Last week, in a back room of the Islanders practice facility, John Tavares sat on a stool, as a room of directors, cameramen, PA's, and staff watched as he shot a commercial for Vita Coco.
It is never surprising to see athletes on commercials. But there was still something kind of unfamiliar about seeing Tavares, a New York Islander, doing one. As I stood in the back of the room, trying desperately not to sneeze and ruin everybody's day, I distracted myself by trying to recall if I'd ever seen any Islander in my lifetime in a national TV spot -- I couldn't.
It shouldn't have been weird to see Tavares doing something like this. Especially when you consider that when he was 14, Tavares began receiving nationwide attention because he was a hockey savant. Comparisons were being drawn to Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby. Canada had anointed its next, next one.
With all the hype that surrounded Tavares in the beginning stages of his astounding junior career, it is somewhat surprising how, over a decade later, the Islanders captain is now treated by the hockey world in comparison to some of its other young stars like Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, who in fairness play in hockey-possessed markets. We toss around the word 'underrated' a lot, but the truth is that, despite being one of the game's top talents, somehow Tavares has flown under the radar.
An Uncommon Pitchman
"I think I'm always a little bit surprised [when asked to do endorsement spots]," Tavares said to Lighthouse Hockey after the shoot. "I don't go around thinking, or watching TV, thinking 'I wouldn't mind being in a commercial.' I just love to play hockey and sometimes these opportunities come along and you can find the right partnership with something that I believe in and shows a bit of who I am, and that's why this was such a good fit."
In plenty of circumstances, when a first overall pick that comes with the laudits Tavares did, lands in a market like New York, you see the player try to match the personality of the city. Despite having cameras in his face for the better part of the decade now, JT has remained stoic and has shown, with each passing moment, that he knows why he's so important to Islander fans, but he doesn't hold us ransom for loving him with everything we've got.
As much as the mainstream media and hockey fans outside of Long Island will talk about Tavares and his destiny to head back to his hometown when his contract is up, they haven't been paying attention like we have. We know John Tavares isn't someone who's okay with unfinished business. He wouldn't like it if we called him the saviour of the franchise, but he has as legitimate a claim to that title as anyone in the sports world.
"Islander fans have been through a lot. I've come to learn that there's been a lot of ups and downs. There have been some since I've been here as well, with some of the seasons we've had," Tavares added. "They've stuck through thick and thin and always have your back and support you -- whether it's around town or at the rink."
Now a Seasoned Captain
As Tavares approaches a decade on the Island, the transition from young star to seasoned captain is in full swing. Just as you'd expect from JT, he takes a lot of pride in helping the Islanders new young core.
"It's a lot of fun to be around [the young players] with their enthusiasm, excitement, and their energy," he said. "You say something to them here and there but you don't try to go out of your way and overdo it. I remember being in their shoes and trying to take it all in and enjoy it. For so long I was always the youngest guy on the team and the last couple of years that transition has started to happen where I'm getting a little bit older and experienced. Certainly I've learned from guys who helped when I was that age.
"Mark Streit was great for me. He was a great captain. I played in his hometown during the lockout so I lived with him for a few weeks and we got to know each other more and see where he came from. He's just a great pro. He came in everyday with the right attitude and work ethic and just set a great example. I really learned a lot from him about how he represented himself and the team. He was a great influence on me and we remain close to this day," Tavares explained.
The Love is Real
It's hard to wrap your head around the fact that Tavares is playing in his eighth season as an Islander, but that's the cold reality of time. When the Islanders signed him to a six-year contract in 2011, we all knew that a day would come when Tavares would have to make a decision.
But we can take solace that he loves Long Island. He loves the fans and he gets why we spend our precious time on a team that's been more down than up for the past 30 years. He's seen and heard how we've suffered and now he wants to be the one to give us that moment that makes this all worth it.
"[Long Island] seems like it fits me. You get everything you'd ever want here. I've been here since I was 19, so I have been able to experience a lot." Tavares said. "I really enjoy it here. I always say that people are always surprised when they come play here, how much they get recognized around town and how much the fans care and how much pride they take in the Islanders, that's something I always stress."
Thank you to the wonderful people at Vita Coco for giving us the opportunity to chat with John freakin' Tavares at the shoot. We were treated super well and we love you.