John Tavares speaks strongly on best-on-best hockey: ‘We need it’

Team Canada's John Tavares celebrates a goal against Team Russia during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TAMPA – John Tavares caught some feelings last Sunday.

The captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs was cruising on the Gardiner Expressway on his usual work commute from his home in High Park to Scotiabank Arena. He glanced to his left and, from a distance, soaked in the scene at BMO Field, where the Canadian men’s national soccer team was busy punching its ticket to the World Cup.

“Just a packed house. A great moment in Canadian soccer and for those players,” Tavares said, after his Leafs took care of the Florida Panthers that night. “To see them back in the World Cup is tremendous.”

Tavares was speaking with pride, absolutely. But he was surely feeling a tinge of envy, too.

The 31-year-old is what one of his national coaches termed a “serial winner.” He’s also a fierce patriot when it comes to answering Team Canada’s call.

Tavares represented the Red and White at one Super Series, two world junior championships, three world championships, one Olympic Games, plus a World Cup of Hockey. He has five gold medals to show for it.

Even when the NHLers were locked out in 2012, Tavares hopped on a plane and won another gold at the Spengler Cup for his country.

Tavares is a best-on-best junkie, and — like the fans who follow this great sport — he’s been deprived of an international tournament since 2016, when he put up four points in Canada’s golden six-game run.

So, it was no great surprise to hear Tavares speak firmly and passionately about the need for hockey’s World Cup to come back strong in 2024.

“We need it,” Tavares said, following Sunday’s Leafs practice at Amalie Arena. “It’s important for our game, especially considering this next generation of players we have now. With Papi [Auston Matthews], Mitchy [Marner], [Leon] Draisaitl, Connor [McDavid], [Cale] Makar, this is kinda the next wave of guys. 

“And obviously we still have so many great players — and Sid and Ovie lead the way as two the best of all time — that are getting later in their careers. I think when you have best-on-best hockey, you get all those players together. It’s really special. We don’t really get that. Getting to play for your country, we know how rare that is.” 

Tavares has a specific appreciation for those opportunities. Yes, he won gold in Sochi, the last time NHLers participated in the Olympics, but a quarterfinal knee injured robbed him of skating in the medal rounds.

Tavares was one of the few who spoke openly at training camp about his fierce desire to play in Beijing. Heck, he even modelled Team Canada’s casual gear for Lululemon before COVID squashed the dream.

Naturally, Tavares is encouraged that the Players’ Association and the NHL brass have met multiple times over the past couple of months to plan for the next World Cup of Hockey, which will likely feature some European play-in games (August 2023 has been floated) and multiple host cities.

There’s some traction on a February 2024 tournament, and the IIHF will need to get involved before a plan is formalized.

And while Beijing crumbled apart for the pros, the players have been promised participation in the Milano Cortina 2026 Winter Games in good faith.

Tavares won’t be satisfied with another one-off World Cup. He wants a regular, dependable best-on-best competition. Like soccer.

“Other sports have a really good job of that. We need to develop some type of calendar that’s really consistent. I think that provides a lot of clarity for players, for the league, for everybody. Whether it’s one event, a couple events, having some of that would be really good for our game and good for everybody.”

So, does Tavares believe it’s a good thing that Team North America and Team Europe will disappear?

“Yes, I do,” Tavares said. “We want to see Connor and Sid playing together. And I think it was unique last time and something different — created some excitement and some buzz. 

“But I think, no doubt, especially with skipping at the Olympics this year, everyone playing for their country, that national pride, best on best, it’s hard to recreate that. And it’s so rare for us.”

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