2009 prospects: Q&A with John Tavares

By Stuart McDonald

Every four or five years, a junior player will distinguish himself enough to be considered the next one: the next great hockey player who can be compared to Rocket Richard, Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr. Some, like Mario Lemieux, fulfill their promise and become the player of a generation. Others, like Eric Lindros, experience success but fall short of legendary status. Sidney Crosby is widely considered to be the next one, but like Gretzky, whose career overlapped with Lemieux, Crosby may have to share his legendary status with a Portuguese kid from suburban Toronto.

John Tavares, nephew of the great lacrosse player with the same name, has the talent and the drive to be Lemieux to Crosby’s Gretzky. Certainly the game’s popularity was at its peak when both Gretzky and Lemieux in their prime, combined for an iconic goal to win the 1987 Canada Cup. Hopefully Tavares and Crosby can help the game rise to a level of popularity it hasn’t seen since Lemieux beat Soviet goalie Sergei Mylnikov on that September evening in 1987.   

In 24 games, 17-year-old Tavares has 23 goals and 33 assists for the Oshawa Generals of the OHL.  The 6’0, 183-pounder is eligible for the 2009 draft.

Hockey’s Future spoke to the Tavares after Game 3 of the ADT CHL/Russia Challenge on Nov. 22 in Kitchener, Ontario.

HF: Your game has been under the microscope for quite some time while Stamkos’ game has not had the same level of scrutiny. Because of that are you tired of the unfavorable comparisons?

JT: I think Steve is getting a lot of attention now especially being rated the No. 1 player going into the draft, but I think it’s healthy competition. We push each other and he’s a great player. He’s going to be a great pro hockey player and he’s going to do great things in hockey. It’s nice to see him doing well. We played together in September (at the Canada/Russia Junior Summit Series). We’re still friends and we’d like to see one another progress as players.

HF: Speaking of friends what about Sam Gagner? Are you surprised he’s doing so well in the NHL?

JT: No, not at all. I know how hard he’s been working and where exactly he’s come from. Especially when we were 10 years old playing on his backyard rink. It’s been amazing. All the days we used to talk about playing and watching the NHL and seeing him there now it’s amazing. I’m so happy for him and very proud of him. We talk weekly and see how each other are doing.

HF: What about the Oakville connection? There are four guys from Oakville  (a Toronto suburb) on this ADT Challenge team.

JT: I think Oakville’s starting to become a little bit of a hockey hotbed. They’re starting to get a really good program down there. It’s showing with (Steve) Mason, (Stefan) Legein, me, Gagner and there are many more. Lots are playing university hockey and there are so many players coming from there now. It’s good to see so many players coming from my hometown.

HF: What about the fact that you’re a Portuguese Canadian, is there a responsibility there?

JT: I’ve done Portuguese media from Portugal and from here as well in the Toronto area. It’s nice to be recognized for my background from my dad’s side…his heritage. It makes my grandparents really happy as well.

HF: Sam’s father Dave has said that when you played in the backyard against Sam you were so competitive that you would always cheat and raise the puck?

JT: I think that made both of us better. We used to play for hours and we went really hard and it was just for bragging rights going to the rink the next day for practice with all our teammates. It made us really compete and really battle…made us stronger on the puck.

HF: But did you really cheat?

JT: (Smiles). Well, he always used to complain that I’d go after him and give him some cheap shots. He just wouldn’t get out of the way when I was trying to put the puck in the net.  He could do some amazing things and I’d try to get any kind of edge I could. He’d usually beat me.

HF: Because he’s older?

JT: I’d always say it was home-ice advantage.

HF: Tell me about your uncle.

JT: He’s been a great ambassador for me. I’ve been looking up to him since I was a young kid. I talk to him a few times a year and he comes out before the season starts. I’ve always looked up to him. He’s still my favorite athlete of all time and I appreciate what he’s done for the game of lacrosse, what he’s done as an athlete and the way he’s kept himself and the way he’s still playing. It’s amazing to see.

HF: Would you have been a lacrosse player if you weren’t a hockey player?

JT: If I wasn’t a hockey player? Oh, guaranteed.

HF: What about 100 goals? Is that possible next year?

JT: I think anything is possible but I’m just playing hard. I’m going every night. Doing what I did last year. [Scoring 100 goals] wasn’t in my head. My job is to produce. It’s to put pucks in the net and that’s what I try to do every night. I got to do some amazing things last year and you never know, if I keep going the way I am I think anything can happen. But I’m just trying to do the best I can to help the Generals perform.

HF: Do you have any personal goals this year?

JT: Just to improve statistically if I can and to become more of a complete player. I’d like to be better in my own zone although I’d like to get better offensively and defensively.

HF: What about your skating? That’s supposedly the knock on you. Is that one aspect of your game that you work on more than others?

JT: Everyone looks at me as less dynamic than players that I’ve been compared to, but I think my skating is fine.  I don’t think I’m slow or behind the play. I’m always in there and I’m still able to put the puck in the net. I don’t think my skating has been holding me back at all but there is always room for improvement in every area of the game.

HF: What do you focus on most when you’re practicing?

JT: I work on my defensive zone. I’m starting to work on face-offs and blocking shots and things like that. Little things that help you become a better hockey player.

HF: You did really well on your face-offs tonight.

JT: Yeah definitely. I know it’s a big part of the game and when you’re trying to make Team Canada it’s a big issue. Getting a chance to play at center is really nice.

HF: Which NHLer would you compare your game to?

JT: It’s hard to say. I’ve been asked that question a lot and I really don’t know. There are a lot of goal scorers but maybe a little bit like Dany Heatley. He’s not the greatest skater and everyone says I’m not, but he’s able to find a way to put the puck in the net. He’s also a very smart hockey player. He can make plays and he can set guys up. I think maybe I play a little bit like him.  

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