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Magazine > NHL Athlete
As seen in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue.

Smooth Operator
Islanders wunderkind John Tavares proves his tongue is just as golden as his game.
By Evan Lips | Photos by Allan Caporuscio

There are two athletic sides to the man, both cut from the cloth of old worlds.

There's the Portuguese side, which brings to mind the slick, creative style of a footballer from Coimbra. But there's also the Polish side -- his mom's -- the one that speaks of brute strength, doggedness and shoulders broader than the Chicago River.

Spend a half-hour talking on the phone with John Tavares and you'd never guess the guy happens to be just barely old enough to hit the Manhattan bar scene: the New York Islanders alternate captain says all the right things.

"It's not always easy but you've got to stay with it, stay with the right attitude and the same work ethic and realize that's the way to snap out of it," Tavares told The Fourth Period on Nov. 30, the night after his goal-less streak reached 11 games in Buffalo and he hit the goalpost behind Sabres goalie Jhonas Enroth during a third period bid.

But the Islanders won the game, and that's all that mattered for the man picked first in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

And forget about getting him to say it: it's a dead-end for beat writers trying to goad him into talking about any hatred he harbors for the cross-town Rangers.

He's used to not acting his age. Tavares was just 14 years old when the Ontario Hockey League granted him exceptional player status so he could join the ranks -- and light it up over the next four seasons, shattering records along the way.

But before the accolades, records and mega-contract (six years, $33 million, thank you General Manager Garth Snow) -- John Tavares was just a ball boy.

That gig came courtesy of his uncle, with whom he shares the same name. John Tavares the National Lacrosse League (NLL) player is a legend in his sport. Major sports championships and the city of Buffalo are like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy -- a figment of the imagination. But not when it comes to lacrosse, and Tavares said he learned at an early age why the Buffalo Bandits are the class of the NLL. His uncle, who doubles as a math teacher in Mississaugua, ON, holds NLL records in points, assists and goals.

The elder John Tavares, 43, still plays for the Bandits. "He's never had a serious injury," Tavares said about his uncle. "I always watched him after practice, making sure his stick was perfect. Just the details he put into playing the game."

Tavares picked up a hockey stick before he ever touched a lacrosse stick, but he acknowledged his love for the sport invented by Native Americans hasn't dimmed. The 21-year-old just wishes he had more time to play it, particularly since the game he grew up watching his uncle dominate has served him well in the rink.

"A lot of people talk about the hand eye coordination but I think some of the biggest things are being able to protect your body. Roll of checks. Ward off defenders. Beat guys one-on-one. Moving through traffic, it's a physical sport. You need to be able to take a good beating. It's still a passion of mine."

Overcoming his perceived skating weakness is also a passion. Tavares said he remembers hearing all the talk about his speed prior to the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Since then he's discovered an ally in the fight, teaming up with skating coach Dawn Braid about four years ago.

Braid, a power skating instructor who once worked with former Islander Michael Peca, still works closely with the Maple Leafs. Tavares said she's helped him realize it's not always about how much weight you lift in the gym.

"It's also about putting your body in better positions," he said. "It has been a process and since day one I've gotten better. I feel it's come a long way. It's feeling really natural. It's rewarding to see how it's come along. It's come together nicely and I feel like it's almost become an asset."

He's got a lot of people in his corner, too. Tavares said he still talks to his uncle every week. He's also mimicked some of his uncle's rituals. The first thing he does when he arrives at the rink is tape his sticks.

"Some guys do it right before the go on the ice," he said. "But I like to do it first thing. I always consider my stick my most important piece of equipment."

Still, it was his unsavory use of that same CCM composite pancake-flipper which got him into trouble during a Nov. 26 game against New Jersey. Tavares had to fork over $2,500 for slashing Devils captain Zach Parise during a post-Thanksgiving tryptophan tilt. If he pulls that stunt 359 more times this season, the man slated to earn $900,000 this year will break even.

Whatever. He now has 33 million different ways to tell one of his team's longtime divisional bullies to go to hell -- where in the minds of Isles fans, the Devils figuratively belong. If there's a new attitude on the Island, Tavares can sense it.

And if his agreement to Garth Snow's Godfather offer is any indication, Tavares also believes it. In a Christmas Eve story from 2008, Tavares told the Toronto Sun his earliest memory of the NHL was watching the Great One high-stick the Leafs' Doug Gilmour in 1993 during the Western Conference Finals.

When asked by The Fourth Period if he remembers what happened to his Islanders franchise that year, Tavares doesn't hesitate. "That was when they beat Pittsburgh," he said matter-of-factly. It was also the last year the New York Islanders won a playoff round, the year a diminutive netminder named Glenn Healy used a kid's sized goalie stick to ward off a king-sized Penguins juggernaut fresh off of two straight seasons celebrating Stanley Cup hardware.

That was the spring when Pierre Turgeon -- while celebrating a first-round nail-in-the-coffin series clinching goal against the Washington Capitals -- suffered a separated shoulder after Caps bad-boy Dale Hunter ran the Quebec native into the boards.

On Nov. 28, Hunter was named Capitals head coach.

The Capitals-Islanders rivalry remains a story of Patrick Division past, but Tavares and his mates have fans dreaming about a potential Long Island spring.

The team's sour start recently gave way to a head-turning four-game road trip that ended Dec. 3, and in which the Isles earned seven points out of a possible eight to crawl out of the Eastern Conference basement.

At home in Uniondale, the team averages just over 13,000 fans. A Nov. 17 game against Montreal drew just 9,928 -- this in the age of owner-doctored attendance figures (see Glendale, Ariz., and Raleigh, N.C.).

Tavares, who came of age playing in packed barns of the OHL, took his habitual high road when asked about the team's attendance woes.

"You'd love to have a full building," he said. "Obviously the situation with our rink hasn't helped either. But the team has gone through a lot in the last 20 years. With the approach the organization took a few years ago to rebuild instead of make quick fixes we're headed in the right direction."

Team owner Charles Wang was dealt a tough blow in August when Nassau County voters rejected a plan to replace the aging Nassau Coliseum, the second-oldest arena in the league. The proposed project was called the Lighthouse at Long Island, which would have transformed the arena and the neighborhood into a one-stop live-and-shop mecca.

In 2009, the Long Island broadsheet Newsday reported Wang had been losing an average of $23 million each year on the Islanders since he bought control of the team in 2004.

Tavares said isn't letting the franchise's volatility affect his commitment. And again, he's saying all the right things.

"It's up to us to give our fans the reasons to come to every game," he said. "To give them a good product on the ice and show why we're proud to have them as fans. Given the past years, obviously we have to change that culture and bring back the winning tradition of the 80s and the early 90s. But playing in this league you're always motivated no matter the situation."

But there's no doubt that The Juice which sparked for Tavares like a dry matchstick during those days playing in packed OHL rinks has an effect on the Oakville native. Just listen to him talk about the night last March when he paced his team with two goals and three assists for a victory in Vancouver.

"A lot of guys give me a hard time for it," he said. "The rink has a sense for hockey. It's built for it. Like Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium. That rink feels like it's just built for hockey. It's a great feeling when the building three-quarters full during warm-up."

Then again he's smart enough to realize that any opportunity to lace up a pair of skates in an NHL rink is a blessing.

"I've always got butterflies and nerves," he said "Whatever rink you're in, whoever you're playing against."

It's Sunday morning, Dec. 4. Tavares, Parenteau and the rest of the team are coming off one of the best road trips the Islanders franchise has experienced in years. The team will have a few days off before hosting Tampa Bay on Tuesday.

The hope that burned brightly earlier this season is flickering again on Strong Island. At the same time, Tavares knows it's a marathon and not a sprint.

"You won't make the playoffs in a week, in a day, in a month. It's a six- or seven-month grind. You've got to be good a bit more than you're bad."

Again, as always, the 21-year-old is saying the right things.

For more stories from the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of The Fourth Period Magazine, pick up a copy or subscribe today.


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