John Tavares is buried behind a wall of cameras and microphones, as usual. Minutes earlier he notched the sublime winning shootout goal in Team Canada’s miracle victory over Russia in the semifinals of the world junior hockey tournament. Still in his skates, sweaty, hair ruffled, he fields questions for nearly half an hour until a Hockey Canada official comes along and announces, “last question.” He takes it, and then a few more after that. Just 18 years old, his face has the blemishes of a typical teenager, but he already understands: this is just what you do when you’re Canada’s newest hockey hero.
When hockey scouts, coaches and players talk about Tavares these days, “big” is the word that inevitably pops up. It’s not his size, though at six feet and nearly 200 lb., he is that. It’s about the way the kid from Oakville, Ont., has played in big games and, most importantly, the big goals he scored leading Team Canada to its fifth-straight world junior gold medal. In that memorable semifinal shootout with the Russians, he was called on as Canada’s second shooter. Deking to his forehand, he spread the Russian goalie into the splits and whipped the puck past him, sealing the victory. Asked how he felt watching this unfold, Team Canada’s loquacious defenceman P.K. Subban responded with a quizzical look: “Well, I mean, did you think he was going to miss?” And then comes that word again. “Big players step up in the big games in big moments.”
Going into this tournament, many pro scouts saw Tavares as a special talent but not a perfect player. He doesn’t play with the flash of Alexander Ovechkin, nor the drive of Sidney Crosby. His skating is “ordinary at best,” says Kyle Woodlief, who runs the Red Line Report, a scouting service used by NHL teams. Tavares doesn’t have a quick first step or that extra top-end gear. What the phenom does have is something less tangible: a scorer’s hands and the ability to use them with amazing results in a 30-foot radius around the opposition net. Tavares, or “Johnny T” as his teammates sometimes call him, may not be the best all-round player, but he has that rarest of skills: he is a pure goal scorer—arguably the best to come along in ages.
As a young boy playing minor hockey around Toronto, Tavares always showed a knack for not just scoring goals but running up scores. At the age of 11, his team was scheduled to play a game across town on Halloween night. Disappointed, he settled on a simple solution: get a five-goal lead so the clock would run through the third period. The game would end quickly, and Halloween would be salvaged. “He made sure it was done, and that was it,” recalls his mother, Barb Tavares.
While he lit up minor hockey, it’s been in Oshawa, where he’s played for the Generals of the Ontario Hockey League for the past four seasons, that Tavares has really put his mark on the game. The first to be granted “exceptional player” status, he entered the league at 14, a year earlier than normal. He broke Wayne Gretzky’s junior record for most goals by a 16-year-old, with 72. Picked by many scouts to go first overall in the NHL entry draft in June, he’s earned the title handed to only the very best phenoms: the Next One.
His agent, Pat Brisson, recalls first seeing his charge play in Oshawa as a 15-year-old. “He was always in the right spot. That’s what impressed me the most,” he says. “He’s not the fastest skater, but he’ll know how to make space by making the right moves with his shoulders and hands.” So often, Tavares’s goals look simple, as if he just happened on a loose puck and an empty net. That’s not luck, but his ability to anticipate, says Mark Edwards, who heads HockeyProspect.com, an independent scouting agency. Positioning, however, is only half the battle. What Tavares also brings is a wicked shot. He can cradle the puck on his stick and let it go “with lightning-fast release and deadly accuracy,” says Woodlief.
Then there’s the icing on the cake—his supernatural hand-eye coordination. Early in this world junior tournament, in a game against Slovakia, Tavares hit the post from his usual spot next to the net. He picked his own rebound out of the air, juggled it on the end of his stick, and slapped it past the sprawled goalie, all before the puck hit the ice. It was the type of goal you have to see in slow motion to fully appreciate. “He was playing for the Mississauga Tomahawks there for about 10 seconds,” jokes Barb, referring to her son’s second-favourite sport, lacrosse.
Tavares gave up lacrosse two years ago to focus on his hockey, but he owes a lot to the game, says Barb, who rarely misses one of her son’s matches. “Lacrosse is one of the greatest sports to tie in with hockey because of the hand-eye coordination and just the way they move the ball around,” she says. In the fast-moving sport, possession is everything. Players are taught to “eat” the ball rather than turn it over, and that seems to have given Tavares the poise and confidence in hockey to hold on to the puck and make smart plays under pressure.
But for all his skill around the net, Tavares is still something of an enigma. Ask any hockey insider to draw a comparison to an established star and they will come up with wildly different answers. To some, he is Phil Esposito, the goal-scoring king. Others, like his agent, liken him to Luc Robitaille, who had a knack for being in the right spot. After some thought, Al Murray, Hockey Canada’s head scout, lands on perhaps the closest match, Dale Hawerchuk—not the greatest skater, but a legendary finisher.
What this skill set will do for Tavares when he steps into the fast-paced NHL is the ultimate question. “From the hash marks in, he’s got a chance to be a really special player,” says Nick Kypreos, a former NHLer and now a hockey analyst on Sportsnet. But Murray, like many, wonders if Tavares has what it takes to be that “once in a generation” player. Indeed, there were moments in the world juniors when he seemed to fade into the background, even when double-shifted as he was at times in the Russia game. He’s also taken flak for a slide in productivity in his last OHL season—some say he’s bored after four years in the league.
Tavares, however, has worked hard to improve his skating, says Brisson. And often forgotten in the analysis is his playmaking and passing ability. “He sees the ice well and puts the puck on your tape,” says his Team Canada linemate, Angelo Esposito. In today’s NHL, where so much of the action takes place while cycling the puck in the corners, Tavares could be in his element. “He’s got the knack of finding that little hole and exploiting that hole to get the puck to the net,” says Michael Oke, who coached Tavares in his first year in Oshawa, and who is now chief scout with the International Scouting Services.
The gold medal game against Sweden wasn’t Tavares’s best. He had an assist but no goals, and some rare misses in front of the net. But in the much anticipated faceoff with Swedish star Victor Hedman—his rival for top spot in the NHL draft—Tavares was by far the superior player. “This opportunity comes once in a lifetime,” he said before the game, in one of his frenzied media scrums. “You go out there and give it your all and leave nothing out there.” Hedman came out flat, and was clearly frustrated by the aggressive play of Team Canada. And while he stumbled, Tavares prevailed—just as he has in every step of his young career, says Oke. “Every time he’s challenged, he seems to rise up and meet that challenge.” At the end of the game, Tavares was named the tournament MVP. As his teammate Subban might say: was there ever any doubt?