Thursday, November 12, 2015

Legacies are built on stories like John Tavares

By Larry Wigge

It was a strange and yet eery little conversation. It was something I never to forget.

Here it is ...

During the 2007 Stanley Cup finals, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks hosted an NHL Entry Draft preview of the top prospects. Patrick Kane and five of the world best talents were there at a luncheon. One of them was Sam Gagner.

Sam was the son of Dave Gagner, who for nearly 15 years toiled for the New York Rangers, Minnesota, Dallas, Toronto, Calgary, Florida and Vancouver. The elder Gagner, who was also there, you might remember him as slick center. A thinking man's player.

As it happens Sam Gagner went sixth overall to the Edmonton Oilers. But ...

Dave and Sam both let me know about the up-close-at-personal information I am about to share with you.

The Gagners backyard rink in Oakville a number of the best players in the Ontario Hockey League. It seems that John Tavares was Sam's best friend and rival. They lived in the same neighborhood.

And if you needed an advance scouting report on Tavares just listen:

"John is bigger and stronger than Sam and sometimes ... the way he plays is downright ruthless," Dave Gagner said of the six-foot, 183-pound Tavares.

"We had some pretty heated one-one-one battles on the rink," Sam said with a confident grin.

"He'd tell you he won most of them, but he'd be lying."

The stakes were more than about bragging rights, however. These anything-goes contests sometimes had no rules, no fouls, in which goals would only be counted if the puck was banked off a goalpost and in.

"The games were supposed to go to five ... but ended up going to 20," Sam Gagner said with a competitive smile.

"Whoever lost wanted to keep the game going."

That's when Dave Gagner would turn out the lights and, in essence, the game would be over.

The remembrance I seem to recall would resurface like fine wine ... Taveras did become the first pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders.

"His hockey game speaks for itself," Islanders GM Garth Snow gushed. "Anyone that watches him play realizes he's a special talent. But ..."

Leaving all of those scouting assignments behind him.

Snow continues, "But behind the scenes, the character that John is, it's probably the biggest attribute he's brought to our organization."

Now we take you from the way back part of this story ...

On November 10, John Tavares started and finished the scoring for the Islanders in a 4-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks. They was his sixth and seventh goals this season.

"Growing up, I was always a really heavily offensive player," Tavares said. "But I've realized more and more that to play professional hockey and to be a very good NHL player, to try to be one of the best in the league, you have to be good on both sides of the puck.

"And my play away from the puck is something I've worked really hard at. My overall skating and the tempo of my game, pace of my game, has improved."

The "ruthless" youngster entered the NHL with 24 goals and 30 assists in 2009-10. Last season, some five years later, Tavares topped 24 goals in each season.

Tavares addressed his only significant weakness by improving his skating last season in 2011-12 -- his first season at the All-Star Game and a work stoppage in which he spent some time in Bern, Switzerland. But Tavares worked hard during the summer months in California to improve his skating stride.

That the way it is with John Tavares -- working hard to achieve his own legend, not someone else like Sidney Crosby or Wayne Gretzky.

In 2014-15, John finished with 22 points in 13 games. That put him at -- a career-high 38 goals and 48 assists -- one point behind Dallas' Jamie Benn for the NHL scoring lead, 87 to 86 points.

"If you look at Sidney Crosby and you look at Alexander Ovechkin ... it would be tough not to put Johnny in that category, as the face of the New York Islanders," said Islanders coach Jack Capuano.

No one could handle his combination of power and speed. No one has that special radar that Tavares displays around the net. That come his love for lacrosse, which was special to Tavares.

It was lacrosse that taught him how to spin off checks and battle in traffic -- skills he says transferred easily to hockey and helped make him such a feared threat around the net.

As a youngster, John Tavares was an extremely competitive boy. He seemed headed for greatness in lacrosse. His uncle, also named John Tavares, was a prolific goal-scorer in the National Lacrosse League when John was young. He ended up as the NLL’s all-time leading scorer. For one year, Tavares served as a ball-boy for the Buffalo Bandits, when his uncle played there.

John learned the game from his father, Joe. His mother, Barbara, was also integral part of his career. She drove him to practice and games, regardless of the destination.

"My dad's job was very physically demanding. They were tough hours of the day and he sacrificed a lot of time with our family," Tavares said. "He wasn't there every game, every practice. It was mostly my mom taking me to do those things. But I knew how much he wanted to be there and watch me grow up."

Barbara described lacrosse games and soccer games where John would play so hard, he would be thrown out of games for simply running over other players. He was 5.

"As soon as he played organized hockey, he stood out from the rest," she said. "It was one of the reasons why I moved him up an age. I had to. He played so aggressively and he was so strong."

Said Tavares, laughing at his mothers suggestion, "That's part of the game. Sometime that gets the blood going a little bit. Sometimes it gets you a little pissed off."

Still, there are the comparisons that come along ever four or five years. Better than Bobby Orr or Wayne Gretzky or ...

Shortly after the All-Star Game in Columbus in 2015, where John Tavares scored a hat trick, Toroto defenseman Dion Phaneuf remarked about how swifty Tavares had come along.

"Johnny is a great player. I played with him at the Worlds Championships last year," Phaneuf said. "I'm always matched up against him, so I see a lot of him when I'm playing against him and I know how skilled he is.

"He has got another extra step of speed that's very noticeable."

Noticeable. That's John Tavares every time he step onto the ice.

"John Tavares wants to win the Stanley Cup with the Islanders," said Moulson. "He's not the type of guy who bails ship. He wants to win here."

From skating in a backyard rink in Oakville, Ontario, to starring in the NHL, John Tavares has proven to everyone just how special he is.

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