Tavares healthy, ready for another chance at Stanley Cup with Maple Leafs

Because he has very little recollection of it.

Three-hundred-forty-six days after he left on a stretcher with a concussion and knee injury, the Maple Leafs captain will lead his team against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round (7 : 30 pm ET; ESPN2, CBC, SN, TVAS, BSSUN). For Tavares, the experience has left him embracing the chance to still play the game he loves.

“I think you get perspective going through something like that, just getting another opportunity,” Tavares said. “I’m really fortunate and looking forward to it. It’s a special time of year and I’m very fortunate for the opportunity and not taking it for granted.

“Unfortunately I went through something like that, but it is what it is and (I) just accepted it. (You) move forward and try to get better for it. (It) just gives you appreciation for playing the game and doing what we can do. “

[RELATED: Complete Maple Leafs vs. Lightning series coverage]

The 31-year-old was injured in Game 1 of the 2021 Stanley Cup First Round against the Montreal Canadiens in Toronto. He was able to skate on his own a week later but was not in any condition to rejoin the series and helplessly watched his Maple Leafs blow a 3-1 series lead and get eliminated by the Canadiens.

Relatively healthy 12 months later, he has his sights set on helping his team get past Tampa Bay, which is seeking its third straight Stanley Cup championship. Toronto has not won a playoff series since 2004.

“Clearly, obviously, a very good team,” Tavares said. “We all know what they’ve accomplished in the last number of years, the depth they have, the firepower, goaltending. So obviously they’re very deep, very proven and a heck of a test for us.”

Tavares knows all about being tested. When he arrived at training camp, there were questions about whether there would be any repercussions from the injuries he’d sustained earlier in the year. He answered those by producing a season in which he finished fourth on the Maple Leafs with 76 points (27 goals, 49 assists) in 79 games.

More importantly, his diligence in overcoming adversity was an example of leadership that his teammates have embraced.

“As his teammate, and I’ll speak for all of us, that’s just what you come to expect,” defenseman Morgan Rielly said. “He’s a guy that’s extremely motivated. He works extremely hard to truly focus on his craft.

“He put a lot of time in. Obviously going through tough injuries is extremely difficult on more than one level. So, for him to put the time in and keep his focus, push right through it, come back with a positive attitude and be our leader, it speaks volumes. “

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Sam Gagner was in shock.

The forward was in Michigan with some of his Detroit Red Wings teammates watching Game 1 of the Canadiens-Maple Leafs series last season on May 20, 2021. Tavares has been one of Gagner’s closest friends since they were kids playing on a backyard rink in Oakville , Ontario.

“When you suddenly see him lying on the ice, you’re scared,” Gagner said. “You’re scared for him. And you’re scared for his family.”

Tavares was injured when he fell near the blue line after being checked by Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot and then was hit in the head by the left knee of Montreal forward Corey Perry at 10:29 of the first period. The collision was accidental but still left a shaken Perry to say the sight of Tavares motionless on the ice sickened him.

“It wasn’t until they were taking him off the ice and he gave the thumbs up that you let out a heavy sigh,” Gagner said. “But you still did not know the extent of it.”

Tavares was rushed to St. Michael’s Hospital, where he was examined by the facility’s neurosurgical team and the Maple Leafs medical director. All the while, those close to him were understandably fearful and upset.

“It was very concerning,” John Tavares, his uncle and the all-time leading scorer in the National Lacrosse League, recalled Sunday. “When you see any player like that, let alone a family member, you’re concerned about health and safety. And here he was a new father too. All you wanted to do was make sure he’d get through it.”

After staying overnight, Tavares was home the next day under the supervision of Maple Leafs doctors. The knee injury was projected to sideline him for a minimum of two weeks, and no timetable was given for a return from the concussion.

“We were just happy he was OK and was told he would be able to have a normal life and be able to play again,” Uncle John said. “But when I spoke to John, he did not remember what happened.”

Six days after the incident, Tavares was back at the Maple Leafs practice facility. One day later, he was back on the ice skating on his own.

“Initially when something like that happens, you want him to take his time because knowing John, he wants to get out there and help his team,” Gagner said. “But with an injury like that, it’s scary. There’s life after hockey you have to worry about.

“Having said that, it was great seeing him training in the summer while we were hanging out. And I’m really happy to see him back and doing great now, playing so well. He’s a high character guy and he cares a ton. He wants nothing more than to win a Stanley Cup in Toronto. “

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If he’s able to help Toronto win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1967, Tavares and his teammates will have to somehow get past Tampa Bay.

For Tavares, that means trying to eliminate his childhood teammate Steven Stamkosthe Lightning captain.

Tavares and Stamkos started playing minor hockey against each other when they were each nine-years-old. Their most memorable matchup: Each scored a hat trick in a game in which Stamkos and the Markham Waxers defeated Tavares and the Mississauga Senators, 5-3.

They became teammates at age 11 on the Ontario Blues, a summer team that also included future NHL players Alex Pietrangelo (Vegas Golden Knights), Michael Del Zotto (Ottawa Senators), Cody Hodgson (retired) and Michael Hutchinson (now with Toronto of the American Hockey League). The stacked team went 49-0-1 over the next couple of seasons, the only loss coming in a game in which Tavares did not score in a sudden-death shootout.

Fast forward almost two decades. In 2019, Tavares watched Pietrangelo, then the captain of the St. Louis Blues, be awarded the Stanley Cup by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. In 2020 and 2021 he watched Stamkos do the same with Tampa Bay.

Is he jealous of his two friends and former teammates? How did he feel getting to see them hoist the Cup, something he’s still looking to do?

“I do not think about it as much from that standpoint,” Tavares said. “It’s more internal. Ever since I was a kid, you dream about playing in the NHL and watching a lot of great players, great teams, win the Stanley Cup and how hard that is from afar. Now you get to be a part of the quest for it. “

In 2016, the Maple Leafs made a big pitch for Stamkos, a pending unrestricted free agent, during the recruiting period prior to free agency. They brought in Toronto mayor John Tory to try to convince him to come home. Michael B. Medline, then-chief executive officer of Canadian Tire, was also present in an attempt to show the sponsorship possibilities that existed. But Stamkos wanted to stay in Tampa Bay and signed an eight-year, $ 68 million contract.

Two years later, the Maple Leafs were a much different team. They’d selected center Auston Matthews with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, and young players such as Rielly and forward Mitchell Marner were starting to evolve. When Tavares became a free agent, Toronto made a big pitch.

“We talked at the time before free agency,” Stamkos said. “He was very open about discussing it. The Toronto situation was much different than when they had pursued me. I just told him he should do what was best for him and his family.”

Tavares, who’d played the first nine seasons of his career with the New York Islanders after being the No. 1 pick at the 2009 NHL Draft, did just that. He signed a seven-year, $ 77 million contract with the Maple Leafs on July 1, 2018 and since has 274 points (119 goals, 155 assists) in 280 games.

“It worked out for both of us, don’t you think?” Stamkos said.

With one exception, of course: Tavares is still seeking that elusive Stanley Cup ring that his boyhood friends have.

“Sure, you’d love to win the Cup every year and sooner rather than later,” he said. “But everybody’s journey is different. So, I’m going about my business the best I can and working hard to have that opportunity.

“It starts [Monday]. “

If Tavares can overcome Stamkos and the Lightning the way he did his significant injuries 12 months ago, anything seems possible.

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