TORONTO — John Tavares is the new captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The team made the announcement during Wednesday night’s pre-game ceremony before the NHL season opener against the Ottawa Senators, filling a role that had been vacant for more than 3 1/2 years.
The 25th captain in Leafs history, Tavares held the same job with the New York Islanders for five seasons before signing with Toronto in unrestricted free agency on July 1, 2018.
The 29-year-old centre grew up in Oakville, Ont. — a suburb just west of the city — and dreamed of suiting up for his hometown team as a kid.
Now he also has the ‘C’ on his left shoulder, joining a list of Leafs greats that includes Hap Day, Syl Apps, Ted Kennedy, George Armstrong, Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler, Rick Vaive, Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin.
Tavares, who scored a career-high 47 goals and 88 points in 2018-19 with the Leafs, said last week it would be a “special honour” to be named captain.
“We know about the history, the tradition and what it would mean to the city and the fan base,” said the first pick in the 2009 NHL draft. “It’s not something you can ever take for granted, but at the same time I don’t think you want to change who you are.
“You just want continue to just try to be better every day.”
In 751 career games with New York and Toronto, Tavares has 319 goals and 709 points to go along with 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists) in 31 playoff games. He signed a seven-year, US$77-million contract with the Leafs some 15 months ago after nine seasons with the Islanders.
Star centre Auston Matthews and defenceman Morgan Rielly were viewed as the other candidates for the Leafs’ captaincy, which Dion Phaneuf held from June 14, 2010, until he was traded to the Senators on Feb. 9, 2016.
Matthews and Rielly, along with Mitch Marner, were introduced Wednesday night as alternate captains.
There was debate in Toronto last week if Matthews was still suitable for the role after news broke that he faced a charge of disorderly conduct and disruptive behaviour stemming from an alleged incident in his hometown of Scottsdale, Ariz., in May.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Toronto head coach Mike Babcock said before Wednesday’s game that the team’s brain trust wanted to be 100 per cent certain of its choice.
“We didn’t name a captain for a long time because we didn’t think it was obvious,” he said. “We talked a ton about this. We talked to our players about it, we talked to our staff about it, we talked to our management team about it.
“In the end we made the right decision for the Leafs.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 2, 2019.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press