With fans already chanting “Go Leafs Go” outside the arena at 10 a.m. and the tailgate party setup in full swing, the Toronto Maple Leafs know expectations are high for one of the most highly anticipated seasons in decades.
The Leafs will kick off the NHL season Wednesday night against one of their oldest rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, at the newly renamed Scotiabank Arena.
But with fans already looking toward the Stanley Cup parade, the players know it’s about taking it one step at a time.
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“Expectations are a wonderful thing, and the pressure that comes with that is a privilege,” said Leafs head coach Mike Babcock after the team’s morning skate. “If you’re no good you don’t have that.”
Babcock understands the history and the pressure that comes along with being part of the Leafs, having taken the head coaching position four years ago.
He promised pain as a rebuild was set in motion upon his arrival, but just a few years later, Bodog, the offshore betting service, has picked the Leafs as Stanley Cup favourites.
“Just take it one day at a time,” said Leafs star forward Auston Matthews when asked about the hype surrounding the team.
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“You guys can hype us up and do all that stuff that you guys like to do as much as you want,” he said. “But I think that we have an expectation for ourselves in this room and we’re going to take it one day at a time and not going to get too far ahead of ourselves.”
It seems to be the mentality that all the Leafs players are looking to keep.
The game also marks highly touted offseason acquisition John Tavares’ regular-season debut in his hometown Leafs’ jersey.
The Leafs shook the hockey world on July 1 when they signed Tavares to a seven-year, US$77-million contract that brought the star free-agent centre home to play for the team he cheered for as a kid.
“Obviously everyone is excited,” Tavares said Wednesday. “I think there is a lot of belief in our group – not just in our locker room but around the city and the fans’ support, I mean, it’s tremendous to have that.”
“Obviously we want to do something special and tonight is the start of that journey,” he said.
For Tavares, Game 1 means as much as Game 82 and he knows how much fans want a Stanley Cup – the team last won in 1967 – because it’s something he wants as well.
“There’s 30 other teams trying to do what we’re doing,” he said. “… It’s extremely tough but at the same time, it’s our goal entering the season. I know personally I’ve always had that goal to get to a Stanley Cup and to win a Stanley Cup.
Prior to the game, Parks Canada honoured the Leafs with a plaque to mark the team’s national historic significance to the country.
The presentation was made with special appearances from Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, as well as former Leafs right winger Ron Ellis and MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum.
Upon unveiling the plaque, a representative from Parks Canada said the organization would love nothing more than to change the date on the piece from 1967.
Puck drop is set for 7 p.m.
The Maple Leafs Square tailgate party will begin at 5 p.m. with giveaways, a live DJ, special guests and prizes.
—With files from The Canadian Press