deep in there and you care so much about the people and the people that have cared about you. It really took the right opportunity and the right fit. I thought it couldn’t be beat and certainly being from here and I think with where this team’s at and how good and young their core players are, and obviously seeing in recent weeks how the Marlies did and what the future holds with much more talent and the job they’ve done here, it was just hard to turn down.”

“This opportunity was just so rare. It just felt right,” he added.

[What’s next for Islanders with Tavares out?]

As he explained in several Tweets following the news, Tavares wanted to live out his childhood dream of playing in Toronto — he even showed off the Maple Leafs bed set he used as a kid. While the transition after nine years on Long Island would be different, he has a relationship with Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, who coached the 27-year-old at the 2014 Olympics and 2016 World Cup of Hockey with Team Canada. And as he mentioned, there was the level of excitement of joining a franchise heading in a very different direction than his old one.

“It was hard to turn down this opportunity,” Tavares said.

Tavares and the Maple Leafs don’t visit the Islanders until Feb. 28 at Barclays Center. Maybe, as the fan base processes today’s news and the fall out, the raw emotions shown by some will subside over the next seven months and it will a night of appreciation for their former captain and not one featuring a chorus of boos during the tribute video.

The Islanders organization meant a lot to Tavares, which played a conflicting role in his decision-making process. When asked about it during Sunday’s press conference, he became a little choked up while reflecting about his time there. But while he’s leaving, he knows there’s still plenty of good pieces there to build around.

“That place means a lot to me. Everything I’ve been through there, the impact people had on me, the things we went through as a group, teammates that have been through there,” he said. “It was such a hard decision because just really how special it was. It’s a great organization, a tremendous fan base, tremendously loyal, tremendously passionate. 

“If you’ve ever been to a game with Islander fans, it’s something really unique… Just what I want to reiterate [from his Tweets] is just really thank you. Thank you for the impact that you made on me. I don’t know if words can describe how much I appreciated my time there, the impact everyone made on me.

“I think the organization’s in great hands. Some great people there. Obviously some new faces that are going to do some great things, I believe, and there’s some great talent there… I think the future’s bright there.”

MORE: John Tavares signs with Maple Leafs to live ‘childhood dream’

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.