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The 5 Stages Leafs Fans Went Through to Process the John Tavares Signing

Star free agent John Tavares gave Toronto Maple Leafs fans, who are all too familiar with the five stages of grief, something to be euphoric about.

by Sean McIndoe
Jul 3 2018, 5:12pm

Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

You've probably heard of the five stages of grief. More formally known as the Kubler-Ross model, the concept was first introduced almost 50 years ago, and posits that people will respond to difficult life events by moving through feelings of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. The five stages have basically become the standard way to think about how people will react when something terrible happens.

Maple Leaf fans are very familiar with the five stages of grief.

You kind of have to be. Being a Leafs fan over the last few decades has basically meant cycling through the five stages almost constantly. From Harold Ballard to Kerry Fraser to Draft Schmaft to JFJ to Burke/Nonis to "It was 4-1," Leaf fans were always miserable about something. They could basically use the five stages as a greeting when meeting other Leaf fans. "How are you?" "I'm bargaining right now, thanks for asking. Go Leafs go."

But while it came as a surprise to Leafs Nation, recent evidence suggests that not everything that happens has to make you sad. There's this weird new realm that Leaf fans are just getting used to, where life sometimes makes you happy. First came the Mike Babcock sweepstakes, and then the Auston Matthews lottery. It's been weird.

And now this. John Tavares is coming home to play for the Maple Leafs. He even took a bit of a discount to do it. And now the Leafs look like they're going to be really good.

We're not quite sure how to process this.

I want to help. So today, let's walk through the Five Stages of Realizing the Leafs Signed John Tavares. Everything will make more sense if we can all get on the same page.

(One important note: This is the Five Stages of Realizing the Leafs Signed John Tavares if you're a Leafs fan. If you're a fan of some other team, your five stages probably went something like: making a 1967 joke, making a "plan the parade" joke, desperately trying to argue that Tavares somehow isn't worth it, making a slightly different variation of the same 1967 joke, and then realizing the Leaf fan you're trying to annoy isn't even pretending to care what you're saying. Sorry about that. If it's any consolation, I'm sure your parade joke was devastating.)

Stage 1: Denial

Weirdly, the Five Stages of Tavares starts off just like the five stages of grief: With a whole lot of standing around, shaking your head, and muttering "no freaking way."

Among the rest of the hockey world, Maple Leaf fans have a reputation for always thinking that every Canadian-born superstar will inevitably want to play in Toronto. Obviously, that's not true. It's only almost every Canadian-born star. And we only think that because they keep telling us about it.

But the reality is that deep down. most Leaf fans didn't think Tavares was actually going to happen. We'd been burned once by Steven Stamkos, back in 2016, so we knew not to get our hopes up. Sure, maybe if Tavares actually left the Islanders, Toronto might be his first choice. But he wouldn't leave the Islanders, because no NHL star ever leaves his team, at least not as a free agent. At best, they pretend to be thinking about it, and then they sign an eight-year extension. That's what happened with Stamkos, and he actually did seem like a guy who wanted to be in Toronto. He even liked a tweet! But in the end, he stayed put without even having to think about it too hard. Tavares would do the same. Hell, the Leafs had even gift-wrapped the Islanders with a new GM to close the sale. Tavares probably wouldn't even make it to the negotiation window.

Then he did make it. And then the Leafs were one of the five teams he invited to make their case. And then he made it past June 29—i.e. the Stamkos Line—without announcing anything. And then the Saturday deadline for an eight-year extension in New York came and went. And suddenly it was July 1, and the league's official free agent list came out with Tavares on it, and you started to hear rumblings that Islander players were being told that their captain was headed to Toronto.

And then, almost exactly one hour after the markets opened…

And every Leaf fan who saw that tweet went right back to where we started: "No freaking way."

But there was a way. And Kyle Dubas and the Leafs had found it.

Stage 2: Euphoria

Did you go with the #91 Tavares tattoo on your back and the smiling Dubas tattoo over your heart, or the other way around? It's OK, we don't judge personal choices here.

It's also possible that you rushed out to buy one of the Tavares jerseys that immediately popped up all over Toronto. Or you just cracked open a celebratory beer. Chances are, you started trying to think of fellow Leaf fans you could call or text, just in case they hadn't heard and you could be the one the break the news. Or maybe you just yelled as loud as you could and started high-fiving strangers. Don't feel bad, they knew which team you cheered for when they invited you to the funeral.

Whatever you did, Tavares coming to Toronto is going to go down in Leafs fan history as one of those "Where were you?" moments. Personally, I was in a car driving back from cottage country, swerving through winding roads while my son announced every few seconds that he was pretty sure he was about to barf. Then the Tavares news came in and the drive turned into a party.

He didn't barf, by the way. My son, that is. Tavares looked like he might have, I don't know, but again we don't judge around here.

Stage 3: Pity for Islander fans

Look, I'm not saying this stage was a long one. Even the most kindhearted Leafs fan probably didn't spend the afternoon dwelling on the sorrow of another fan base. That's not how any of this works.

But if you have any kind of soul at all, you had to at least make a quick stop at Stage Three. Because man, what a brutal turn of events for the Islanders. And there probably aren't many fans who can understand like a Leaf fan could.

We've never been down this path, at least not directly. Losing a 37-year-old Mats Sundin wasn't the same thing. Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, and Darryl Sittler were all traded. Curtis Joseph walked away, but he wasn't a lifetime Leaf, and he was replaced within hours by Ed Belfour. So no, we don't know how Islander fans felt.

But we can guess. Because strip away the specifics, and it's the same feeling that Leaf fans have been fighting off and on for decades: that haunting sense that your team only exists to be a punchline, that the people running it don't know what they're doing, and that there's no realistic path for anything to get better.

Leaf fans aren't there anymore. But we were recently enough that we can remember what it feels like.

Which leads into Stage Four…

Stage 4: Figuring out how this will all go wrong

Don't act like you haven't already thought about it.

Tavares could get hurt. That's the obvious one. Maybe too obvious. The hockey gods would probably have it be Auston Matthews who blows a tire instead, most likely the day after he signs his new $86-million extension. That would basically put the Leafs right back to where they started.

Or maybe Tavares doesn't get hurt, he just gets old. Aging curves are funny things. Sometimes you're Teemu Selanne or Jaromir Jagr and you're good forever. Sometimes you're Dany Heatley, and you go from consistent 40-goal scorer in your late 20s to out of the league completely in your early 30s. Tavares was never exactly a speedster in a league that keeps getting faster, so if he loses a step he could be in trouble.

Or maybe Mike Babcock decides he doesn't like him for whatever reason, and tries to get the Leafs to trade him back to the Islanders for Leo Komarov. Maybe the Leafs start off the Tavares era with three straight losses and he gets the blame from the small but vocal minority of Toronto fans who are, to put it gently, very dumb. Maybe the salary cap doesn't go up fast enough to make it all work. Maybe all of this is just the Leafs taking their eye off the ball when they should be fixing the blueline. Maybe some local media guy gets bored and makes up a controversy over Tavares having bad body language or wearing the wrong colored hat or whatever else.

Or maybe Tavares is really good and all the kids develop and everything goes according to plan and it's still not enough, and the Leafs just become one of those teams that's really good but never wins the Cup, and then where are we? Right back where we started from.

Maybe we're a really depressing bunch and we need to knock this off. We know. We're working on it, OK?

Stage 5: Acceptance

This really happened. Dubas and the Leafs actually pulled it off. A hometown star actually came home.

And he didn't just come home because it was more money. It wasn't even because the Leafs gave him a chance to win a Cup, as weird as that sentence looks. The hometown star came home because it was home. And then he started talking about childhood dreams and tweeting out old photos of his Maple Leafs sheets.

John Tavares is going to play for the Maple Leafs. He's probably going to start on a line with Mitch Marner. It might be the second line, because there's still Matthews and William Nylander on the first unit. They have Morgan Rielly, who's really good and only 24. Team dad Patrick Marleau is still great as long as you don't look at his contract. The goaltending is OK, and nobody knows anything about goaltending in the NHL so OK is the best you can ever really do. Some UFA departures left holes here and there up front, but they can fill those with guys from the AHL team which, oh yeah, just won the league championship. Dubas built that roster, too.

It's far from a perfect roster, but it's really good. Also, they still have a ton of cap room, at least for this year. And one of the league's best coaches. And a young GM who seems to know what he's doing.

Will it work out? Maybe! Probably not, who are we even kidding here, but… maybe!

Leaf fans will take maybe. We'll jump all over maybe. We will kiss maybe's face and marry it and make 10,000 babies with it. Maybe sounds a lot better than what we're used to.

The Toronto Maple Leafs signed John Tavares. They're going to be good next year. They might be really, really good. They might already be the Cup favorites, right now, today, before they even add anything else.

We can accept that. We have to. They've given us no choice.

And if all goes bad like it usually does, well, we know which five stages to turn to for that. But for now, break out the Maple Leaf sheets and plan the parade, because this is what happiness feels like.