Everything we know about John Tavares, the Leafs’ latest, greatest hope for a Stanley Cup
For Leafs fans, Sunday brought the most exciting news since Auston Matthews deked his way into their lives: John Tavares, the 27-year-old New York Islanders captain, had signed with Toronto. Tavares could be more than just another star for the Leafs: he’s a GTA-born ringer who might give the team the extra ballast needed to help it sail through the playoffs and win a Stanley Cup. Here’s what we know about the newest Leafs star.
He has been exceptional since he was 14
Many hockey fans learned Tavares’ name in the lead-up to the 2005 Ontario Hockey League draft. Tavares, then 14, was too young for the draft, but a panel of experts recognized his “exceptional player” status, making him eligible for entry into the league, a famous breeding ground for NHL talent. (Tavares had been a physical phenom since infancy. “We’re talking about a kid who pulled himself out of his crib when he was nine months old,” his mother said in the Star in 2005.)
In May 2005, the Oshawa Generals drafted Tavares first overall. “That was an easy pick,” the team’s general manager said at the time.
The exceptional player distinction was controversial. Bobby Orr, a former General and an NHL great, warned about rushing kids into the big leagues. One Toronto Star letter writer complained that the league was using “child labour.”
But if Tavares was truly too young for the league, he had a funny way of showing it. He played in his first OHL game just a few days after he turned 15 (and a few days after a foiled kidnapping by his teammates, who planned to hold him for ransom at Chuck E. Cheese’s, the Star reported). He scored a short-handed goal on his first shot, according to the paper. Years later, he’d wonder what the heck a 15-year-old player was doing on the ice during a penalty kill.
Summing up the young star’s first OHL game, a Star reporter called Tavares the “best, most exciting and most explosive player by an enormous margin.” He was later named rookie of the year for the OHL and the CHL.
He reportedly broke an Ontario Hockey League record for goals by a 16 year old, previously held by Wayne Gretzky. He also set a new record for most OHL goals overall, despite some allegations of sketchy record-keeping.
He’s got plenty of trophies and medals, but there’s one missing
The World Junior Championship is the biggest tournament for the sport’s young stars, but Tavares was cut from Team Canada before the 2006-2007 event. It was reportedly the first time he’d failed to make a team. He won gold medals at the next two instalments, though, earning MVP honours at the 2008-2009 tournament. And he was part of Canada’s gold medal Olympic team in 2014, though a leg injury cut his tournament short. He also won gold with Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Despite his early successes, he never won a Stanley Cup with the Islanders.
He’ll take the Leafs’ offence from pretty good to scary good
The Leafs aren’t exactly short on talent among their forwards, but adding Tavares to the roster gives the team even more skill up front.
Not familiar with the nuances of hockey? Sportsnet breaks it down like this: Tavares and Auston Matthews are two of the best centres in the game, and the only other team with not one but two comparable centremen is the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.
Or, to put it another way:
Imagine being hemmed in your own zone by Matthews and Nylander, tired as fuck with the long change, and then you look up and see they’ve switched off for Mitch Marner and JOHN TAVARES
— Richard Lee-Sam (@RLeesam) July 1, 2018
Don’t expect too many flashy interviews
The Globe describes Tavares as “shy,” noting that he doesn’t generate as much buzz as someone like Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid. But the paper chalks that up to “personality and geography.”
He’s definitely a little light on charisma:
But this means Tavares avoids the theatrics looked down upon by so many NHLers. His father, he said, taught him that celebrating was “like saying the F word.”
Hockey broadcaster Bob McKenzie asked Tavares and his lacrosse-playing uncle—also named John—about their superstitions (hockey players are notorious weirdos):
The elder Tavares said he usually avoids “intimacy” the night before a game. And as for John? He stores his stick in the team’s medical room. Crazy stuff!
He’s a local guy
Not everyday you can live a childhood dream pic.twitter.com/YUTKdfMALl
— John Tavares (@91Tavares) July 1, 2018
Tavares was born in Mississauga and raised in Oakville. At 14, Tavares, then a star on the Toronto Marlboros, described how time in the basement translated into success on the ice:
FLASHBACK: John Tavares is now a Toronto Maple Leaf, but when he was just 14 years old, he was the CityNews Athlete of the Week. pic.twitter.com/JSa5woS9AC
— CityNews Toronto (@CityNews) July 1, 2018
And he shops local, even if it’s from a store with a deceptive name:
— John Tavares (@91Tavares) June 17, 2016
There was an elaborate courtship
Sportsnet reports that Leafs GM Kyle Dubas flew to Los Angeles to pitch Tavares on joining the Leafs. Dubas and coach Mike Babcock reportedly believed Tavares would pair well with right-winger Mitch Marner, who “featured prominently in the video [Tavares] was shown” by the club as part of their pitch. Marner, Patrick Marleau, and Auston Matthews all called Tavares after the meeting, according to Sportsnet. Babcock thinks Tavares’ GTA background means he’ll fit in well here.
He has made enemies out of Islanders fans
New York fans were steaming mad to learn that their team captain was jumping ship, ditching the languishing Islanders for a squad that looks more likely to win a Stanley Cup sometime soon:
Some unhappy Islanders fan has edited John Tavares' (the lacrosse playing uncle) wikipedia page. pic.twitter.com/EU0gymOIPP
— David Alter (@dalter) July 3, 2018
Some fans made some alterations to Tavares’s jerseys:
— Alex Reingold (@Alex_Reingold) July 1, 2018
No need to burn jersey! pic.twitter.com/XNQw8OE6yw
— Kevin Cogan (@4CoganBoys) July 1, 2018
Others set their jerseys on fire:
— Trig Smith (@BobbySmith013) July 1, 2018
One frugal fan burned a more affordable bit of memorabilia:
— Jordan Greif (@JordanGreif) July 1, 2018
And we regret to inform you that the #Bagelsfor91 campaign has ended.