By Sean Hartnett
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John Tavares set the hockey world alight during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 NHL season by lifting the New York Islanders to unexpected heights few thought were remotely possible.
The buzz was back at the Coliseum thanks to Tavares’ electrifying play — coupled with a number of teammates taking large strides forward. Suddenly, the Isles were the new kids on the block wreaking havoc on their neighbors by shoving traditional powerhouses in the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers into the playoff-barren wilderness.
No longer were the Isles an under-.500 doormat that Eastern Conference heavyweights could push around with ease. Now that Tavares has gotten a taste of playoff hockey, he wants more. Tavares developed that insatiable hunger to be the best from the time he was a youngster, skating in the backyard of NHL-bound buddy Sam Gagner, who now plies his trade with the Edmonton Oilers.
You had to drag a young Tavares off the ice. After youth team practices, he would head straight to Gagner’s backyard at noon and play until as late as nine o’clock, until his hands and feet were frozen from the harsh Ontario winter.
“Me and Sam Gagner grew up together in Oakville, Ontario,” Tavares said. “His dad had built a beautiful backyard rink in his yard, so I was over there three, four days a week and countless hours. On Saturdays, we would practice together on our minor hockey team. We’d head straight to his backyard from noon to eight, nine o’clock — couldn’t feel you fingers, couldn’t feel your toes.”
It was in the backyard rinks and ponds of Ontario that Tavares fell head over heels in love with the sport of hockey.
“Those days are when you really developed your skills and your passion and love for the game,” Tavares said. “Those are great times and great memories you’ll never forget.”
Tavares will have an opportunity to show his unmistakable desire to a new set of eyes when the Islanders take their long-standing rivalry with the New York Rangers outside and under the lights of Yankee Stadium for the Jan. 29 NHL Stadium Series night game.
“This is hopefully another step for us — a great opportunity, a great audience, national scale to show what we’re all about and why we’re going to be proving a lot of good things in the next couple years,” Tavares said.
He sees a bright future for the Isles after their playoff rebirth and is further motivated by watching teams like the Chicago Blackhawks hoist the Stanley Cup over their heads.
“It’s really hard to describe what playoff hockey is like in the NHL. There’s nothing like that,” Tavares said. “You see Chicago lift the Cup, and that’s getting that taste of that experience. It drives you that much more to want to be successful and get to that ultimate goal.”
The 22-year-old is a well-known “nice guy” off the ice, but he’s probably the last player any goalie wants to see hanging around the crease. Tavares transforms into a tornadic offensive force every time he laces up his skates.
Teammate Matt Moulson sees first-hand the kind of desire that Tavares brings to the ice every game.
“He’s always wants to be the best,” Moulson. “He works hard at trying to attain that goal. I don’t think he’ll stop pushing himself until he’s recognized as the best in the world.”
Movie-star looks? Yeah, that’s not a bad attribute to have as a young star in the New York metro area.
Moulson joked about this when I asked whether Tavares had become the clear face of the Isles following the loss of captain Mark Streit, who moved to the Flyers in the offseason.
“Do you mean in terms of looks?” Moulson joked. “He’s definitely someone that you pick to build a team around. I know I definitely would if I was building a team. He’s a great leader on and off the ice, that just comes with his work ethic and how hard he works to be the best.”
No matter what Tavares goes on to accomplish in his budding career, his work ethic will not change. He’s still the same hungry kid. He still plays with the same desire as he did in the backyards and ponds of his youth.
“What’s always made him so good is that he continues to improve and get better, but he’s never satisfied,” Mouslon said. “He never rests on being a good player; he wants to be the best.”
Last season was huge for Tavares — he scored 47 points in 48 games, finished only behind Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby in Hart Trophy voting and pushed the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins to six games before being eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs.
You know what?
He’s just getting started.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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