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John Tavares, #91 of the New York Islanders, grabs a puck in front of Morgan Rielly, #44 of the Toronto Maple Leafs, during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on March 9, 2015 in Toronto. The Islanders defeated the Maple Leafs 4-3 in overtime.Claus Andersen

John Tavares is a Toronto guy, a shy guy and someone whose main relationship goal is winning a Stanley Cup.

If you put those qualities into a pro-hockey dating algorithm, it matches you with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Or, since they’re not available, with several other U.S.-based teams that have spent the past week giving Mr. Tavares the look while suggestively waving around a blank cheque.

But on Sunday, the most desirable free agent in the NHL chose the Toronto Maple Leafs. About an hour after the signing window opened at noon, the club announced the 27-year-old had agreed to a seven-year deal worth US$77-million.

If you are from Toronto and under 60 years of age, it is difficult to describe exactly what you felt when you heard that. It wasn’t surprise. Or, at least, not exactly.

It was more like bewilderment.

It’s how you would feel if a friend called you up and told you to look out the window because it had started raining frogs – “That can’t really happen, can it?”

You got some small glimmer of it three years ago when Mike Babcock was hired as the Leafs’ head coach. It didn’t make any sense. Mr. Babcock had always before struck you as a smart person. He was supposed to know how this works. You use the Leafs to jack up the asking price. Then you go somewhere else, somewhere that doesn’t have call-in shows to critique other call-in shows for not sufficiently critiquing you.

If Mr. Babcock was a shock, Mr. Tavares is a lightning strike.

No hockey player with his bonafides – a hall-of-fame talent, in the midst of his prime, with the choice to go anywhere he likes – has ever picked this city and this organization. That’s because Toronto has plenty of two things players hate – civic pressure and Canadian taxes.

That Mr. Tavares was raised here makes it even more remarkable. He must know – or at least, has no excuse not to know – what he’s getting into.

This morning, the Leafs will also be acclimating themselves to a new reality. They are no longer comers. The rebuild is over. It may not be used ever again as an excuse. With Mr. Tavares centring the first line, Toronto has entered its championship window.

That’s the second most surprising thing about this. The first is that Mr. Tavares was available at all.

Since being drafted first over all in 2009, he has consistently been one of the dozen or so best in the league. He ticks every scouting box. Beyond skill and statistics, he is renowned as someone of pristine character. It’s almost unheard of that this type of NHL product makes it to the open market.

If Mr. Tavares is not the sort of player who gets talked about a lot – not at the Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid or even Auston Matthews-level – that’s down to personality and geography.

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Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. right, sits alongside John Tavares's fiancee Aryne Fuller and MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum as Tavares signs with Toronto on July 1, 2018.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

As a public speaker, Mr. Tavares is a sort of human white-noise machine – monotone, dead-eyed, a tendency to repeat back questions as answers.

“It was hard to turn down this opportunity. It is obviously one of the premier organizations not just in hockey, but in sports,“ Mr. Tavares said at a news conference on Sunday afternoon. “I’m very fortunate to be here, and happy to call myself a Maple Leaf.”

Some guys know the Code. Mr. Tavares talks as though he wrote it.

Also, he has spent his career in the heretofore escape-proof hockey prison they’ve built on Long Island. For punishment duty, he pushed a boulder up a hill while New York Islanders’ executives stood on the other side pushing it back down.

The mediocrity around Mr. Tavares obscured his gifts. After a while, he seemed used to it. He did his job, let others do theirs and didn’t complain.

That happy reticence was why most people figured Mr. Tavares would remain in New York. For months now, he’d said staying would be fine by him. Of course, he never went so far as to do something about it.

In the hours leading up to midnight on Saturday – his last chance to agree to an eight-year deal with his current club – people waited to hear that this was one of those NHL free-agent head fakes. Another great Canadian player was toying with the idea of leaving an underloved franchise down south to become a rock star back home, but ducking at the last minute.

Midnight passed without news. You started to get an inkling.

Still, it would’ve made sense if Mr. Tavares had chosen the San Jose Sharks – a win-right-now team – or the Boston Bruins – a win-every-year sort of club.

Those cities also offered the public cover that comes with playing hockey in the United States, the kind Mr. Tavares seemed to covet. He might be famous, but not so famous that he couldn’t go to the store without being recognized.

The money was going to be the same wherever he went. He could keep putting in an honest, nightly shift and earn his millions in peace.

Then, out of nowhere, Mr. Tavares chose the harder and far more ambitious route. You realized that while you have watched him for years, you’ve never really known him.

If he wants to go to the store now, he’s going to have to shake a dozen hands. Unless it’s happening in the backyard of the Tavares home, there are no more “quiet nights out.”

In agreeing to be associated with the Toronto Maple Leafs, you give up the casual anonymity the rest of us take for granted. I’ve watched club president Brendan Shanahan walk into a restaurant and watched every head in the place turn, then stay turned. It takes a particular sort of person to adapt to that lifestyle. Having never before shown any inclination to live that way, Mr. Tavares has now embraced it.

Simultaneous with the signing being announced, he put out several co-ordinated messages on social media.

One was a grainy photo from Mr. Tavares’s boyhood. It shows him in bed, sweetly asleep and tucked up to his chin by Maple Leafs sheets. The caption reads: “Not everyday you can live a childhood dream.”

We’ve heard plenty of Toronto-born athletes talk this way. Mr. Tavares is the highest-profile one to walk it.

If the Leafs win a Cup in the next couple of years – and that is now the one and only organizational goal – he will probably get most of the credit.

If they don’t, he will absolutely get most of the blame.

However it turns out, Mr. Tavares has already gone in the space of a few hours from famous to all-caps FAMOUS. He’s traded the certainty of a nice, quiet life for a chance at becoming a legend.

This must all feel odd for him, possibly overwhelming.

If it makes him feel any better, this kind of Toronto hockey miracle seems far more bizarre to everyone else in the city.

Five Things to Know About John Tavares:

  • He signed a six-year, US$33-million contract with the Islanders in September, 2011, after completing his entry-level deal. He signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday, ending the saga of one of the most highly sought-after free agents in NHL history. The 27-year-old will make US$77-million over the next seven seasons, for an average annual salary cap hit of $11-million.
  • The Mississauga product was granted “exceptional player” status to join the Ontario Hockey League at the age of 15 in 2005. Tavares was selected first over all in the OHL draft by the Oshawa Generals, and would go on to score an OHL-record 215 goals with 218 assists in 247 regular-season games. He added 56 points (20 goals, 36 assists) in 38 playoff outings.
  • Tavares helped Canada win back-to-back titles at the world junior hockey championships. He had four goals and an assist in seven tournament games in 2008 before putting up an incredible eight goals and seven assists in six games in 2009 in Ottawa, including a memorable hat trick against the United States on New Year’s Eve.
  • The first overall pick in the 2009 NHL draft by the New York Islanders, Tavares has 272 goals and 349 assists for 621 points in 669 regular-season games. The team qualified for the playoffs in just three of his nine years in the Big Apple, but Tavares made the most of those springs with 11 goals and 11 assists in 24 outings.
  • Tavares was part of Canada’s dominant gold-medal winning team at the 2014 Olympics, but suffered a knee injury in the quarter-finals that forced him to miss the rest of the tournament and the balance of the NHL season. He had one goal and three assists in 2016 as Canada won the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto.

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