Q&A: Maple Leafs’ John Tavares on Mike Babcock, fatherhood and books

NHL insider Justin Bourne joins Good Show to decipher what he thinks Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe is saying when he called his team "immature," following another bad loss.

You can set your watch to John Tavares.

Anytime the Toronto Maple Leafs turn in a disappointing effort, Tavares will be the first one to step before the microphones and answer the hard questions.

But you could participate in 91 Tavares scrums, listen to a slew of honest responses about the power play, the D-zone coverage and the latest contributions of the third-line winger, and still walk away feeling you don’t know a whole ton about the 29-year-old superstar.

So, it was both refreshing and enlightening to just chat one-on-one with Tavares after practice one recent afternoon, away from a semicircle of cameras and free of the game-oriented line of questioning.

For nearly 20 minutes, the notorious rink rat was happy to discuss a range of topics outside of the arena: what he loves, how he spends his precious downtime, which Leafs he’s clicked with. (And, of course, we talked some hockey too.)

(This conversation has been edited for brevity.)

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Sportsnet: Describe your perfect day off.

John Tavares: Start with a nice cup of coffee. I like to cook. So if I can cook a nice breakfast, a nice cup of coffee and then probably take the dogs for a good walk. Get outside, get some fresh air.

SN: Are you a coffee snob? Do you go for the really premium beans?

JT: I do. So, maybe a little bit. But I can’t say I’m very knowledgeable in all the details that go into it. Our medical staff are really into their coffee, so we’ve been spoiled with the stuff we get supplied. It’s something you enjoy coming to the rink, so it’s nice having some at home. And there’s great coffee shops where I live as well, so I can walk to many places around where I live.

SN: You live in High Park, right?

JT: Yes. So, I go up to Ronce(valles) a lot, or a little farther up to Ossington. There’s some really good spots. (After coffee) I’ll spend some time with the family, see the little guy. He’s moving around more, so just interacting and being around him more is a lot of fun. I might go somewhere good for lunch, walk and grab a nice bite. I might go see family out in Oakville. There is a good brunch place I like going out there, Kerr Street Café. I do a lot of cooking, so I usually go grab a few groceries.

SN: What’s your specialty?

JT: My family on my dad’s side, with the Portuguese heritage, my mom’s picked up on a lot of the red pepper sauce they make. I make some really good chicken or shrimp with that. Just really good flavours. My wife really likes it, too. I don’t know if it’s my specialty per se, but it’s something I like eating. Just relax, watch some TV or read a little bit before going to bed. I listen to podcasts.

SN: Which podcasts?

JT: A lot of Joe Rogan lately.

SN: Why did you choose High Park?

JT: We didn’t know High Park very well at all and looked at many different areas (after 2018’s signing), but the location was ideal for practice rink, game rink. Also, it’s been really good for my family that’s out in the west end, to see them a lot more. It’s really easy. I just love the area. I mean, I’m a football throw away from the actual park. So, it’s beautiful in there. And it’s such a great place to just go spend outside and enjoy the day. Lots of things to do there. I really like Bloor West and Ronce, Ossington, Little Portugal area. It really suits my type of lifestyle. We found a great house that we liked, so it’s just worked out. It all happened really fast. We just had a really good feeling about it when we went and looked at it.

SN: What type of dogs do you have?

JT: I have a Bernedoodle, but he’s a mini. And then my other one, Charlie, she’s got Bernedoodle, Australian Labradoodle, golden retriever and something else in there. We got them from the same breeder. She’s a little bigger. She’s about 40 pounds. My first dog, Bo, is about 12 (pounds). He’s not like miniature at all, but he’s small. Yeah. They’re a lot of fun. I didn’t grow up with dogs. It’s kind of the hockey player model: Dogs first before kids. They’ve been great. I’ve always loved dogs and like animals so yeah, it was just it was a lot of fun.

SN: How is Jace? At four months, he’s probably not quite crawling yet.

JT: Not there yet. He’s kind of flipped over a few times, but I don’t think he’s realized that he actually rolled over. He’s more attentive, more alert. He’s grabbing things a lot now. And there’s certain noises he likes. We get to find out how much he weighs now next week, so it’s just been great to kind of see him evolve and grow. I’m really excited for once he can really start communicating.

SN: Has anything about dadhood surprised you?

JT: Honestly, I wouldn’t say anything has surprised me. I’ve just enjoyed it. And we’ve been really fortunate. He’s a really good baby. He sleeps good, eats well, he’s happy. So anytime you get all those things, it makes it really good. We’ve had a lot of help from friends and family, too. That goes a long way.

SN: What are you reading?

JT: I’ve been reading one book about parenthood. I can’t remember the name, it’s kind of long. I have a bit of everything. I read Chop Wood, Carry Water to start the year, which was really good. A very simple, easy read. It’d be good to read to my kids one day. It’s a story that teaches life lessons. I’ve been reading a little bit about the New Zealand football team. It’s called Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life. It’s good. It’s got a lot of life lessons in there, too. I’m a slow reader.

If I don’t take my time, I don’t retain the information. And usually, I’m reading before bed, so I get pretty sleepy very quickly. It’s a good way to shut my brain off and actually get to sleep, so I don’t get through it as quickly as I like. But I have a lot of books. Like I said, I like to cook. So, family and friends have given me books about the knowledge of cooking or about food and stuff like that. I enjoy it. It’s a nice way to gain knowledge and also very relaxing and kind of soothing.

SN: Are you a Netflix guy? Ever get sucked into binge-watching?

JT: Not really. When there’s something good that comes out, if there’s a good documentary or a docuseries, I’ll watch something. Sometimes I’ll watch Sebastian Maniscalco, a really good comedian.

SN: Oh, yeah. He’s funny.

JT: I saw him live on Long Island once. He was incredible. The show Mediator is good — quick episodes. I’ll maybe watch that after games to relax before going to bed. I’m trying to think what else…. The Dawn Wall was really good — that free climbing doc. I’ve watched Suits for a long time, but I haven’t watched it in a little bit. Same with Ray Donovan. I’m more listening to podcasts and trying to read as much as I can now.

SN: There’s a theory out there that contracts weighed on the room as a whole last season and were a distraction. Do you think that was the case? Has settling those contracts made a difference?

JT: I don’t know. A lot of guys had great years and helped contribute to this team. There’s no doubt it’s always nice when it gets done and it’s over with. Now you don’t have to worry about it at all, it’s not even a conversation. But everyone, especially our young core, is extremely driven, extremely talented. And I think they have a lot of confidence in their ability and trust themselves and know that there are ups and downs and that they’re still learning and growing and continue to accept the challenges that they face. I don’t think it was really in the way or a big deal.

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SN: How’s your broken finger?

JT: It’s good. It’s been good for, like, a good month now. It’s been in the rear-view mirror.

SN: When you’re handed the stat sheet after a game, which column do you look at first?

JT: It probably changes, depending how on the game was or how you’re feeling about certain things. Certainly, I look at faceoffs a lot. Probably look at shift average, attempted shots, and shots on goal.

SN: What’s your ideal shift length?

JT: It’s nice to be around 45-50 (seconds), but there’s certain circumstances, whether it’s a lot of power plays or if we’re down to games, you’re being double-shifted a lot late in the game. But in general, you have a good sense that the more energy you have, the better able you are to sustain that over 60 minutes. It’s about being able to play at a high level consistently and not trying to stretch yourself out, hoping for opportunities, thinking you still have gas in the tank and meanwhile you’re burning the candle at both ends.

SN: What do you miss most about New York?

JT: There’s a lot of great people and relationships that you develop, guys I’ve played with or people in the (Islanders) organization that you’ve known for a long time. They make a huge impact on your life. Certainly, you miss a lot of that. But there was a lot to do, a lot to experience. Long Island was a good place to kind of just relax and be yourself, a very family-friendly type of place. A lot of things to do. So, if we went into the city, we’d go somewhere new to eat, go to a sporting event or some other type of event.


SN: Did your decision to leave affect any of your friendships?

JT: I don’t think so. Everyone that knows me personally knows that it was an honest and a very difficult decision — the hardest I had to make in my life. So, I think they understood. Whether they agree or disagree or like it or not, I don’t really know. That’s up to them. But I think there’s a mutual respect.

SN: Who have you clicked with here, on this team?

JT: Me, Mitchy (Marner) and Zach (Hyman), especially being from the area. Me and Mitchy both have places up north and a lot of stuff in common — people who played in London and whatnot. We’re just different personalities, but sometimes that kind of attracts. I go to dinner a lot with Zach. Willie (Nylander) as well. Willie’s a very competitive person, but he’s also a lot of fun to be around. We go for dinner a lot and hang out on the road. Freddy the Goat.

SN: The Goat, eh?

JT: Yep. I call him the most interesting Maple Leaf. He’s awesome. He’s got a dog. He’s just a quirky guy that’s very interesting and just a really good person. I think he plays a really good role for us. It’s not always seen or talked about a lot, but just a lot of consistency with him and just the way he carries himself and his professionalism.

SN: Is Willie misunderstood?

JT: I don’t know, because I don’t read or listen to a lot. He’s very competitive, and he’s very knowledgeable in the game. To me, he’s still growing and learning and continuing to find how he can get better. And I think he’s very driven. He wants to be a great player and make a difference every night and be counted on and help this team be successful.

SN: Did you talk to Mike Babcock after he got fired?

JT: Yes.

SN: How did that conversation go? Or is it ongoing?

JT: Well, I just called to thank him. He was a big part of bringing me here. Also, he helped me become a better player. I had a really good year under him (a career-high 47 goals, 88 points and plus-19). He taught me a lot, and I think his commitment every day to maximize the team and maximize everybody was extremely impressive. He wanted to help do something special here. So I think just for all that, and obviously you’re disappointed it didn’t work out because, as players, we’re the ones responsible when we go out on the ice to play at a high level and get the job done and make the plays necessary to win games. So, you feel a sense of responsibility. I think (it was) owning up to that and having a good conversation and just wishing him the best and enjoying whatever downtime he has and whatever happens with his future.

SN: Do you believe he’ll be back in the NHL?

JT: I do. He’s just very competitive. Unless he’s very content — I’m not sure. But it’s hard to see him not doing what he’s done for so long, and he obviously had a lot of success with it.

SN: How specifically did Mike improve your game?

JT: He talked about a lot of things away from the puck and just committing to them on a daily basis, game in and game out. And they’ll lead to a lot of good things. It’s effort, but at the same time, it makes the game easier for you. So, it’s just buying into that and understanding that. That was probably the thing that I remember the most.

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