May 25, 2010

What's In A Name? NHL Phenom Has Lax in Blood

by Chris R. Vaccaro | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

When John Tavares was selected first overall in the 2009 NHL draft, he wasn’t even the most successful athlete to have that name. His uncle John Tavares was already known as one the best lacrosse players ever.

The uncle has been playing for the Buffalo Bandits of the National Lacrosse League since 1992 and is the league's career leader in goals, assists and points, passing the legendary Gary Gait in goals and points in 2008.

To be selected first overall in any professional sports draft is a high honor and responsibility. Since the Islanders have fallen drastically to the bottom of the pack in the NHL after ruling the roost in the 1980s, Tavares -- like a few others taken with high picks by the Isles -- is looked upon as their golden child.

He finished the 2009-10 season with 24 goals and 30 assists, which was second behind Colorado’s Matt Duchene, who had 55 points. Duchene was taken third in the draft.

John Tavares, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2009 NHL draft by the New York Islanders, bears the same name as his uncle, Buffalo Bandits forward and future NLL Hall of Famer John Tavares.

© Chris R. Vaccaro

Tavares was clear that he wouldn’t be the athlete he is today had he not played lacrosse until he was 16 years old. He picked up his first stick when he was 3.

“I had a great passion for it,” he said. “I was real competitive.”

He played in Oakville’s Minor Lacrosse Association for a couple seasons in his late teens, but had to give it up to focus on hockey.

“I loved it,” he said. “Once I put up my hockey skates for the year, I was just as excited to start the lacrosse season.”

Tavares admitted his hand-eye coordination has prospered from lacrosse. Taking abuse with stick whippings has helped too.

“Playing against older kids when I was younger really helped toughen me up,” he said. “You learn how to protect your stick and use your body to help you down low in the corners in hockey and in front of the net.”

Of course he watched his uncle play and even spent some time as a ball boy for the Bandits.

Tavares, 20, regrets not bringing his stick with him to Long Island this year. He roomed with fellow Canadian native Matt Moulson, whose brother Chris played lacrosse with Tavares when they were younger.

“It would have been nice to throw [Matt] around,” he said. “I always used to bring [my stick] up with me in junior. At least once a week I’d handle it or if I was watching TV, I’d just fool around with it. It’s still a great way for me recreationally to improve on my hockey skills. It’s something I’m going to bring back next year.”

Lacrosse is just as popular in Canada as hockey, so Tavares grew up a fan of the game. He roots for Toronto in the MLL and aside from his uncle and Buffalo, he was a big fan of John Grant Jr.

“I think it’s one of the most underrated sports out there and is exciting to watch,” he said.

For more from John Tavares, check out the "Lifestyles" spread in the "Scoop" section of June's Lacrosse Magazine, which mails to US Lacrosse members next week.

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