On an opening night of excitement, nerves and trepidation, with a new team, and a new season, the sound grew louder, then even piercing-loud and that was before the puck was even dropped.
“And,” public address announcer Mike Ross bellowed, then paused at the newly named Scotiabank Arena and waited for the crowd.
“From Oakville, Ontario.”
Another breath, another pause, another half-second of waiting.
It was one of those moments of sound and fury he won’t forget, you won’t forget. There is nothing in sport that compares to the noise and the chill of a boxer walking to the ring for a championship fight in a definitive venue with the ring announcer meeting the pitch and the drama. The building begins to shake. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re just not sure what the reaction will be. Just that it has your body vibrating, your hands shaking, your nerves on edge.
And then it happens.
The applause went on and on and on for the newest of Maple Leafs. You don’t ever have a second chance to make a first impression. Not at home. Not like this. Not on a night where the Maple Leafs struggled to play their game and came away with an undeserved victory.
Fans don’t get that second chance to say hello to the great free agent, who grew up here. They made it count Wednesday night. They made it feel special. They brought texture to the new beginning. They made him feel special before the puck was even dropped to begin another NHL season, before he ever touched the puck: A celebration surrounding Tavares’ first game as a Leaf before there was a game.
If only the Leafs could have bottled the energy in the building as a team, take advantage of the emotion. There is no perfect way to come home, but the ending Wednesday night was almost perfect, and a win is a win and Tavares showed enough of himself, enough of his game, to begin to understand what exactly he will do for this hockey team all season long.
He scored his first goal of his Leafs career in his first game, sandwiched between two goals by Opening Night Auston Matthews, who leaves his signature to begin every season, but Tavares did much more than that. He had chances to score two other goals. He set up Nazem Kadri in the high slot for a scoring chance. He led the Leafs in shots and ice time among forwards. He sent in Mitch Marner for a semi-breakaway while playing shorthanded. His goal in the second period came with a puck rolling, leaving an opponent standing still, moving swiftly to the slot, firing a high puck over the blocker of Carey Price, who looked rather Carey Price-like in the Montreal goal.
He played the part of star before the game began and when the three stars were announced post-game, he was third star, after Matthews scored in overtime to beat Montreal.
Tavares was the Leafs best forward on a night when so many left their A-game behind. It was two goals for Matthews, who didn’t play great at the top of his game but still finished, a strong night for Nazem Kadri, a series of plays surrounded Tavares, even as linemates Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman were trying to find their place on what is either the first or second Leafs line. You take your pick.
There have been all kinds of touching moments for Tavares since signing with the Leafs on July 1. So many days have been different, exciting, but this is the kind of night you envision before it ever happens. You just don’t know how you will play. Whether you will score. Whether you will win. How will the new crowd react in what is ostensibly your home town?
“I’m sure it was a big sigh of relief of him to get the monkey off his back (with the goal),” said Matthews. “He can just play now. I can’t imagine what he was going through for the past three or four months and the hype leading up to his first game here. I’m happy for him. He’s a good player and I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of that soon.”
As much as he expected the start ovation, Tavares wasn’t sure what it would feel like, be like.
“It was tremendous,” he said. “To get that kind of welcome. That’s pretty special …
“I hope to make them proud.”
He did that on opening night. He left an impression. This was Game 1. So many nights of John Tavares to come.