Q&A: John Tavares Is Living the Dream

When the Toronto Maple Leafs signed John Tavares last summer, they broke the hockey word’s ankles. Suddenly, multiple longstanding myths were busted. Prime free agents never leave their old teams? So much for that. Toronto kids with all the leverage would never chose to play in their hometown’s fishbowl of hyperactive attention? Not anymore.

Tavares could’ve gone anywhere, but he chose to come home and join the team he literally grew up dreaming of playing for, assuming all the pressure that would come with it. So far, the deal’s been a revelation for both sides. While Tavares is handsomely paid at $11 million per season, he’s arguably exceeding expectations — he’s got 63 points through 58 games, and is on pace for a career-high 49 goals. To quote ex-Islander Rob Schremp, the man is doing his job — and doing it well.

So, you could say the 28-year old from Oakville, Ontario has been pretty chuffed with his decision. “Really just the fan support has been incredible,” Tavares told Sharp. “Not that I didn’t think it was, but once you actually live it and you’re in it and they’re supporting you, it’s a great feeling. Once you sign here — and being from here, I had a sense from a distance — but being a part of it is pretty cool.”

Truth is, Tavares thrives on pressure. He’s the reason the Ontario Hockey League made the Exceptional Player Status rule — a rule made well before Generation Snowflake was a thing, mind you — which allowed him to enter the league as a 15-year-old. This ain’t his first rodeo. It takes a lot — much more than increased media attention or the captaincy inquisition or generations of desperate fans — to rattle the guy. We mean a lot.

We recently sat down with Tavares to discuss his trailblazing adolescence, returning home to the 6ix, his famous lacrosse-playing uncle, and which tennis superstar he’s got a total bro-crush on.

Apart from skating, which attribute do you think is the most important to have in order to be a great player in the NHL?

Hockey sense. All the best players who have a lot of success and play for a long time just think the game really well, are at the right spots at the right time, and are able to anticipate and understand how the game works, which allows you to take advantage.

What was your greatest reservation, if any, about returning home to play for the Maple Leafs?

I wanted to make sure I’d be comfortable on and off the ice. Was the attention going to be a lot away from the rink? Could I live the life I wanted to live and was this opportunity the right one for me? Just trying to think if it really felt right.

So far, so good?

So far, so good.

What was the toughest part of handling all the acclaim you received as a young kid, being drafted into the OHL at 14 under a new rule? How long was it before you became comfortable in being John Tavares, so to speak?

I looked at it more as just a great opportunity and I played with the ’89 age group my whole life, so I just looked at it as I was moving on with my peers. What I recognized more was not, Oh geez this is a lot of pressure because I’m the first one for this rule, but more what a great opportunity because my possibility of playing in the NHL; my NHL dream was extremely strong and I needed to go out and take advantage of it. I think I was too young to even realize the pressure, which was good. This was just what I wanted so bad and I was happy to get the chance to move on with my peers.

There are a lot of players who move through junior hockey with a lot of acclaim, put up huge numbers, but then struggle to translate the same success to the NHL. What’s the key from going from elite junior player to elite NHL player?

What I realized was I had a lot of work to do on my game. What I did in junior didn’t mean I was going to have that same success in the NHL unless I realized a lot of areas of my game that needed to get better and put the work in. I felt I could be a good NHLer but if I wanted to be at an all-star level, there were parts of my game that weren’t as strong like my skating. I’ve always had to work on that and it’s such an important part of today’s game.

Your uncle John Tavares is the NLL’s leader in goals, assists, points and games played over a 24 year career. How much of an impact did watching your uncle play have on you developing a passion for sports?

What I realize now that I didn’t even realize my first couple years in the NHL was when I used to watch him practice, the impact I noticed about his work ethic, his talent, and most importantly, how he was as a teammate. Being in that environment in a pro locker room, what that was like, and how he handled being the best player, how he treated his teammates, the extra work he put in, all that made a huge impact on me that not many people get. That was a real advantage.

Is it true that he’s a math teacher?

Yes he is, but I never went to him for math. Just for sports, hockey, or lacrosse.

When did you realize you were a pretty good hockey player as a kid?

Playing up an age and scoring a lot of goals, the success I was having, I was having fun doing it, but I never thought, I’m really good at this. That’s never what it was for me. When I was given the exceptional player status, I really realized that I was playing at a really good level and had great potential to be a great player and live my NHL dream.

You’ve had one career fight in the NHL. Remember who it was against?

Alex Burmistrov.

Any chance you mix in another one?

I would think at some point, but I don’t know if there were any punches thrown in that one. It’s not a video I tell too many people about, but I’ve got one on the card. I’ve been close a couple times, but the linesmen kind of got in there. We’ll see.

Who’s one current player, not on the Maple Leafs, who you love watching? Someone who you are always shocked every time you see their highlights.

I’ve always very impressed by Sidney Crosby. Not just his skill set but his ability to do it for as long as he has, the drive and the work ethic and commitment and focus he has is off the charts. This year, Patrick Kane. What he’s been able to do the last three or four years, you can really see his game just on another level. We all knew how good he was, but he’s been unstoppable. Elias Pettersson has been fun to watch as a young rookie. His creativity and his mind for the game and the way he sees it.

What’s one thing that has nothing to do with sports that you are passionate about?

I’ve really gone into cooking and enjoying good food. It’s something I continue more and more to learn about. It started as helping me perform better but it’s become part of my lifestyle. I wouldn’t say I have a signature dish, but I’ve got decently good at cooking a chicken breast in the oven. I don’t know if that counts but it tastes pretty decent when I make it. I enjoy it, it’s therapeutic in a way.

Who is one person you’ve met, maybe an athlete, actor, whoever, who you found yourself starstruck in front of?

Probably Roger Federer when I was playing during the lockout in 2013 in Switzerland. He’s a big hockey fan. Mark Streit and Roman Josi knew his one coach pretty well. We went to go watch him after the Swiss indoors tournament. I thought we were just going to say hi and take a picture, but he ended up inviting us to the lounge for dinner and we sat there for two hours and talked. That was really cool, marvelling at the type of person he is and how he’s the best at his sport, ever.