Editor's note: This story contains references to Residential Schools which may be distressing to some readers. If you or someone you know is struggling, a 24-hour national crisis line can be accessed by calling: 1-866-925-4419.
TORONTO – Like so much in John Tavares’ life, his connection to Canada’s Indigenous people can be directly traced through his love for sport.
Today, on the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs captain thought back to being four years old, when he was introduced to the sport Indigenous Canadians introduced to the world.
Tavares still remembers the day a lacrosse stick was placed in his small hands. Like a family baton. Tavares’ uncle John, 53, remains the National Lacrosse League’s all-time leading scorer. Uncle Peter played pro, too. And little John fell in love with the sport, running around with that stick at Uncle Danny’s house.
“I grew up around a lot of Indigenous people playing the game of lacrosse. Lacrosse is one of our national sports, and I was around that community a lot. Tremendous culture and tremendous people,” Tavares said Thursday, wearing an orange Leafs T-shirt.
Every child matters.
Tavares has reflected on the importance of Canada’s overdue day of reflection and education, the lost children and survivors of residential schools.
“It has little extra meaning for me. But I think it should have significant meaning to everybody just because of what happened and how we can learn from it. And not just reconcile but make the Indigenous peoples and their culture and who they are — really — a main part of our society and us as Canadians,” Tavares said.
“It's tremendously difficult to understand and extremely sad. But it's extremely important to learn and understand where we've come from, and an important part of our history and important culture that should be part of all of our lives.”
Although a star lacrosse player in his youth Tavares’s last season as a participant was the summer after he was drafted (with exceptional player status) to the OHL’s Oshawa Generals.
The Generals allowed him to play one last summer of competitive lacrosse in 2005, but after exploding for 77 points in 65 games as an underage rookie on the ice, Tavares knew it was time to become a one-sport athlete.
And while Leafs teammates (and former youth lacrosse players) Nick Ritchie and Mitch Marner both spoke of the hand-eye and cardio skills translating from the floor to the ice, Tavares believes the physical nature of lacrosse best prepared him for a life in hockey. (Confirms Marner: “The slashes are no joke in that league.”)
“Your ability to roll off checks and move through traffic, take contact with and without the ball,” Tavares explained. “It seemed to really help me in tight areas around the ice, around the net — just finding ways to create openings and get shots off or extend plays.”
The Tavares family’s love for lacrosse is being extended, too.
John has already placed a mini lacrosse stick in his two-year-old son Jace’s hands.