Home. What does it mean? On the surface, it is the place where a person is born and spends a majority of their life growing up. It can be yearned by those nostalgic for the past. It sometimes is avoided, in pursuit of closing a door and starting a new chapter in one’s life.
For athletes, home is the hockey rink where they practiced every week. The football field where a person will learn to tackle for the first time. The baseball diamond where father and son play catch, emblematic of lazy summer days.
Growing up for many athletes is often permeated with hardship, sorrow, and adversity. Struggles for their families to pay the next bill, put food on the table, are common realities that households face all across North America.
But at the bedrock of this misery is an escape through sports. With the money generated playing professional sports, many young athletes use their passion for playing a game, in order to have the resources to provide for their family and overall community.
No matter the struggles, pain or suffering, people in communities rally together to support their homegrown athletes. Their success translates into universal gratification for the village, town or city that molded the athlete into the person he/she is today.
But there is no greater gift for a community to receive when a player comes back to play for the city’s professional franchise. Sports are a multibillion-dollar business and players are cognizant of the transactions that take place over the span of a career that sends them to different teams.
On the rare occurrence a player is traded to or signed by, the team situated in their childhood origins, the city erupts with hope and prosperity. The athlete is brought back to the early days of their childhood when idealistic dreams of playing for their favourite team were crafted in the hopes of them becoming a future reality.
Superstar center John Tavares was the epitome of any Canadian youth. Born in Mississauga, Ontario, Tavares grew up eager to play hockey.
His room was blanketed with hockey paraphernalia from top to bottom. He would sleep in a bed that was decked out with Toronto Maple Leafs logos, expressive of his aspirations to play for his hometown team.
For any young hockey player, becoming an NHL player is the number one goal, regardless of the team. After a successful junior career that saw him win the CHL Player of the Year with the Oshawa Generals and a gold medalist at the 2009 World Junior Hockey Championship, Tavares was the first overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft to the coastal New York Islanders.
Throughout his tenure with the Isles, Tavares became one of the NHL’s top stars. He averaged almost 30 goals a season and demonstrated that his leadership would pay dividends for team success.
But something was missing. A player can reap the benefits of being a professional hockey star, but being successful and fulfilled are not necessarily overlapping. As a professional athlete, there is a yearning for fulfillment that is often accompanied by a desire to come home and play for your city.
Tavares’s contract expired after the 2017-18 season, making him the most sought-after free agent on the market. With all eyes on the Canadian as to where he would end up, Tavares opted to sign with the team that was etched into the imagination of his childhood psyche all those years ago.
The Toronto Maple Leafs would ink Tavares with a seven-year, $77 million contract, making him the team’s top star. For a franchise searching for its first Stanley Cup since 1967, Tavares is the piece that could provide the necessary depth to make the Leafs one of the most explosive offensive teams in the league.
Not everyday you can live a childhood dream pic.twitter.com/YUTKdfMALl
— John Tavares (@91Tavares) July 1, 2018
For Tavares, it wasn’t about the money or being the focal point player on the franchise. It is about putting on the jersey every night, of the team that he grew up following and cheering for, hoping that one day he could resemble the hockey heroes of his past.
“You grow up, you start playing the game. I remember [when I was] three years old sitting on the couch with my dad, parents let me stay up a little later than I probably should have been watching Doug Gilmour’s wraparound in the playoffs,” Tavares recalled. “I remember going to skate for the first time at Clarkson Arena (in Mississauga) close to where I grew up and you start following the Leafs and you think as a kid, ‘Oh, if I’m going to play hockey I’m going to be a Maple Leaf one day.’ When you’re five, six, seven years old that’s the way you think.”
Loyalty to a team is a phenomenon that has become increasingly infrequent in sports. Circumstances change, contract negotiations falter and a desire for a new home often lead to athletes changing their teams throughout their careers.
One team’s disappointment is another organization’s gain when it comes to a player acquisition and release. In the summer of 2014, NBA superstar LeBron James decided to leave the Miami Heat to go back home to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team he left a few years earlier to go to South Beach.
To say that the relationship between LeBron and Cavaliers ownership is rocky is a gross understatement. But the King put the strained partnership for a greater purpose…to bring home a title to Cleveland that was searching for its first championship since the 1960’s.
“I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get,” James said in his letter to Sports Illustrated.
It took LeBron two seasons in Cleveland for the Cavaliers to finally bring home a title, beating the Golden State Warriors in seven games. This was more than just basketball…it was a validation that LeBron’s perseverance and overcoming adversity growing up in Akron, Ohio, had paid off in bringing a championship back to his hometown.
Fans, from all walks of life, could unify over their star player and celebrate the championship with him. Because he was one of their own. It was not just LeBron’s championship…it was the city of Cleveland’s and a testament to all those that formed LeBron into the athlete and person he is in the present day.
Time will tell if John Tavares is on a similar path of destiny with the Maple Leafs. But the notion of coming back home on a mission to win a championship for a city is one that needs to be more appreciated by sports fans.
Too often, we are focused on the surface topics in sports. Who won last night’s game? Who should Team X trade to get better?
While these questions are important ones to ask, we need to dig deeper and recognize that the essence of sports in our culture is the connection to home. We cheer for the teams from our hometown. We live and die as fans with the team’s every move, hoping that they can provide us with the necessary contentment and adulation to get us through the responsibilities and burdens of our daily lives.
What John Tavares did is the fairy-tale story that every sports follower dreams of. An athlete coming home to play for their origin franchise is a selfless action that needs to be celebrated and treasured. For Tavares, the decision boiled down to the instinct of his childhood love for the team.
“You go through the interview process and you get more feelings, you start to get the information back from the people that are there, their message, their vision, and all that starts to kind of steer you in a direction and gives you a feeling and an instinct and that’s kind of where it came from,” John said. “You start to think about back when you were a kid and how fun it was watching the Leafs growing up. … At the end of the day I felt like it was a rare opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Welcome home, Johnny.