There are first-overall picks and then there are first-overall picks. The guys who become the face of their franchise, an immediate household name in the league and who turn 82 games into 82 events.
Connor McDavid is one of those players and his first visit to Barclays Center on Sunday is an event.
McDavid, the who lit up the Canadian juniors for 285 points in 166 games over three years, was a household name in the NHL before he was even drafted by the Edmonton Oilers last year. Seen as a generational talent and billed as “Better Than Crosby” by Sportsnet Magazine, very few people can relate to McDavid’s experience, but Islanders captain John Tavares is one of them.
Tavares and McDavid haven’t just taken similar paths to the NHL. McDavid has, at times, literally found himself on the trail that Tavares carved out.
Tavares was the first player granted “exceptional player” status by the Ontario Hockey League in 2005, allowing him to play in the league as a 15-year-old. (He was 14 when he was granted the status and was eligible to be drafted.) Only a handful of players have been granted it. It was an unprecedented move in 2005, but now it’s aptly and colloquially known as the John Tavares Rule.
But while there are surely perks, there is a huge amount of pressure, expectations and notoriety placed on very young shoulders. While hockey fans, coaches, players and media eagerly await the arrival of talents like Tavares and McDavid, the pressure starts to mount.
The off-ice demands for Tavares, touted as “the next one,” began in his teen years, when he became a celebrity in hockey-crazed Canada. There were the usual requests, appearing on magazine covers like The Hockey News, but there were also requests to from popular culture, such as appearing on MuchMusic, Canada’s equivalent of MTV.
His future was constantly speculated about , his game dissected constantly. Looking back on it, there’s probably only one word to describe the mix of attention, notoriety and expectations.
“Some of it is a little overwhelming when you think about it,” Tavares said. “You’re going through it for the first time and you’re barely an adult, or not even really I guess. You’re trying to mature and make sure you’re handling yourself the right way. I had great people around me that really helped me through that.”
Tavares had his parents, Joe and Barb, along with junior coach Brad Selwood, to help him navigate those waters. According to a 2007 feature in the Ottawa Citizen, Selwood was constantly declining appearance requests for Tavares. Still, it didn’t stop the amount of attention and, in a way, prepared Tavares for life in the NHL.
“You’re definitely used to it [by the time you get to the NHL],” Tavares said of the attention. He’s still the Islanders’ most in-demand player, and routinely has the biggest media scrums around his locker – daily.
For all the growing up Tavares had to do from age 14-18, the Islanders helped take some of the pressure of adulthood off Tavares. He lived with then-captain Doug Weight – now an Islanders assistant coach - for his first few seasons in the league. Figuring out how to live on your own as an anonymous 18-year-old is tough enough, let alone with the schedule of a budding face of the NHL.
Still, Tavares said the first year in the NHL was exciting, playing in professional rinks, alongside and against players he grow up idolizing and his experience is shared – to a degree – by other prospects. They may not have the international notoriety he had, but in their markets – and teammates like Ryan Strome can attest to this – there are still expectations.
"It comes with the territory of being professional athletes," said Strome, who played in the same youth hockey organization as Tavares and remembers hearing about the gifted player when Tavares was young as 12.
Tavares said there’s just an added pressure on first-overall picks to be the best player from the draft class.
“All eyes are on you to see how you are going to do,” he said. “I think it’s just going out there and trying to prove yourself that you deserve to be in the league and be a key contributor every night in the lineup.”
Tavares credits his teammates for alleviating the pressure and keeping the kettle from boiling over. The closed doors of a locker room are a safe haven and he said the best thing for him was just being treated like one of the guys, to be Johnny, not “first-overall pick John Tavares,” or “the next one.”
“I know the team and the guys in the room did a really good job of just letting me be one the guys and fitting in,” Tavares said.
Frans Nielsen, who was already an Islander by the time Tavares joined the team in the 2009-10 season, said even though they played it cool, there was a lot of internal excitement when the Islanders scored the first-overall pick.
“We knew it was a big day for our organization when we got him,” Nielsen said. “We knew what kind of talent he was. It’s always special when you get a guy like that, but you try to treat him like anyone else. It’s a learning curve for him too and you let him do his thing and I think the last few years, you’re starting to see what a superstar he is. It’s amazing to see the steps he’s taken since he got in the league.”
Nielsen knew about Tavares because of his “exceptional player “status, but first watched him play at the 2009 World Junior Hockey Championships in Ottawa. Tavares lived up to his billing in the tournament, scoring 15 points (8G, 7A) and earning tournament MVP honors.
“You hear about those players coming up,” Nielsen said. “That was the first time I watched him play and you could see right away that he was special kind of player, so you know you wanted to be on the team that had the first-overall pick.”
The same can be said about McDavid’s electrifying talent. In early February, during his first game back from a broken collarbone which cost him to miss 37 games, the Oilers rookie took off, rushing up the ice and splitting the Columbus defense before pulling a fast deke and beating Anton Forsberg. He scored five points in his return and has 17 points (6G, 11A) in 16 games on the season.
Early in his young career, McDavid looks to be as advertised and appears to be taking everything – the attention, the pressure and the expectations – in stride. Tavares’ notoriety forced him to mature quickly and he sees the same in McDavid.
“Special players just have a demeanor around them,” Tavares said. “The way they approach things and understand – not just who they are as a hockey player, but whatever situation they are in – how to handle things well. He’s very humble, doesn’t take anything for granted and obviously has shown some great promise about why he’s going to be a great player.”
Tavares speaks from experience. He’s still grounded, even after three NHL All-Star Games, two Hart Trophy (MVP) nominations and an Olympic gold medal. Tavares developed tunnel vision early on, keeping an intense focus on the game and not the glamour, or the sideshow. It worked then, still works for him now and could work for the other exceptional player wearing orange and blue on Sunday night.
“You just worry about playing. It’s what you’ve done your whole life and there’s a reason why you were selected where you were selected and why there’s a lot of expectation,” Tavares said. “That’s what you enjoy, raising your game and challenging yourself to be the best you can be and obviously to prove yourself. You don’t try to change who you are, you just try to play.”
That’s exceptional advice.