A whole bunch of teeth in John Tavares’s mouth aren’t his, not really. Wearing a grey suit and a white collared shirt at an NHL media day a couple of weeks before training camp, Tavares runs his finger across the falsies, from incisor to incisor. "Here to here," he says, wrinkling his nose and lifting his top lip, "all fake."
The real ones got knocked out after he was officially deemed "exceptional." It’s well-known by now: As a 15-year-old, Tavares became the first under the new rules to play in the Canadian Hockey League a year before the usual 16-year-old requirement, on account of talent.
But even before he lost that first tooth (sticks and pucks were always the culprits), and before he spurred what some call junior hockey’s "John Tavares Rule," he was in the spotlight.
The No. 1 draft pick of a decorated-turned-anemic New York Islanders franchise—the man painted as its saviour—is a veteran at handling the attention that comes with being a superstar. He’s been doing it since he was a kid. The Islanders are now Brooklyn’s, having moved to the biggest of New York City’s five boroughs, a bustling metropolis compared to the relative calm of Long Island. And if anyone is prepared enough to handle the expectations and bring this franchise back to its glory days, it’s the team’s exceptional captain.
TOP 50 MOST IMPORTANT NHL PLAYERS: 10-1
Tavares just turned 25, and it’s a funny feeling. As a kid, whether it was lacrosse or hockey, he always played at least an age group ahead of his own. Now, for the first time in his life, he’s starting to feel close to old. "As far as my 20s go, I’m halfway to 30—holy shit," he says, smiling, shaking his head. "I’m still young, I know that. But I used to be the youngest kid in every room I was in. Now I’m not. It’s different."
He laughs when he thinks back to his 19-year-old self, making the move to New York after growing up about half an hour’s drive from Toronto in relatively sleepy Oakville, Ont. Yes, he faced the pressures of reviving a franchise that had missed the playoffs for two straight seasons and hadn’t gotten past the conference quarterfinals since 1993, but he wasn’t new to being the guy everyone relies on to score. He wore that hat with the Oshawa Generals, the London Knights and every minor-hockey team he ever played for.
New York itself—that was the big adjustment.
Living his dream as a teenager came with challenges, like managing time and adjusting to the fast pace of the city. And driving. "The ramps onto the parkways are so small," he says, eyes wide. "There’s no time to merge, and you’re only going 10 miles an hour. I’m like, ‘Why?’ In Ontario, it’s so nice. You’ve got your big, looping entrances. It’s funny to say that’s the big thing you notice, but I remember going there like, ‘Holy jeez. It’s really tough to get onto the highway.’"
Now in his seventh season, Tavares has grown comfortable in New York, where everything happens at a fast pace. He likes it. He’s also moving at a faster pace himself. Skating was always the knock on Tavares as a teenager and early in his NHL career, but he’s since become one of the elite skaters in the game. Working with power-skating instructor Dawn Braid the past seven years, she has essentially rebuilt his stride, like a golfer might rebuild their swing. "We did such a big overhaul, but it’s small steps, one thing at a time, year after year. We’re at the point now that it’s just about maintaining," Tavares says. "Things have definitely come a long way."
Tavares has tacked that skill on to incredible hands (Evgeni Malkin says he watches Tavares for stickhandling inspiration), size (six-foot-one, 209 lb. and so strong on his stick that teammate Casey Cizikas says: "In practice, you’re dreading having to go against him in the corners) and an incredible eye for goal (he broke Wayne Gretzky’s record for most Ontario Hockey League goals by a 16-year-old, with 72 to Gretzky’s 70). Tavares is coming off a career year: 38 goals, a Hart Trophy nomination and 86 points—one shy of sharing the Art Ross Trophy with Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars.
A move to Brooklyn, a captain at the top of his game and a team with the pieces to contend—Tavares feels like it’s all been building to this. "The opportunity’s there," he says. "We’re set up really well for the next number of years."
Tavares’s captain-speak is perfect, script-like. When he talks about the Islanders’ future, it’s a straight-faced delivery. The notion that the move to the big city means he could be the next King of New York—that makes him laugh. "I’m just a humble kid," he says, grinning, showing that top row of teeth that aren’t really his. "I don’t know about that."
On print and digital newsstands now: iOS | Android | Windows