By MARK SPECTOR
UNIONDALE, N.Y. — It was John Tavares’ first National Hockey League game — an opening night a hockey country has seen coming for years now — and he already had a puck for the trophy case. His first NHL game, his first NHL goal.
“Before a face-off later on, Sidney Crosby congratulated me,” Tavares said on Monday.
He learned that night that even the opponent can show some class. But before it was over, he was reminded that is the exception, not the norm.
There was a scuffle in front of the Penguins goal, and Tavares hooked up with veteran winger Bill Guerin. As the two paired off, Guerin warned him: “Gimme my space.”
“Then he says,” Tavares adds, “‘And Dougie says, go clean up your room.’”
“Dougie” is Doug Weight, Guerin’s longtime friend and Tavares’ landlord.
“I didn’t know what to say,” the 19-year-old recalls. “I just kinda laughed.”
Two moments, and the making of a pro had begun.
“You dream about being here,” Tavares said on Monday morning, peeling off his gear after a morning skate on the Island. “You want to make sure you improve, and prove that you do belong here. And that you can compete with the best of them.”
Tavares wants to become a “pro” as quickly as you can, a term that embodies about 100 different elements and a process that has no set time limit. When you’ve got Tavares’ skill however, you start the progression on second base.
“Look at Sidney,” Weight said. “Sidney came into the league and made a lot of fancy plays early in his career. (Now) he’s all about going to the net, throw it wide and get the rebound… That’s why he’s getting 125 points instead of 85. He knows what his game is now.
There are less highlights, perhaps, Weight figures, “but more production. And a tougher player to play against. Less turnovers.”
It is a Monday night on Long Island. The Saints and Falcons are playing Monday Night Football. The Yankees are in Philly with a chance to clinch a World Series title.
Tavares’ Islanders are hosting the Edmonton Oilers in front of about 6,000 of his closest friends.
In the first period his winger and buddy since childhood, Matt Moulson, digs a puck out from behind the Edmonton net and instinctively finds Tavares. He is cruising high in the slot, in a high-percentage position both offensively and defensively, and quickly sniped his fifth goal of the season.
It was perfect positioning and execution both. He would go on to chart six shots on net in a 3-1 Islanders win.
In 14 games Tavares has 11 points, outstanding numbers for a rookie. But he is still a pup in so many ways, still caught between what worked to get him here and what works now that he is finally in the best league in the world.
“The fourth-line player can knock a pass out of the air, unlike in junior,” Weight says. “Here, you’ve got to make the quick pass, maybe dart to a hole. One piece of advice I gave John was, ‘You’re not going to make the Hall of Fame in that first shift.’”
Translation: Make the easy play, the simple play more often than you did in junior. It will pay off with more ice time, and thus, more opportunities for your skill to shine.
Two other pieces of advice Weight handed down: “Come to camp quiet and in great shape.”
Tavares did exactly that, proving to his teammates that he doesn’t think he is God’s gift to the game. The humble No. 1 draft pick is rare in this country, but the Isles have exactly that in their prize from last summer’s draft.
Like a good NHL shift, Weight’s counsel has been short and useful. The kid has enough on his plate, playing saviour to a failing franchise, in a town that has seen its share of true greats.
“This kid’s no Mike Bossy, or Bryan Trottier,” they’ll say the minute Tavares slips up. Yet, compared to a city like Toronto or Montreal — or any Canadian city, really — Long Island is a relatively easy place to save a franchise.
“Anywhere you play, there is pressure,” Tavares said. “Obviously, playing in Canada though… It’s like the New York Yankees. It means a lot — like a religion back home.
“For any young kid, coming into a place like Long Island, a place like New York, it can help you get away at times. There is still attention, expectation, but you’re able to relax a little more and just get away.
Does he get recognized at McDonalds, or at the mall?
“No. Well, once in a while, but it’s not like back home.”
The learning curve lies ahead for Tavares, but he should have no problem with it. He has Crosby’s demeanour: respectful, ready to learn, yet in a hurry to take in the knowledge.
Weight, who recently had H1N1 and jokes that his primary responsibility in taking the team’s franchise player under his wing is “Don’t give him The Swine,” would bet you an NHL paycheque that Tavares will turn into a superstar.
“He just wants to be an islander and be a great player. He’s on his way,” the tutor said. “His shot, his savvy. He’s got it, he gets it, and he wants it.
“He wants to be great. I think he’s going to be a winner.”