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Road to the Coliseum: John Tavares

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
In the midst of his terrible two’s, John Tavares was tearing through his family’s house with hockey sticks, mimicking the pros he saw on TV. When it came time for his first skating lesson, his father Joe brought him to the community rink and laced him up, one foot with a normal blade and the other with a double-blade, to help with his stability. Three-year-old Tavares darted to center ice with the experienced players.

“As a beginner, you’re supposed to hang on to the boards and not skate in the middle with all the more experienced skaters,” Tavares said. “(My dad) said even though I was falling every couple of steps, I didn’t want to hold on to the boards. I wanted to be in the middle of the ice like everyone else.”

Joe and Barbara Tavares couldn’t take their eldest child and only son away from the ice; he loved it too much. Soon, they had signed him up for numerous camps through his town club, the Minor Oaks Hockey Association and then, as a mite (ages 3-4), for his first team.

Milan Lucic #17 of the Boston Bruins watches as John Tavares #91 of the New York Islanders takes a shot on March 11, 2011 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
As a tyke (ages 5-6), Tavares tried out and made his first AAA team: the Oakville Rangers.

“I remember I was playing with my own age group, I was still very young,” Tavares said. “We won the league championship and we were in a very big tournament that housed a lot of great North American teams up in Ottawa. We were playing where the Ottawa Senators play. I scored with one second left to win the tournament and I was named MVP.”

He did so well in his first competitive season that at seven-years-old, he skipped his second tyke season and played up one age group (novice ages 7-8) for the Mississauga Braves of the Greater Toronto Hockey League. In the next few years, he would continue to play AAA hockey at an elevated age level for the Mississauga Senators and the Toronto Marlboros.

“Some of my favorite times playing the game happened in (former Marlboros teammate and current Edmonton Oilers center) Sam Gagner’s backyard rink,” Tavares said. “We played our last three years of minor hockey together. We would be out there six or seven hours a day, just me and him one-on-one.”

Tavares continued, “We loved it. It was all we wanted to do. It was cold outside, being out on the ice, late at night with the lights on. There was no other place that we wanted to be. It was a lot of fun. It’s just one of those things that helped me fall in love with the game even more.”

Gagner, Brendan Smith (Detroit prospect) and Cody Goloubef (Columbus prospect) were all members of the 2004 Bantam AAA Provincial Hockey Championship team, known today as the Ontario Hockey League Cup, a showcase for OHL prospects.

“We had a great team,” Tavares said. “We had a really great coaching staff that was really all about developing our skills and making us better players and having us enjoy the game.”

And even though Tavares was playing in a 15-year-old league at 14, the center stood out.

“That’s when David Branch, the Commissioner of the OHL, approached me and my family about possibly being put through a bunch of tests and examinations under a new rule they were calling the Exceptional Player Clause,” Tavares said.

He continued, “The rule would allow a 14-year-old, who would be 15 during the season, to play in the OHL as a double-underage. I was lucky enough to pass through it. That’s kind of when things got really heavy and intense.”

Goalie Chris Mason #50 of the Atlanta Thrashers looks back to see John Tavares #91 of the New York Islanders shoot the puck into the empty net during the second period of an NHL hockey game at the Nassau Coliseum on March 24, 2011 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
Prior to the OHL Cup and his conversation with the commissioner, Tavares and his parents talked about his future in hockey and were undecided as to the next steps. They considered his options, and moving to the United States to play for the United States Hockey League, with a potential college career to follow.

“We weren’t sure what I was going to do the next year because I had already been playing with kids that were older than me for about five years,” Tavares said. “I didn’t know if it would be the best thing for my development to go back and play with kids my own age, but we were exploring all options.”

After passing all the tests, which included psychologist visits and writing an essay, Tavares was told he’d be draft eligible a year early. As a result, the 14-year-old was selected by the Oshawa Generals first overall in the 2005 OHL Draft.

Moving away from home at such a young age came with its share of ups and downs.

“Thinking about it now, I can’t imagine how difficult it was for my parents,” Tavares said. “At the time, it was the last thing that I was thinking about. But now I see my buddies back home and a lot of their parents are saying they don’t know how they’re going to deal with it when they move away from home and they’re 20, 21-years-old. My mom and dad did it when I was 14. I’m sure it was difficult for them.”

And even though it was just a 50-minute drive and his parents and younger sisters Laura (now 19) and Barbara (now 18) attended all of his home games, living with a billet family was something he had to get used to. His routine changed, his practice schedule was busier and he was preparing for a 70-game schedule for the first time in his career.

“I had a great start to the season,” Tavares said. “I was doing really well, but I remember a couple months into the season I went through a two, three week spell where I wasn’t playing too well and I could tell that I wasn’t feeling myself. That was the first time I realized I was homesick.”

Tavares continued, “It was definitely a lot of fun living with billets, but it was a big change. I lived with two other teammates and we went to school together. My whole life changed in a big way… but it probably helped me in the long run, moving to Long Island at 19 and being able to deal with a lot of distractions and a lot of things that will come with that.”

John Tavares puts on his teams jersey after being picked number one overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islander at the Bell Centre on June 26, 2009 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The center posted 77 points in his first season and then nearly doubled his scoring output the following year, breaking Wayne Gretzky’s OHL record for most goals scored by a 16-year-old with 72 goals in the 2006-07 season.

In his third season, Tavares scored 118 points for the Generals. In his fourth and final junior season, Tavares played 32 games for the Generals before being traded to the London Knights and his season total of 58 goals helped him set an OHL record of 215 career regular season goals.

By the end of his fourth season, he was already well recognized by scouts across the National Hockey League and later that summer, he was selected by the Islanders first overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Tavares, at 19, made the Islanders out of training camp and never looked back.

The Islanders center credits his family for helping him achieve his dream.

“I think my parents knew, which a lot of parents may not understand now, how hard to push their kids or how much pressure to put on them,” Tavares said. “I think my parents did a great job, letting me just love the game, have fun and enjoy it, but also realized when I needed to be challenged and helped my development. They put me in the best position possible to get better and develop my skills and my love for the game.”

The drive to the rink is a little longer now for the Tavares family, but they seem happy to make the trip.
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