John Tavares’ biggest takeaway from his interactions with former Islanders owner Charles Wang was his constant advice to relax and enjoy himself.
So, as the former face of the Islanders embarks on his first year with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tavares says he’s trying to soak every “first” experience in.
“Just like I know Charles would want me to,” he said.
Speaking by phone Tuesday from Winnipeg, Tavares said the news of Wang’s death Sunday brought back memories from his earliest days in the NHL when he was thrust into the role of the Islanders’ franchise player as a teenager.
Tavares was only 19 years old when the Islanders made him the overall first pick in the 2009 draft. He said he was singularly focused on being the best National Hockey League player, something he had been preparing for as long as he could remember.
Wang, he said, tried to break him out of that mold.
“Every time I ran into him, he always said, ‘Don’t be too hard on yourself. Just have fun. Enjoy what you’re doing. You have so much life ahead of you,’” Tavares said.
Now 28, Tavares says he can see how his interactions with the longtime Islanders owner played a role in shaping who he has become.
Tavares says Wang’s easy-going, affable personality was a great match for the hyper-serious personality Tavares brought to Long Island.
“When I was really young, with just how serious I was all the time, and really shy, he helped me feel relaxed,” Tavares said. “He helped break down some of those walls and helped me enjoy everything about being a hockey player and a player for the New York Islanders.”
The first image of Tavares in an Islanders jersey is on the draft-day dais standing alongside Wang, essentially his new boss. Tavares says when he met Wang, he was immediately struck by just how “very easy to talk to, very easy-going” he was.
“He very much had a perspective of just trying to enjoy life,” Tavares said. “Every time I would see him, especially those first few years, he would tell me not to put too much pressure on myself, not to beat myself up over playing the game of hockey for a living.”
Tavares also lauded Wang for the efforts he put into the team’s arena situation - a constant off-ice issue that dominated Tavares' tenure on Long Island.
He mentioned how Wang was front-and-center pushing the plans for the Lighthouse Project in 2009 and then the county’s 2011 referendum to redevelop the Coliseum. He didn’t think Wang much enjoyed being so public, but he did it, anyway.
“I don’t think he ever thought the right thing to do was move the team,” Tavares said. “I think he felt there was a right solution and he was going to work toward that.”
He wasn’t aware of Wang’s involvement laying the groundwork for the team’s Belmont arena plans, but he wasn’t surprised.
“He knew the Islanders belonged on Long Island,” Tavares said, “and he always felt that way.”