John Tavares Q&A: Bad ice, lost friends and gold redemption

A first-hand tell of the motivation and drive pushing Islanders' franchise player, John Tavares, who leads his team in playoff points.

John Tavares and his double-overtime, backhanded-wraparound-goal-scoring bad self led the New York Islanders to their first post-season series victory in 23 years.

Now the 2015 Hart Trophy finalist wants to take his Jason Bourne–like focus and go deeper. One playoff round and an Olympic gold medal, with Team Canada in 2014, aren’t enough. He’s chasing more victory, and he wants it in New York and Pyeongchang and (this September only) in Toronto.

Tavares will become an unrestricted free agent in 2018, but through geographical, roster and ownership changes, the 25-year-old has been steadfast in his commitment to the club that drafted him first overall in 2009, the one he threw on his back to quench the drought.

“I don’t really have any reason to leave,” Tavares told Newsday this week. “I’ve always expressed my love for playing for Long Island. It’s where I started; it’s all I know in the NHL. The opportunity they’ve given me, I would love to see it all the way through and win a Stanley Cup.”

We caught up this summer with Tavares at a hockey rink (of course) just a short drive from where he grew up in Mississauga, Ont., to talk about soft ice, lost teammates, long commutes, and his quest for international redemption even though he won gold.

SPORTSNET.CA: You win your first-ever NHL playoff series but suffer the disappointment of losing Round 2. What did you do after the exit?
JOHN TAVARES: I took a good four weeks off, tried to get away a bit. I enjoy watching the game, too, so I still watched the playoffs. I’ve watched the final every year since I was a kid. You want to take time to assess how you feel physically, how you want to approach the summer. I didn’t really go anywhere this year. When I was out in Vegas for the awards [Note: Tavares was a finalist for the Mark Messier Leadership Award], me and my girlfriend did a little touring. Saw the Grand Canyon and a couple shows. Played a little golf. Then after three or four weeks, you start feeling that itch and a bit of guilt to start training again.

What show did you catch in Vegas?
I saw David Copperfield. He was good, real good.

Tell me you’re super into magic.
Not really. Just something to see. We wanted to see a good show.

You have your longest playoff run, then you need to get back into action early for the World Cup. How does that change your summer?
You lose two weeks that you normally use for training or getting settled in your home city. There’s definitely adjustments to make. For me, that’s the farthest I’ve made it in the playoffs, then with a quick turnaround, there’s not much of an off-season. It’s a big impact. So it’s about balancing things the right way and making sure you take time to rest and recover, then work on and off the ice. Make sure to enjoy friends and family. It compacts things, but it’s an exciting thing to be a part of and I’m fortunate to have the opportunity.

Of the Team Canada peers who weren’t in Sochi, who are you most excited to play with?
It’s being around all different types of players. You learn what makes them tick, what makes them great leaders, what makes them successful. There’s no picking one guy. You get to be part of something, especially if you’re able to win. In Sochi I was able to be part of that. Unfortunately I had the [knee] injury and wasn’t able to play in the semifinal and the final. I’d love a little redemption, to be part of that, to play in those games, those intense moments.

“People think the captain knows everything. They don’t.” — John Tavares

What’s running through your mind when your team is winning gold without you?
You just wanted to be out there. I was there right as the final buzzer went. I got to go on the ice and be part of the celebration and received a medal around my neck. But I missed being in the locker room between periods or even skating warmup before the game, being in the battles on the ice. Those are things that are special. You want to have an impact out there. I’m looking forward to having that opportunity this time around.

Do you want to play for Canada at the 2018 Olympics? Should NHLers go?
For sure. I would love to go. I’d love another opportunity. I think it’s great for the game. As players, we love to represent our country. We don’t see best-on-best very much. It’s great the World Cup of Hockey is coming back, but at the same time the Olympic Games is something special. As a hockey player, winning the Stanley Cup is the ultimate achievement. But as an athlete, participating in the Olympics is something specially regarded. Representing your country there is something we’d love to do again. There’s hurdles that need to be overcome, but it’s a lot of fun.

How do you react when you hear reports of the Isles moving again soon, from Brooklyn to Queens?
Those things are out of our control as players. Having certainty on where you’re playing is important. Ownership has said they’re committed to Brooklyn. If things change, we’ll see. Obviously there are reports. I know the organization doesn’t comment on rumours, so if it happens, it happens.

Is the Barclays Center ice really as bad as its reputation?
Yeah, it had its moments. To be dead honest, I think the worst ice I skated on all year was in Toronto. It was so hot the one game [on March 9], I couldn’t believe how warm it was. We were playing there on a back-to-back, and by the end of the third period we couldn’t even move. We lost [4-3 in a shootout]. There are some hiccups in being in a new arena, in a rink that technically wasn’t build for hockey. There were hurdles to overcome early on, but I think as the year went on it got better and better. The ice was at its best in the playoffs, to be perfectly honest with you. If they continue to work at it and make improvements, it’ll get better.

What about the travel to Brooklyn? How big of a hassle was it?
The travel is no different than what the Rangers do or what the Kings do—these teams that have to head into a very busy hub or downtown type of area. The drive took me 45 or 50 minutes to get in and about 30 minutes on the way home. It was a bit of an adjustment only because the [Nassau] Coliseum was right there. It was so easy. It was in such a great location with a lot of major highways meeting there. We were lucky to drive  five or 10 minutes after a game and be home. But that’s not realistic across the league.

It was a major change in that sense, but the second half of the year we dialed in a routine of meeting at the practice rink early for an optional skate, then guys could get out early and enjoy a day at home. Even though they had to leave 30 or 40 minutes earlier than usual, we were able to get a rhythm, and I think it showed in the way we played in the second half. Some guys tried to live by train stations and they’d just take the train. Where I lived it didn’t make sense to drive 10 minutes to a train, wait, then take it in. It was just quicker for me to drive.

You were vocal in wanting Kyle Okposo to remain a New York Islander, and he still left. What is Buffalo getting in him?
Before a player, they’re getting one of the best quality of people around. A guy that helped me when I was young and maturing.

How so?
We were roommates my rookie year. Even though it was only his second year, he really opened my eyes, not just about the game, but he opened my personality. I was a very shy kid, so hockey-focused. He helped me be more comfortable in my own shoes off the ice. How to be a good teammate, how to be a good leader, what life is like in the NHL. I got to be around him and his family a lot. He’s a tremendous father, a tremendous husband. He’s become a very close friend. They’re getting a quality person, a heck of a leader, and no question he’s a guy that can produce and put the puck in the net. He’s big and strong, great long the walls, plays such a power type of game.

Matt Martin, another impact player, is gone too. Describe his role to Toronto Maple Leafs fans.
Matt’s a very physical player. He’s led the league in hits for many years. I have opposing defencemen I know tell me all the time that they need to know when he’s on the ice. That type of thinking and awareness of a guy like that puts pressure on them and creates turnovers. Matt can put the puck in the net a bit, too. He scored 10 goals last year and did a lot of good things for us. Such a great guy in the locker room, good in the community. We all kinda grew up together, so we got quite close. It’s sad to see him leave. I just hope he’s not very good when he plays the Islanders.

What kind of guy is he off the ice?
He’s just very easygoing, easy to talk to. Unlike me—I’m more straight and narrow—he likes to put himself out there a bit. With his personality, he can stop and talk to anyone on the street. He’s fun to be around.

“To be dead honest, I think the worst ice I skated on all year was in Toronto,” Tavares says. “By the end of the third period we couldn’t even move.”

In comes Andrew Ladd, a well-respected leader. Is that odd when a long-serving captain, one with more experience, joins your team?
Not really. I just give him a tremendous amount of respect. I’m going to rely on his leadership. It’s great to have a guy to bounce things off of, someone to give you advice. The more, the better. That’s only going to help our team and help myself, being able to lean on guys like that. People think the captain knows everything. They don’t. They need guys they can lean on and help you when you’re going through certain things in your game or trying to get a pulse and manage certain issues in the locker room. You need a different perspective. I’ve played world championships with him, so I know him a little bit. I talked to him about getting settled on Long Island, getting him comfortable as soon as possible.

New home rink, new ownership, plenty of ill-timed injuries and trade rumours: What did you learn from 2016?
What it takes to win a round. There’s so much excitement and everyone’s kinda fresh going into the playoffs. You learn as you go deeper about the different challenges you face. Ultimately the goal is to win the Stanley Cup, so unless you get to lift it over your head, you don’t accomplish what you set out to do at the beginning of the season. There’s always a sense of disappointment. But we overcame a lot last year. It was a much different year than the year before, and we went farther. There’s been some changes to our team as well. I like our makeup. We want to get to that next step.

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