Tavares looks right at home in first NHL season
It was mid-afternoon on Long Island, in that special sliver of time that is both after school and before the start of homework. As usual, 8-year-old Danny Weight and his neighbor, John, were perched on the edge of a couch, yelling at a flat-screen television and furiously working their controllers as they played EA Sports 2010 NHL.
"Yes, yes!" screamed Danny as he punched the air after scoring the first goal of the game. John made a face, and Danny's sister, Ryan, 10, rolled her eyes.
It was a scene that could be taking place in hundreds of homes all over Long Island, except for one major caveat. In this home, the professional hockey players aren't just computer-generated figures on a screen. Danny is the son of Islanders captain Doug Weight. John is the Islanders' 19-year-old rookie center, John Tavares.
Tavares the tenant
In the same fashion that Penguins center Sidney Crosby once lived with Mario Lemieux, Tavares lives with Weight, his wife and their three kids. OK, officially Tavares and Islanders teammate Matt Moulson rent a ranch house on the property of Weight's larger home, but unofficially there don't seem to be a lot of locked doors between the two residences.
"John likes to show up around dinner," joked Weight, 39. "I know I'm getting older, but I'm not sure I was ready to have a teenager."
Until you watch Tavares interact with Weight and his family at home, it's easy to forget that he still is a teenager, that he is closer in age to some of his teammates' kids than he is to the teammates themselves.
The man who has been charged with resurrecting the Islanders' struggling franchise in many ways still is a kid, a guy whose primary interests are hanging out, playing Xbox and talking about hockey. "It's great to be able to come home to a family atmosphere," Tavares said. "We have a lot of fun."
On the ice, Tavares looks like anything but a kid. A natural goal-scorer, he has been drawing comparisons to hockey legends such as Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky ever since he broke Gretzky's Ontario Hockey League scoring record at 16.
With the exception of a recent nine-game stretch in which he didn't score a goal, Tavares' transition to the NHL has been virtually seamless. Earlier in the season, he led the team in scoring. During one thrilling stretch, he scored five straight Islanders goals in a four-game span. He entered last night leading NHL rookies in goals with 17 and is the team's No. 2 goal-scorer; Moulson got his 20th last night.
Ready to be a pro
Off the ice, Tavares usually sounds like anything but a kid. In post-practice media sessions, Tavares comes across as polite, professional and bland. In other words, he is completely media-savvy at the ripe old age of 19.
Islanders fans can't get enough of him. About 10,000 of them packed Nassau Coliseum last June to watch on the big screen as the team took him with the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft. Recently, about 500 fans waited outside for as much as four hours in 20-degree weather to meet him and get his autograph at the East Meadow Modell's.
Never mind that the saving grace of the Islanders can't legally drink, is barely eligible to vote and is only a few years removed from having his mother car-pool him to practice. None of this seems to faze him.
"I'm used to it. I've been in the spotlight a long time," Tavares said. "I know I can't do anything about people's expectations. I only can control what I control."
Tavares, who grew up in a suburb of Toronto, has had the spotlight fixed on him from almost the moment he put on his first pair of skates. His mother, Barb, said it was clear even at the age of 5 that he had a special connection with the game.
"I still remember I was sitting in the stands for his first game with these other parents, and they're all pointing at this kid," she said. "And jeez, I look at the kid and it was John. Everyone wanted to know who he was."
And they've been pointing at him every since. Tavares quickly became obsessed with the sport. One day, a teacher took Barb aside to tell her she thought John had a problem because all of his drawings featured hockey players.
"I knew there wasn't anything wrong with him," Barb said. "He had just found something he loved."
Lacrosse has helped
Actually, Tavares had found two sports that he loved. Tavares is named for John Tavares, his uncle, who is the all-time leading scorer in the National Lacrosse League. Tavares says many of the skills he learned in lacrosse - such as spinning off checks - have helped him become a better hockey player. One of the players he played with in suburban Toronto was Chris Moulson, who is Matt Moulson's younger brother.
"John was a really good lacrosse player, too," said Matt, who also played lacrosse, "but obviously, there was more opportunity in hockey."
Yet with big opportunity comes big pressure, and both the Islanders and Tavares' family have tried to do what they can to ease his transition to the NHL.
Probably the most helpful thing the team has done is encourage his relationship with Weight. The two hit it off after they roomed together in training camp this past summer. Tavares had planned to get an apartment with some of his younger teammates, but when the tenants moved out of the house on Weight's property, both realized that this was a perfect situation.
"Off the ice, he likes the things I like," Weight said. "He likes to hang out. He likes home-cooked meals. He likes to be a homebody. We sit back at night, watch a lot of hockey and talk."
Weight a good mentor
Tavares credits Weight for helping him get through his goal drought in early January. The rookie has scored only twice in the last 17 games after getting 15 goals in his first 37.
"I haven't ever been through something like that in my career," Tavares said. "Doug really helped me through it. He'd tell me about all the times that he was feeling good or slumping and how sometimes even when you are playing well, the pucks just aren't bouncing. It's amazing how much we think the same about the game. We do a lot of sitting around and talking, and it's really helped me."
Of course, it hasn't helped Tavares so much that he is considering giving Danny Weight any breaks on the Xbox. Though Danny is getting better when it comes to scoring, he has beaten Tavares only once in their dozens of games.
Said Tavares: "Danny is a great kid. But I have to play to win."