Everyone wants a piece of John Tavares

Everyone wants a piece of John Tavares

This article was first published in the May, 2009 issue of Toronto Life.

It’s the semifinal game against the Russians in the World Junior championship in Ottawa, and Barb Tavares is one of 20,000 fans in the stands. The Mississauga hockey mom has been here before, with the clock ticking down, the crowd’s favourite team short a goal and all eyes on her son, John. The suspense is excruciating; she sits so close to the edge of her seat she’s about to fall to her knees. Eight years ago, she was in this same arena watching a 10‑year-old John score the winning goal—with one second left—to nab the Bell Canada Cup for Mississauga’s minor atom triple-A Senators. Tonight, with his team about to be eliminated, Tavares brings his A game, hacking away like a madman until he claws the puck out from under Russian skates to get a backhand shot on net. It ricochets, but his teammate, centre Jordan Eberle, scoops up the deflection and delivers it home, sending the game to sudden-death overtime and, eventually, a 6-5 shootout victory for Canada. The team would go on to defeat the lacklustre Swedes in the finals, and Tavares would be named tournament MVP, his face plastered on the front pages of the dailies.

People have been talking about John Tavares since he took to the ice as a six-year-old in Oakville’s paperweight league. Straight out of the gate he was bigger, stronger and more focused than the other kids. By the time he made it to the Ontario Hockey League, he was known as a goal hog. In his second season, he scored 72, breaking Wayne Gretzky’s record of most goals scored by a 16‑year-old. Gretzky’s stats are the gold standard for hockey wunderkinds, and his records don’t fall easily. Sports commentators crowned Tavares the next Great One. But he didn’t celebrate the big victory like a typical 16-year-old. “After I broke the record, I went out to eat with my family, my roommates and my billet parents. We couldn’t go for long because I had a game the next day. I was proud of what I did, but I mostly remember being exhausted.”

This spring, Tavares is poised to join the elite club of players who go first in the draft—players like Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and, back in the day, Eric Lindros. In a country knee-deep in hockey talent, making it from triple-A hockey to the OHL is remarkable. To jump from the OHL to the NHL is miraculous. Even then, most draft picks will spend another two years back in the OHL, honing their skills, building their fitness and maturity before they’re called up to play. Tavares will head straight for the NHL arena.

The draft is a convoluted lottery system that throws the last five teams in the league together in a pot and pulls out a winner for the first-round pick (there are more than a few Maple Leafs fans hoping their team will tank so Toronto has a shot at landing their hometown boy). After signing with Pittsburgh in 2005, Crosby earned $12 million for his first three years—that’s not counting what Tim Hortons pays him to promote Timbits hockey. Crosby’s agent, Pat Brisson, also represents Tavares, and it’s expected he’ll negotiate lucrative endorsements for him, too.

For the past four years, Tavares has made the same $55 a week as other players in the OHL. In just a few months, he could be a multimillionaire, hawking everything from sport drinks to breakfast cereals. Today the only thing he’s worried about is bringing his homemaking skills up to speed before living on his own for the first time. He knows how to do his own laundry but would like to learn how to cook something other than eggs. His plan for this summer, before he steps onto NHL ice, is to have his mom teach him how to use the oven.

Barb, John, Laura, Barbara and Joe Tavares in the family room of their Oakville home.

Behind every hockey superstar is a determined parent. At six feet and 198 pounds, Tavares has the hulking frame of his dad, who moved to Canada from the Azores when he was eight. Joe Tavares taught his son the basics of hockey, but it was Barb Tavares who ferried him everywhere and pushed him forward. John has his mother’s broad cheekbones, strong nose and close-set, unexpectedly soft eyes. Ask him what sets him apart from other players, and you can hear his mother in his answer. He doesn’t talk about his wrist shot or his playmaking. “I want it more,” he says with a quiet shrug.

Barb was one of 10 kids born to Polish immigrants Boleslaw and Jozefa Kowal. Her father worked in the Sudbury nickel mines, and her mother was a janitor at the local school. They were always just scraping by—even before Barb’s father died when she was 14. The family had no car and walked everywhere. It was different back then, she says. Children were expected to do everything for themselves. You didn’t ask for anything, and you didn’t bring your parents any more trouble than they already had.

When she was 18, Barb left Sudbury by bus to find work in Toronto. She could feel the excitement shoot through her body when she saw the city’s lights.

Barb and Joe married in 1987 and bought a house in a new subdivision on the Mississauga-Oakville border. Today they run their own sheet metal roofing company, an industry that’s not for the faint of heart. The roofers follow the iron workers on big construction sites and attach 15-foot-long sheets of steel decking to the steel beams and joists. The physical work—Joe’s side of the business—is back-breaking. Barb runs the office, submitting bids, ordering cranes and crews, and resolving disputes when the weather turns ugly or contracts fall through.

The Tavareses filled their new home with three children in three years. John arrived first, in September 1990, followed by his sisters, Laura and Barbara. When John was a baby, his mother saw a glimmer of something that she couldn’t quite identify. Once, when he was 10 months old, Barb heard a “thump-thump” from upstairs and, for a moment, thought there was a stranger in the house, maybe even in John’s room. She ran up the stairs, opened the door, and there he was, on his feet and weeble-wobbling his way across the floor with his arms outstretched. The kid had hoisted himself up, over and out of his crib and begun walking. Before long, he was bouncing off the walls with energy to burn, and Barb threw him into as many sports as she could find. Soccer, lacrosse (John’s uncle on his dad’s side is a lacrosse champion) and hockey. John loved lacrosse, but eventually hockey emerged as his true passion. What also emerged in John was a single-minded determination—shared by his mother—to get where he wanted to go.

Now, when she remembers all the fuss people made about John, the endless questions that at the time felt intrusive and threatening, Barb realizes they probably saw where he was heading long before she did.

Barb Tavares made sure her son was the last to know just how good a player he was.

Ontario hockey begins when parents stand in long lines to register their six-year-olds in tyke house leagues. (More than 200,000 kids across the province signed up to play in the 2007–2008 season.) At age eight, players can move on to A, double-A or triple-A hockey; triple-A is the most competitive. A triple-A parent can expect to spend at least $5,000 a year on equipment, travel and tournament fees, and endless hours driving to games and practices. The percentage of these kids who will go on to play in the OHL is minuscule, less than 0.2 per cent.

From the outset, players are organized according to their birth years. When Tavares was a six-year-old in the paperweight house league, he was suiting up with all the kids born in 1990. It’s an attempt to keep the playing field level, but it’s an imperfect system. Some parents believe it unfairly discriminates against players born later in the year, especially November and December babies. Imagine your son was born in late December and he’s facing off against some big galoot who was born in January of the same year. Tavares encountered a different challenge. By the time he was eight years old, he had outgrown every other kid his age and was itching for some real competition. To keep him engaged, Barb signed her son up for power skating with players two years older than he was. Before long, he was playing triple-A with the 1989ers and sometimes even the 1988s. John says he didn’t think about the other guys being older. “I didn’t even notice,” he says. “I just loved to play the game.”

While Tavares was learning to take his lumps on his way to the net, Barb was learning that the hockey world off the ice was high sticks and elbows, as well. She saw that kids were being left behind not because they lacked talent but because they lacked focused parents. Missed practices and forgotten equipment were ammunition for a coach to drop a player. Barb knew that she had to attend every practice, game, meeting and road trip if John was going to get what she believed he deserved. While Joe worked on construction sites, Barb’s days were spent driving John from rink to rink for games, practices and power skating. She’d load up the van with the kids, equipment, food, drinks and all the paperwork from their roofing business. In the stands, the family would spread out: the girls would start their homework, and she’d manage the company—all the while keeping one eye on the ice.

John was always hard on his equipment, going through two pairs of skates a year. He blew through hockey sticks like Kleenex. Sometimes they’d be busted before Barb got her Visa bill. But the biggest expense for any hockey family is time. There were people in the Tavareses’ neighbourhood who noticed that their house was running 24 hours a day and assumed Barb was a nurse working crazy shifts. At any hour, they would see lights on and Barb’s shadow moving from room to room. Often, she’d be changing loads of laundry at three in the morning.

In a world dominated by hockey dads, Barb stuck out. At first, most of the men gave her a wide berth. But when they saw what John was capable of, they couldn’t help themselves and edged a little closer. The questions were endless, beginning with the constant refrain of “Where’s your husband?”—to which Barb once answered, “Probably with your wife.” Nothing escaped the attention of other parents when it came to John. “I see you bought John new skates.” “Are those new gloves?”

Once, after a game, John was scheduled to attend power skating and Barb told him not to bother changing out of his gear, just come to the car suited up to save some time. That night she got a call from his coach, who wanted to know where they were heading after the game. He was worried that John—eight years old at the time—was playing for another team.

As the stakes grew higher and the scrutiny more intense, Barb made it clear to John what it would take to realize his dreams. Once, after a lacklustre performance, she tossed his brand new hockey gloves out the car window. “See, John?” she said. “See that? That’s your hockey career gone. Just like that.” When other players invited John for sleepovers, Barb refused to let him go—there was no way to ensure that John would get out the door in time for his 7 a.m. practices. She doesn’t pretend that she wasn’t hard on him, and she doesn’t apologize for pushing him to get what he wanted. She never wanted him to think it was easy, all his for the taking. She made sure he never got cocky—he was probably the last to know just how good a player he was. Barb fumed when the team lost and parents still congratulated John for a fistful of goals. John hated it, too, and would ask his mother, “Don’t they know it doesn’t matter if we didn’t win?”

Looking back now, even John marvels at how his mom kept pushing him. It didn’t matter where the game was or how many other rinks he’d been to that day, sometimes three in one day, she just kept driving. In her rear-view mirror, she’d see John in the back seat after a practice and hear him say, “Mom, that was the best practice ever.” It was like watching a kid eat ice cream all day. When they got home, he’d head to the basement and crash around until Barb threw him in bed.

After Triple-A hockey, a player has three options: Junior A, Junior B or the Ontario Hockey League. Junior A hockey is a feeder program for the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the States and Canadian Inter­university Sport. The calibre of play is high, and many players are looking for a full ride to a division-one American university (worth more than $200,000 over four years). Some Junior B players will make their way to the NCAA and CIS. The OHL (sometimes called major junior) is a world apart. The OHL route closes the door on American universities because the NCAA prohibits professionals from playing on their teams (OHL players, despite their meagre stipend, are considered pros by the U.S. college system).

Ohio State, Michigan State and the University of Michigan courted Tavares with the promise of full scholarships. For some kids, choosing between the OHL and Junior A is a difficult decision. Barb and Joe knew there was only one path for John, and it didn’t include dorm rooms and psych 101 classes. His style of play and his NHL dreams all pointed toward the OHL—arguably the best developmental league in the world for players trying to get to the NHL. They play 68 games a season under NHL rules. The competition is intense, the coaching is respected worldwide, and there isn’t a better place to showcase talent to NHL scouts.

John was watching his older teammates make the leap to the next step in his dream, and the prospect of another year in triple‑A was unbearable. In a brazen move, the 14-year-old Tavares sought exceptional player status, which would grant him early OHL entry. First, he had to prove that he was mature enough to handle the transition: he was evaluated by Hockey Canada to see how he’d cope with living away from home, and how he’d handle performance slumps and other trials. He won his early entry and joined the Oshawa Generals, meaning he’d live full-time with a billet family and often see his parents only at games. He didn’t disappoint in his first season, snapping up 45 goals. His second season—the year he eclipsed Wayne Gretzky’s record—was his coronation.

The OHL is a grind. Players are on the ice for two to three hours a day, hustling through drills and improving their skills. They skate six days out of seven, weight train, cross-train for cardio fitness, watch their diets and go to school. Off the ice, they consult with trainers on how to strengthen specific muscles and nutritionists on what to eat and when. Schoolwork is sometimes completed through on-line courses.

The league oversees the billet program and screens every host family. Usually a boy is offered a choice between two or more families in order to find the best match. Billet families are responsible for meals, transportation, help with homework, emotional support and guidance. Billeting is not a money-making proposition: families receive a modest food and board allowance of $85 a week for each player.

Tavares’s Oshawa billet arrangement was with Rita and Dave Treagus. The couple own a 3,000-square-foot home in a subdivision 10 minutes from the General Motors arena and have been billeting players for 11 years. Dave works for the TTC in the Eglinton garage, and Rita runs a seasonal business selling swimming pools and home spas—which allows her to be at home with the boys during the winter. They’re diehard hockey fans, usually billeting four players at a time. The billets each have their own room: two upstairs, two in the basement. They also share the house with the Treaguses’ two grown daughters, a son-in-law, two Boston terriers and seven cats. Rita is generous with her time, affection and cooking (“I’m Maltese,” she explains. “We know how to feed people”), but she is absolutely ruthless about her no-girls-in-the-house rule. She compares the gaggle of fans hanging around outside the Oshawa arena after a game to the cadet-hungry women in An Officer and a Gentleman.

As hard as other players work, Tavares works harder. He’s intensely committed to his fitness and agonizes over lost games and missed scoring opportunities. That, combined with a relentless drive to play, sets him apart from the dozens of players the Treaguses have looked after. Two years ago, after the World Junior championship game in Sweden, Rita and Dave picked Tavares up from the airport. He came off the plane draped in the Canadian flag, beaming. In the car, he phoned his Oshawa coach, pleading to come to the rink and suit up for the game that night. But he was slurring his words from fatigue and eventually gave in, nodding off in the front seat of the car.

Barb is grateful for the care the Treaguses have shown John but says being away from him never gets any easier. In the four years John’s been in the OHL, Barb has missed only a handful of his games, and most of those were because of blizzards. Usually on her own, but sometimes with one of her daughters, Barb will drive six hours to watch him play.

When Tavares’s team appears in Mississauga, friends and family fill an entire section. Toronto’s Portuguese community isn’t known for turning out hockey players, and there’s an obvious delight and pride in John’s success. Barb entertains a steady stream of well-wishers from her regular seat. After most games, dozens of people line up to see her son. Old friends, former teachers, cousins, fans looking for autographs or photos. Sometimes Barb is frustrated at having to share John with so many people. And there are nights when she’ll wait to see him along with everyone else, but by the time it’s just the two of them, he’s too tired to even have a conversation or the coach is calling for everyone to get on the bus.

Off the ice, Tavares is a combination of ordinary teen and superstar-in-training. He’s about to complete all the coursework for his high school diploma—he required an extra year. When he gets a break from hockey, he goes to movies and plays video games with his buddies. As is expected of prominent sports figures, he spends a considerable amount of time doing charitable work. This past year, attending the Special Olympics’ annual breakfast in Toronto, Tavares was flanked at the head table by Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, two of the biggest star quarterbacks in NFL history. He looked right at home.

Tavares struggled in his third OHL season. Teammates he’d developed a rhythm with had moved on to either the NHL or Europe. Surrounded by younger, inexperienced players, he felt he didn’t get the scoring opportunities, and his numbers dropped significantly, to 40 goals for the season. For the first time, critics started looking for holes in his game and wondered out loud if he hadn’t been oversold. There were whispers that his skating wasn’t good enough and that he could score only easy goals. “I just tried to keep my focus on playing the game,” Tavares says. “When I step on the ice, I don’t think about what people say.” He put his head down and worked harder to improve his skating. His composure impressed NHL scouts, and despite the tumble from the stratospheric high of 72 goals, he was still posting some impressive stats. Forty goals and 78 assists are fat numbers.

That same season, Tavares considered asking for early entry again—this time to the NHL. In another quirk of the Ontario hockey system, the cut-off for eligibility in the NHL draft is September 15. Tavares’s birthday is September 20. Under the rules, he would have to wait another year and be drafted with the 1991 players. Tavares and his parents knew that petitioning for early entry would require legal manoeuvrings, which might distract him from his game. The media was buzzing about the possibility, but the family ultimately decided John should stick it out for a fourth year in the OHL. (Until January, he had played his entire OHL career with the Oshawa Generals. After winning the World Juniors, he was acquired by the London Knights in the biggest deal of that club’s history. London traded away three players and six future OHL draft picks in exchange for Tavares and two other Generals.)

After the chatter about whether or not John would petition for early entry into the NHL died down, Barb received a call from Pat Brisson, an L.A.-based agent with Creative Artists Agency. CAA is one of the most powerful talent agencies in the world, representing heavy hitters in Hollywood’s film industry. Three years ago, the agency branched out into sports and quickly picked up a roster of such stars as David Beckham, Derek Jeter, Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. Brisson was convinced of Tavares’s potential the first time he saw him play. “John creates room for himself to make the next play,” he says. “He is extremely dangerous around the net.” Barb was impressed by Brisson’s hockey roots (from Mont­real, he played until he was 22). He signed Tavares to the agency a few days after meeting him.

Before the World Juniors, Tavares’s only real competition for the number one NHL draft spot was Sweden’s Victor Hedman. In the final, fans were hoping for a mano-a-mano throwdown between the two superstars. Instead, Hedman spent much of the game flopping around the ice and complaining to the referee. He didn’t win over any Canadian fans by saying he didn’t care for the more physical aspects of the game. The NHL scouts took note.

Tavares has heard stories about how the NHL interviews potential players. He heard one player was asked to sing just to see how he’d do under pressure. Another was forced to sprint up and down a hallway to disprove rumours that he wasn’t fast enough. The NHL does psychological testing on all of its players, but that doesn’t worry Tavares. The OHL does similar testing, which he sailed through.

He’s currently working with a nutritionist to bring his body fat percentage down from 11 per cent to eight—where the NHL likes players to be. He’s not a fresh veggies kind of guy, but he’s trying to skip the burgers and go for lean chicken and salads. He spent most of last summer working with a figure skating coach to improve his footwork and speed.

What worries him most is the prospect of living alone in a strange city­. He’d like to go to a team where he knows some of the players, friends from his days in the OHL. He figures he’ll find his bearings when he gets his first goal. Back in the OHL, that first goal made it possible to imagine his place in the NHL. He realized no matter where you are, the net, the ice, it’s all the same.

Unlike some of the phenoms he’s been compared to, Tavares is not a flashy hockey player. He doesn’t streak up and down the ice, and he doesn’t leave his opponents tied up in knots with fancy moves. He’s not a player who lets his emotions derail his game or cost him foolish penalties. There is a simplicity to his game that is deceptive, because however ordinary he might seem at first glance, Tavares is a goal scorer. In hockey, there are players who arrive before the puck, anticipating the play. It’s a rare gift and one closely associated with Gretzky. The puck follows John Tavares, and time after time he puts it in the net. He shoots left and likes to set up office just outside the crease and to the right. Whatever the criticism of his footwork and speed in the past, there’s no denying he has incredibly fast hands and his release is explosive.

Barb still remembers the time her sister’s basketball coach came to the house in Sudbury. He was there to plead with her mother to allow her sister to go away for a tournament. All of Barb’s siblings were gifted athletes, but her sister was especially talented, the star of her basketball team. Her mother didn’t really see the sense in any of it, especially not the extra expense of travelling with the team. The coach was charming enough, and for that day at least, her sister got to play. Barb doesn’t tell the story with any bitterness or rancour. She’s simply trying to explain why it never bothered her to make all those sacrifices for John when he was little. As considerable as they were, they fell away when she saw how much it meant to John. She’d never seen that kind of joy in a child. She recognized the drive in John and how badly he wanted this.

However nervous John might be about draft day, he’s not surprised to find himself here. And however surreal it is for Barb to see his photo on the front page of the daily papers, she’s not exactly surprised, either. It wasn’t a complicated plan, but it worked: get on a bus, get out of town, and later, when your kid figures out what he wants and he wants it like nobody’s business, do whatever you have to do to make it happen.