The Long Island wind is whipping refuse across the barren parking lots that surround Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, challenging a series of flagpoles to anchor “Old Glory.” The arena, with its rounded shape and worn exterior, looks like a rickety Ferris wheel keeled over on its side. Indoors, you’d swear the aroma of overflowing celebrations past remains soaked in the seats, though if that’s truly the case, it has morphed into a bit of a pungent smell over time. But there’s something else in the air, pushing back against the stale scent. John Tavares and the youthful Islanders are being put briskly through their paces by coach Jack Capuano. When their intermittent stretching sessions end, the players drop their sticks on the ice in unison, like an exuberant college football team breaking from the huddle with a clap.
It’s tough to get a clear look at everything that’s happening, what with the unseasonably warm October weather causing the glass to fog up. But come back the next night and it’s obvious Tavares is the beacon of hope, the shining light that can break through the haze that’s engulfed a once-mighty franchise for far too long. The Coliseum, though nowhere near full, is lively. Two goals from Tavares have the home team ahead of the Phoenix Coyotes 6–1. Late in the game, he’s going for the hat trick. In the upper reaches of the building, where the rowdiest supporters are at eye level with the banners that commemorate a period of dominance unmatched in hockey history, hearty chants of “We want seven!” are bellowed. With Tavares guiding the ship, Islanders fans finally feel entitled to their optimism.
As captain of his team—a designation handed out in September after Mark Streit left town as a free agent—Tavares is required to hang around after practice for media duty. He’s always been someone who remained after the drills were complete, though he used to do it for different reasons. When he was about 10, Tavares served as the ball boy for the Buffalo Bandits of the National Lacrosse League. His uncle, also named John Tavares, is recognized as one of the best players to ever pick up a stick. After Bandits practice, when all the errant balls had been collected, little John lingered, desperately hoping the third-string goalie would ask for some extra work, or that someone would want to test modifications made to his stick by passing the ball back and forth. “I thought those guys were the greatest guys in the world,” says Tavares.
Not long after that, a teenage Tavares was the focus of superlatives himself. The first player ever given exceptional status by Hockey Canada, Tavares was allowed to play major junior a year early and was just 14 in his first few weeks as an Oshawa General. In his sophomore season, Tavares scored 72 times to eclipse Wayne Gretzky’s OHL record for goals by a 16-year-old, attracting the eye of a hockey-obsessed nation. Uncle John says his nephew’s level head served him well when the spotlight hit.
The strong mental aspect of Tavares’s game has always helped him overcome the fact that he’s never been the fastest player, and is the main reason the Islanders didn’t hesitate to make the Oakville, Ont., native the top pick of the 2009 draft. His approach is not unlike the cagey way 45-year-old Uncle John—who will soon be headed to Buffalo for the start of another NLL season—gets his lacrosse goals.“I’d like to think both of us are opportunists,” says John, the younger brother of Tavares’s father, Joe.
That Tavares would be capable of creating opportunities in the NHL the way he did in junior was never a slam dunk. Doug Weight knew that. As a 39-year-old playmaker winding down a decorated career on Long Island the same season Tavares joined the team, Weight was worried his young teammate would be victimized by big-league boards and corners that shear away the advantage of talent as unflinchingly as an army barber taking off a new recruit’s long hair. But Tavares soon showed an ability to win turf wars.“Within the span of 12 months, you went from getting nervous when you saw him go in the corner with Zdeno Chara to [not having] any nerves,” Weight recalls. “He goes in the corner first and he comes out with the puck 95 percent of the time. His weakness has become his biggest strength.”
Tavares’s ongoing development has certainly been seen across the league, indicated by the MVP nomination he earned last year for production that wasn’t just about his natural gifts, but also the grit he’s shown in becoming so much stronger on his feet and, as a result, so much tougher to knock off the puck. His off-seasons are always filled with the regimented routines that sculpt megastars, and last summer, he spent time working with elite trainer Andy O’Brien. “He’s grown in so many areas,” says John Ferguson, director of pro scouting for the San Jose Sharks, between periods at the Nassau Coliseum. “He is a legit No. 1 and certainly among the top centres in the league. All of that is well earned. It’s very evident that he works on and off the ice.”
The 28 goals Tavares scored last year in a 48-game schedule are further testament to that. That total projects to roughly 48 goals over a full season—17 more than Tavares’s previous career high. His 50 assists were a top-10 total in 2011–12, but a renewed focus on what’s always been an instinctive asset—his shot—caused the goal spike and sparked the question of whether Tavares’s core components are that of a sniper or playmaker. “He’s both,” says linemate Matt Moulson. “That’s what makes him so good.”
Moulson is uniquely qualified to speak about Tavares’s game and character. The pair joined the Islanders at the same time, and their chemistry helped ignite Moulson’s career. He had six career goals in 29 games with the Los Angeles Kings before lining up to the left of Tavares for the 2009–10 campaign. Since then, the 29-year-old has registered three 30-goal seasons. In fact, sporting connections with Tavares run in the Moulson family. Moulson’s little brother, Chris, grew up playing high-level lacrosse with Tavares in the Toronto area, and the two had a great bond on the floor. Because of that history, Moulson and Tavares lived together in Weight’s guest house when they joined the Isles. In the interim, Moulson has started a family of his own, and when his daughter, Mila, was born in the summer of 2012, he and his wife asked Tavares to be the girl’s godfather. According to Moulson, the range Tavares has demonstrated as a hockey player has yet to carry over to other aspects of life. “He’s got to develop some more child games,” Moulson says. “All he has is peekaboo.”
Moulson left the nest after one year with the Weight family, but Tavares stuck around for one more, moving with Weight, Weight’s wife, Allison, and their three children from Brookville to Lattingtown on the north shore of Long Island. Usually around dinnertime, Tavares would pop in from the guest house, hang out with the kids and then blow Allison’s mind with how much food his still-developing body could pack away. And Tavares wasn’t done consuming. Once they moved to the couch, he often wanted to talk shop. Weight played 1,238 games in the NHL and, even in retirement, it’s clear he doesn’t skip many workouts. But he also understands the value of unplugging, and did his best to convey that to his keener of a squatter. “One thing we developed over the two years would be just relaxing and getting away from the game,” says Weight, now an assistant coach and special adviser to Isles GM Garth Snow. “He used to want to come over and break down games, and [talk about], ‘When we play these guys,’ and, ‘Watch what they do.’ Like, hey, I’m not working, let’s just watch the game and have some fun. That’s one of his biggest attributes, so by no means are we trying to take that away, but you want to make sure he’s enjoying this ride and putting a smile on his face, as well.”
Tavares has planted a few on other people’s mugs, especially as he sinks more and more into his surroundings. “He hasn’t penalty-killed in two years, but he’s in every single penalty-kill meeting,” says Weight. “He leaves joking with [Capuano] and [assistant Brent Thompson] saying, ‘Today might be the day.’”
Levity was certainly in short supply on Long Island when Tavares arrived. The franchise once captained by another first overall pick, Denis Potvin, has made it past the first round of the playoffs just once since Tavares was born in September 1990. That’s a far cry from the astonishing record of 19 consecutive playoff series wins Potvin and the Islanders posted while claiming four straight Cups from 1980 to 1983, then losing the ’84 final to Edmonton. “It could be—and I say this, of course, having been the captain—probably the best [team] to ever play, when you consider the consistency year after year after year,” Potvin says.
The staggering decline from those glory days ran the gamut from comical to criminal. Former owner John Spano, who seemed like the team’s young saviour in the mid-1990s, was uncovered as a complete fraud—he pleaded guilty to bank and wire fraud and was sentenced to 71 months in prison. He was the one who asked Mike Milbury to quit coaching and focus full-time on his GM duties. That resulted in a mass exodus of young talent—Roberto Luongo, Zdeno Chara and the second-overall pick used to take Jason Spezza—as Milbury tried to rebuild on the fly with players like Alexei Yashin. The failed attempt left the Isles’ prospect cupboard as barren as their increasingly empty old building. Owner Charles Wang, who bought into the team in 2000, tried unsuccessfully for years to execute a plan that would either refurbish or replace Nassau Coliseum. The death blow came in August 2011, when a proposal to devote $400 million in public funds to renovate the Coliseum was defeated by Nassau County residents. When their lease expires after the 2014–15 season, the Isles will move to the sparkling Barclays Center in Brooklyn. For hardcore fans—like the Blue and Orange Army that fills the arena with soccer-style chants from section 329 each game, happily reminding everyone in attendance that the “Ran-gers suck!”—it’s a bittersweet move; though they’ll now have to forgo tailgating for a westbound ride on the Long Island Rail Road, at least the club didn’t land in other rumoured destinations, like Kansas City.
Even better, the franchise has begun to turn a corner by focusing on drafting and development, as well as making small, shrewd transactions. The result was qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2007 last spring. The packed Coliseum came back to life, while Tavares and the team gave the Pittsburgh Penguins a healthy six-game shake before bowing out. “It was hard to watch it deteriorate the way it did,” says Potvin, “but this definitely sparks that flame again. I love seeing it.”
So does Tavares, who raves about a culture change now, but acknowledges the basement finishes took their toll. By the time he established himself as a point-per-game player in his third season, speculation bubbled up that the expiration of his entry-level contract might spell the end of his time on seemingly sunk Long Island. Weight remembers the chatter, recalls regularly checking in with Snow during that summer of 2012 to see how the talks were going. And he knows exactly what it meant when Tavares reciprocated the team’s belief in him by putting his name on a mutually beneficial six-year deal worth $33 million. “He wanted to be a part of this team,” Weight says. “He believes in the way we’re rebuilding, and hopefully there’s some great June hockey for him in his future. The ceiling is beyond high. He’s got a lot more to give.”
Even with that being the case, any concern about how Nassau Coliseum would handle the heat of an early summer night are likely premature, since this Islanders team is much closer to Brooklyn than it is to the Stanley Cup Final. But for now, patrons are happy to settle for nights like the one in early October when Tavares stalked his third tally against the Coyotes. The chance came late, but his one-timer from in close was denied by a stellar save from Thomas Greiss. Tavares was asked numerous times after the game if he thought he had the hat trick on his stick, but he seemed unconcerned. He’s in a spot now where he can shrug off missing one in a laugher, and besides, the captain in him knew the win was all that mattered. Still, it’s hard to believe the
perfectionist in him wasn’t already figuring out how to give the fans what they were screaming for next time.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.