By Gare Joyce in Toronto
By Gare Joyce in Toronto
Life at the high-pressure centre of a contending Toronto team doesn't faze John Tavares. He's been here before — and he brought home championship after championship.

One month into the season, fans in Toronto have stopped pinching themselves. It wasn’t just a fever dream. Their team actually did go to the market in July and sign John Tavares, the last centre not named Connor or Sidney to be voted onto an NHL First All-Star Team. For almost a month, they watched coach Mike Babcock roll the lines, Tavares on one shift, Auston Matthews on the next and Nazem Kadri on the one after that, like a blackjack dealer peeling and dropping aces on jacks and tens. They saw the team string wins together, with Matthews and Tavares among other Leafs atop the list of the league’s leading scorers.

When Matthews went down with a shoulder injury against Winnipeg in Game No. 11, Tavares’s workload was bound to grow, but otherwise his role seems well-defined. He’s not the oldest in the room; that would be Patrick Marleau. He’s not the most naturally engaging and quick-witted; that might be Mitch Marner or Morgan Rielly. No matter, Tavares’s presence in the dressing room mirrors his play on the ice, always going to the tough places, never tap dancing on the perimeter.

Though he got married in the city last summer, Tavares hasn’t needed any sort of honeymoon with his team, nor a period of adjustment. It has all gone ahead seamlessly, perhaps because, on his part, there is a familiarity. For Tavares, starring for the best team in the city, a team with a rich history, is a case of history repeating itself. For many who’ve watched this autumn, it has been eerily familiar, something they saw years before: Playing in Toronto for the home team in blue and white. Granted, it took place half his lifetime ago, but it was also a key period in his development. This is the story of young John Tavares and the Toronto Marlboros.

Even as a pre-teen, Tavares was uniquely driven. “If it didn’t have anything to do with hockey — with becoming a better player — he wasn’t interested in it," says Tarasuk.

The Marlboros are effectively the Tiffany organization of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, which is inevitably referred to as the biggest minor-hockey league in the world. The Marlboros are in fact older than the Leafs or the NHL. The original Marlborough Athletic Club dated back to the 1880s and fielded teams in a variety of sports, including baseball and football. The Marlboros’ first alumnus to make the NHL was Charlie Conacher, a Hockey Hall of Famer who in his years with the Leafs led the league five times in goals scored. And if you go through the seasons running up to Tavares’s class, more than 60 Marlboros boys made it to the NHL and five joined Conacher in the Hall: Bob Pulford, Brad Park, Steve Shutt, Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy. The alumni weren’t all ancient history, either. When Tavares was in atom and peewee, the organization was having an outsized impact on the NHL draft. Jason Spezza, who skated with the Marlies ’82-birthday teams went second overall in the 2001 draft and Rick Nash, an ’84, was selected first overall in 2002.

Born in September 1990, John Tavares was playing up a year, with ’89 birthdays when he came over to the Marlboros from the Mississauga Senators for his last three seasons of minor-hockey. The group he joined went on to win GTHL championships in minor bantam, bantam and minor midget, as well as a bunch of tournaments against powerhouse programs from across the country and the U.S. It might sound like hyperbole when Akim Aliu, a member of that team, calls the Marlboros ’89s “the greatest minor-hockey team in history.” It’s not hard to make a case for it, though.

Granted exceptional-player status at 15, Tavares went first overall to the Oshawa Generals in the OHL draft. Three of his Marlboro teammates went in the next seven picks and doubtlessly at least one more, Sam Gagner, would have landed in the top 10 if he hadn’t expressed an intention to play NCAA hockey (he went fifth overall in the NHL draft a couple years later). Likewise, Justin Vaive, son of former Maple Leafs captain Rick Vaive, would have been an OHL first-rounder if he hadn’t committed to the U.S. National Team Development Program. In all, the ’89s turned out three NHL first-rounders, two second-rounders and a third. Five have skated in the NHL (Brendan Smith, Cody Golubef, Tavares, Gagner and Aliu) and a few others made it as far as the AHL and are still playing pro hockey at some level.

For some, that Marlboros team gave them the best years of their hockey careers and for all it occupies a special place in their memories. “It was a special group, and not just because of the championships,” says James Naylor, the team’s coach. “They came together and grew up together and still see each other very regularly. There are values that we try to instill with every player and every team — that you’ll always be a Marlboro. And I think that really applies with John and that team.”

The Marlboros’ dynasty started with a phone call from Barb Tavares to Naylor, one of the sort of calls that coaches in the GTHL AAA leagues have to field. Barb was testing the waters to see if the Marlboros ’89s might have a spot open for her son John. The coach was reluctant at first. “Honestly, I didn’t know that much about John at the time,” Naylor says. “I knew that he was playing up [a year] and that was in the back of my mind. I told Barb that I’d come out to see him play [with the Senators] and we could talk.”

Before checking out the Senators’ game against the Toronto Red Wings, Naylor sounded out his assistant coach, Dave Gagner, who had played 15 seasons with seven NHL teams. Gagner’s scouting report was terse but emphatic. “He’s the real deal,” Gagner said. As it turned out, Tavares had come over to play in the backyard rink with Gagner’s son, Sam, then a centre with the Marlboros. “Before we even played on the same team, he’d come over,” Sam Gagner says. “His mom would drop him off and we’d play for hours. We’d play a lot of one-on-one, order a pizza and then keep going.”

It took only a few shifts for Naylor to know that his assistant coach wasn’t over-hyping Tavares. “I hadn’t really noticed him a lot before that [in Marlies games against the Senators], but when I sat and watched him that night, I noticed that after every Red Wings’ goal, he did something to get his team back into the game,” Naylor says. “I came away thinking, ‘If he wants to play for us, he’ll have a huge impact.’”

Though it had been the Tavares family that approached the Marlboros, Naylor feared the idea would fall through before John ever skated with the team. Barb Tavares took in a Marlboros game against those same Red Wings doing her own bit of scouting. “We got killed,” Naylor says. “Barb and I were supposed to get together after the game to talk about John coming to the team but we played so poorly I really doubted that she’d show up. I was sitting in a Harvey’s waiting for her and I was relieved when she walked in. The first thing she said was: ‘Well, I guess you can really use him.’”

Most kids and their hockey-obsessed parents focus on ice time. Where can I get the most playing time? For John Tavares, career decisions instead came down to finding situations that pushed him. Where can I play with and against the best? That was the motive behind playing up in the first place. “The challenge of playing up and being around older kids prepares you for the challenges that you’ll face later on,” he says now. “It was harder playing up the first few years with the Senators — just the differences in size and strength and maturity; sometimes I was just undersized and over-matched. By minor bantam, though, I felt like I had caught up and the ’89s were my age group. [And once I was comfortable there] I was ready for a new challenge.”

“From the first time John practiced with us, there was no doubt. Everything changed. He made the team that much better. He made each of us be better.”

Though the Marlboros played in the same AAA league and tournaments as his Mississauga team, they represented a step up in class. The push for Tavares was internal — a matter of those he skated with rather than those he skated against. He was going to have to raise his game because of the surrounding talent.

When it comes to the business of minor hockey, never underestimate how worldly and near-professional kids in minor bantam AAA can be. Many checked their innocence in peewee, maybe even atom. Like their coach, Naylor, most of Tavares’s future teammates with the Marlies didn’t know much about him and were skeptical about his arrival. Says Steve Tarasuk, a defenceman who had played with the team going right back to the novice age group: “We had a fair bit of turnover right up to peewee. Another player coming in really wasn’t that unusual. You could see that some kids were being pushed into [playing AAA] by their parents and didn’t really want to be there. We saw kids pushed so hard that they burned out and quit. And when you have a kid playing up, you wonder if it’s the right thing. But right away, from the first time John practiced with us, there was no doubt. Everything changed. He made the team that much better. He made each of us be better.”

Tavares fit in with the Marlboros at a social level but his game was sometimes beyond the ken of his 13-year-old teammates. “I’ve played with and against a lot of special players,” Aliu says. “I didn’t understand how he did what he did out there. He wasn’t the strongest skater. He didn’t have the hardest shot. It seemed like he was on the ice on his knees 50 per cent of the time. He’d chase the puck and dive after it when that’s not supposed to be what you do. What was a low-percentage play for everyone else he made a high-percentage play. He’d score and you’re left wondering: ‘How did that happen?’”

Says Bryan Cameron, the captain of the Marlboros ’89s: “John’s skating wasn’t his strength, but he had a mentality to do whatever it takes every second he was on the ice. His hands and vision were so good that his skating didn’t matter that much.”

Naylor had a clearer view from the bench and doesn’t fall back on the clichés about character and the like — excellence is the residue of hard work, etc. “John had a great work ethic but I’ve seen that with a lot of kids over the years,” he says. “Other things, though, made him unique. He had an ability to get to the net, through traffic, that was probably something that carried over from playing lacrosse. He always had great ability to anticipate the play. Every game there’d be at least a couple of times when I’d wonder how he got so wide open for a scoring chance. You see that with [Alexander] Ovechkin and it really jumps out, that type of hockey sense. It’s rare [even] with stars in the NHL but John had that at age 12. That’s not stuff that comes with hard work. That’s just vision and awareness and the ability to process the game so much faster than everyone else.”

Tavares and teammates pose after winning the 2004 Ontario bantam championship.

By Tavares’s third and final year in the Marlboros program, the ’89s had become a youth team for the ages, not just winning games against top local rivals but often demoralizing them. It wasn’t a case of running up scores, but simply executing everything they had worked on in practices. With a lead of five goals or more, the players still treated the game as if it was scoreless.

The players will inevitably cite their coaches as a key to their development. We’ve all heard enough horror stories about tyrants behind the bench who push players to and sometimes past their limits. The Marlboros staff was the antithesis of that. “Coach Naylor never really yelled,” Aaron Atwell says. “He never even spoke too much during the game. He treated his players well. His philosophy was that what needs to be fixed will be fixed in practice. Small adjustments can be made during the game but he let the players think for themselves. They gave us a frame, paint and a brush and we painted what we wanted to within that frame.”

“That was the must-see team that season. By the time the playoffs rolled around, you might have had 70 OHL GMs and scouts in the stands.”

With Naylor and Gagner running practices, the team was a baccalaureate program on ice, an enriched course in hockey studies with only A students in the fold. “It was just fun going to the rink, knowing that you had a chance to learn something and become a better player because of it,” Tavares says. “It was a great environment. As coaches, James and Dave were tremendous teachers of the game. With Dave’s career, you had to give him complete respect and attention — he knew the game and knew how to pass on the knowledge. And it wasn’t always a long process. You would come away from practice with something to work on individually with skills and something else to use as a team. They also loved the game and taught us to respect it.”

Naylor and Gagner didn’t have any special program, per se, no heavy-duty off-ice regimen, no long, gruelling on-ice sessions. In fact, they only practiced twice a week. Only years later did the players fully appreciate just how much the coaches were able to pack into those sessions. “Dave would have us doing D-to-D hinges, stuff that in peewee or minor bantam, other teams just couldn’t even think about,” Steve Tarasuk says. “It’d be asking too much of kids, even really good AAA players. But we could do it and, yeah, I think that really ran through the team, the idea that we could think the game at a level higher than the rest of the kids. And Dave was way ahead of everyone in the way that he thought of the game. Way ahead of analytics, he preached puck protection. He told us that even if we gained the [opponents’] blue line on the rush, don’t force things, don’t be afraid of throwing the puck back to the D and start all over again. Stuff that’s a given in the NHL now, but he had us doing that 13 years ago.”

[snippet id=4269123]

Naylor and Gagner are reluctant to claim too much credit and point to the independent study that their players took on. After practices or games, the players in the west end would congregate at the Gagners’ Oakville home to play shinny — upon retirement from the NHL, Dave Gagner went into the business of designing and installing private rinks and his family’s backyard sheet became the players’ home away from home. Tavares was the most frequent guest but virtually all the players came out. During the week, out of consideration to the neighbors, the players observed a 10 o’clock curfew, though shinny with a dozen players might run until midnight on a weekend. Says Sam Gagner: “The rink was only big enough for three-on-three, but we’d get a lot of lines going and it was a lot of fun.”

Suffice it to say that for every 50-minute practice with the coaches the players put in several hours of time fooling around on the ice, playing one-on-one in an endless loop. “Sam and I pushed each other to become better,” Tavares says. “He had the drive to be a great player. He had energy that was just infectious. As a linemate, I had to raise my game to play with him and [in the backyard] I had to match up against him.”

Says Cody Goloubef, who also grew up not far from Tavares and Gagner: “We spent hundreds of hours back there every winter. We couldn’t get enough of the game. I’m sure it helped a lot with developing our games but I also think it just brought us that much closer as friends and teammates. I think it’s fair to say that you’re tighter with players at that age than you are with teammates in college or junior or as a pro.”

Marlies teammates like Tarasuk (middle) and Cameron can still see the young Tavares in the Leaf he became. "The way he carries his stick or handles the puck, everything is very distinctly his style," Ngai says.

Games represented a small fraction of the time the players spent together but games are what people outside the Marlboros’ organization came to see. Beyond the parents on both sides and GTHL officials, scouts from all 20 OHL teams were in attendance every night; no matter the opponent, a Marlboros game represented the greatest concentration of elite talent eligible for the 2005 draft. “That was the must-see team that season,” Ottawa 67’s general manager James Boyd says. “By the time the playoffs were rolling around and you had [the Marlies] playing other teams with draft prospects, you might have had 70 GMs and scouts from around the OHL in the stands, on top of college recruiters and a bunch of agents.”

That turnout wasn’t lost on the teenagers on the ice. “By bantam and especially our last season [minor midget] we’d spot guys in the stands with clipboards,” Tarasuk says. “That was a change from the early years [in the organization]. If you had a bad game, even when we won, you knew. Even if you had a bad shift, you knew.”

A few of the Marlboros talk guardedly about teammates who sometimes struggled playing in the fishbowl. By the players’ accounts, the pressure didn’t issue from the coaches. From the coaches’ accounts, the pressure didn’t issue from the parents. Says Naylor: “The parents of the ’89s team were probably the best group I’ve had. They put their trust in us, because they knew that Dave was giving their sons the best shot of becoming the best players they were capable of.”

No, as Tarasuk suggests, the pressure was internal. “As a player, you’re the first to know when you got a job done or not,” Tarasuk says. “And when you’re surrounded by so many players playing so well, you know [the scouts] were going to notice.”

Tavares, the youngest player, seemed immune from the pressure that his teammates felt even though he might have had the most riding on the opinions of those in stands. He was playing to prove — or at least make a case — that he was going to be able to compete in the OHL at 15. Though he was the leading scorer on the best team in the age group, a historically dominant team, permission to enter the OHL draft as an underager wasn’t guaranteed.

Adding to the pressure was the fact 14-year-old John Tavares’s story was playing out in the media. Don Cherry expressed his blanket opposition to underagers and even 16-year-olds in major junior. For the star of Coach’s Corner, it was a matter of playing time. At a mid-season minor-hockey tournament Cherry told the Toronto Star: “In crunch time, the coach will always go to the older boys.” The OHL seemed reluctant to take up Tavares’s case, and issued a categorical statement on the larger question of underage eligibility: “[The OHL] does not believe allowing players aged 14 or 15 to be selected in our annual priority selection process is in keeping with the values of the league and is not necessarily in the best interests of potential players of this age and their families.” Established pros often get tied up in knots when their personal lives and career uncertainties are aired in public, so try to imagine how it was for a kid in his first year of high school.

“He had an amazing knack for catching goalies off-guard, and to do that against 20-year-old guys when he was 14, I just found that so impressive.”

Yet Tavares seemed unaffected by the attention and, if anything, channeled it into motivation. That year, in an attempt to strengthen his case, he skated in 20 games with the Milton Icehawks. He tore it up, with 13 goals and 15 assists, a pace outstripping any of the 19- and 20-year-olds on the roster. Says Sam Gagner, who was also called up to the Icehawks: “He scored a goal where he wrapped it around and the goalie didn’t even know he’d had the puck. He had an amazing knack for catching goalies off-guard, and to do that against 20-year-old guys when he was 14, I just found that so impressive. He always found a way to elevate his game no matter what the situation.”

The OHL wound up convening a panel that included Doug Gilmour, then-NHL Central Scouting director Frank Bonello and a sports psychologist to take up Tavares’s case for early entry, probably with some worry that he’d balk at playing another season of minor midget or Jr. A and jump to the USHL, where Sam Gagner was heading. Tavares had to go through what was an intensive job interview with significant stakes. The decision was still up in the air when the Marlboros skated to their minor-midget championship with a 5-0 win over Drew Doughty and the London Jr. Knights in the final. In fact, the OHL only signed off on allowing Tavares the week of the draft itself. “I didn’t have any doubt that John was ready and, really, how he handled everything on and off the ice [during the panel’s assessment process] proved that he was going to be just fine moving up to the OHL,” Naylor says. “He wasn’t born in ’89 but he came up all the way with the players in that year.”

Marlies alum, and former Leafs captain, George Armstrong autographs a sweater for a 14-year-old Tavares.

Sam Gagner and John Tavares skated on a line with the team captain, Bryan Cameron. Though he went on to score 184 goals across five major-junior seasons and was selected in the third round of the 2007 NHL draft, Cameron hasn’t gone on to an NHL career. In fact, he has played the bulk of his pro career in the East Coast Hockey League. Nonetheless, he more than kept up to his linemates on the Marlboros. On any other team, he’d have been the centre of attention. “Bryan had a man’s body and strength at 15,” says defenceman Wilson Ngai. “He was just more physically advanced than everyone.” Aliu is even more emphatic: “At both ends of the ice, Bryan was our best player. He was the best natural goal scorer that I ever played with.”

That may be true, but Cameron’s ability to score didn’t carry over beyond junior — or at least hasn’t so far. These days, at age 28, he’s sidelined after shoulder surgery and hoping to restart his career with a team and a league to be determined in mid-season. Nonetheless, he and Sam Gagner have probably skated more games on Tavares’s wings than any other players. “I’m not surprised really by anything John has gone on to do,” Cameron says. “Did I see it all coming together the way it has? Probably not. But he’s still the same player in so many ways that he was when I skated with him. If no one wore numbers and names and you couldn’t see their faces, I could pick out John in less than a shift.

[snippet id=3816507]

“He carried himself like a professional player even when he was 12 years old. There are a lot of things that John does differently than almost anyone else in the game. The one thing that jumps out for me: When [an opposing] defenceman has the puck on the boards and has his body between the puck and John in a one-on-one battle, John will do something different on the forecheck. Ninety-eight or 99 per cent of guys [forechecking] will try to get around the defenceman to the side where he’s protecting the puck. John doesn’t. He’ll reach in with his stick on the ice and fish the puck out — he’ll go really low, down to knee level. Really, it’s a move he’d use when we were playing mini-sticks in a hotel hallway on a road trip to a weekend tournament.”

Ngai was hoping to play hockey and attend medical school, but his career on the ice ended in Jr. A because of injuries and concussions. These days he’s working as a physician in remote northern communities, stretching from Newfoundland and Labrador all the way to B.C. Like Cameron, Dr. Ngai sees Tavares, age 14, when he watches Tavares skate as an all-star. “The way he carries his stick or handles the puck, everything is very distinctly his style,” Ngai says. “Guys on our team saw more of him than anyone else — all the time in practice and games and when we’d be fooling around at the Gagners’. Maybe more the defencemen on the team. He would come down on us in drills dozens of times in every practice. After a while you recognize things and even if you knew what he was going to try to do, you couldn’t stop him. Now when I watch him in the NHL and I see him coming down on a defenceman and doing something, I’m thinking, ‘I know just how you feel right now.’”

Naylor (middle, beside Marlboros GM Mike Chraba) was a "tremendous teacher of the game," says Tavares. "It was just fun going to the rink, knowing that you had a chance to learn something and become a better player."

It’s hard to imagine that Tavares will have as profound an impact on the Maple Leafs as he did when he first walked into the Marlboros dressing room at age 12. But those who knew him then say he will bring more than just skills on the ice to his new team. Though he never again had a chance to play with an all-star talent, Ngai has studied and worked with people who have similar make-ups to Tavares’s. “What John had when he was 12 or 13 years old was the ability to completely focus on something in practice or in [the backyard] rink,” Ngai says. “He would be completely absorbed by it. And I saw that same sort of focus and work habits when I was in med school. Successful students had it. It was hard to have any success without it.”

Says Tarasuk: “If it didn’t have anything to do with hockey — with becoming a better player — he wasn’t interested in it. A video game, something like that, [he’d have] zero interest. He’s all business. He never got distracted. He’ll be fine with all the attention and the media in Toronto, just because it won’t mean anything to him.”

“He’ll be fine with all the attention and the media in Toronto, just because it won’t mean anything to him.”

That focus seemed single-minded but Tavares suggests that he wasn’t self-absorbed or losing himself inside the game. The Marlboros provided the key years of his education as a player and thus it’s no surprise that so many see the same player and the same character in 2018 that they saw half his lifetime ago. He has ever been a model of consistency, both over the course of a game and an entire career, and the thread starts with his first game with the Marlboros. “I learned what it takes to become a professional [in the program]. When I was 12 coming to the Marlboros, I was in awe of Dave and Rick [Vaive]. To be around two very successful NHL players just made [the NHL] seem accessible. I could listen to them talk about the NHL and tell stories. I was fortunate to learn about the game from great coaches and with great teammates. I was lucky to grow up with an uncle who was a great lacrosse player and be around pros in dressing rooms. I watched my uncle’s focus and attention to detail. Clearly those have been the biggest influences on my career.”

John Tavares knows what it’s like to raise a trophy and win a championship for a tradition-rich hockey team in Toronto. He joins a team with a lot of young players who might look to him as he did his uncle, who might learn from him as he did from Dave Gagner and others. There was some talk about who might wear the ‘C’ for the Leafs this season and going forward. There shouldn’t be any debate about the identity of their best role model and really the identity of the team itself.

Fans and media both have looked for some greater design in Tavares’s signing on with the Maple Leafs beyond dollars and cents and a chance to win. Some will say it was the magnetic draw of the most valuable franchise in the game, the brightest spotlight, after years spent with a team often struggling in relative anonymity under dubious ownership. Some will say it was the comfort of home cooking. It’s hardly far-fetched to suggest, though, that, at a level even he might not have fully appreciated, Tavares was drawn back to where he had loved the game unconditionally, where he had formed his deepest lifelong friendships on a team for the ages.

Those friends have all gone different ways. And now John Tavares isn’t just living his dream, he’s also living theirs.

Design by Drew Lesiuczok
Edited by Evan Rosser

Photo Credits

Courtesy Sportsnet/Toronto Marlies; Mark Blinch/NHLI/Getty Images; Courtesy Toronto Marlies (2); Frank Gunn/CP; Courtesy Toronto Marlies.