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Hockey  

Maple Leafs captain John Tavares on the cusp of 1,000th NHL game

TORONTO — John Tavares was asked if there's more for him to give as he inched closer to a career milestone. 

"Absolutely," the Toronto Maple Leafs captain replied bluntly. "Absolutely." 

It's not hard to see why he's so convinced. 

Set to hit 1,000 regular-season NHL games this weekend, the 32-year-old remains a point-per-night player in his 14th season, thanks to a drive that started on the outdoor rinks of his childhood and continues to this day as Tavares pushes to adapt himself in a sport that's always changing.

"Hard to believe," the Oakville, Ont., product said of being on the cusp of becoming the 375th player to reach the 1,000-game signpost. "It's hard to take in. 

"Just a lot of gratitude for a lot of people that helped me get to this point."

Tavares has also helped himself — especially during the most recent off-season.

The first overall pick at the 2009 NHL draft's skating stride has never been a strength, but he appeared to be slowing down in 2021-22. 

The numbers were still good — 76 points in 79 games — and his grinding, relentless play below the faceoff dots remained largely unchanged. His speed in getting to the right spots, however, seemed to have taken a hit.

Tavares knew it and moved on from a private skating instructor he'd used since junior to the Leafs' in-house team.

"Fresh set of eyes," the veteran centre said. "We really need to reinforce certain habits and work on certain things, especially when you make some changes."

The focus included being more efficient in his stride.

"And a little bit lighter," Tavares said. "Use the strength and power that I do have — that I know that I have — to just continue to generate pace."

There's been a clear benefit so far in 2022-23.

Tavares is on course for 35 goals, which would be the fourth-most in his career, while the 80 points he's on track to accumulate would rank fifth on his stats page.

That's pretty good return from a player on the wrong side of 30 in a game that continues to get younger and faster.

"He's stayed true to himself and what's given him the chance to be successful," Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "But as he's gotten older, he's adapted to change. 

"That gives him an opportunity to grow."

Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly, a teammate the last 4 1/2 seasons, said it comes to down mentality.

"I don't think he really thinks about the end or how much you have left," he said. "Just worries about what he can control right now."

Slated to play game No. 1,000 at home Sunday against Washington, Tavares started his NHL career with the New York Islanders and was named captain in 2013. He bolted for the team he grew up supporting, signing a seven-year, US$77-million contract with Toronto in the summer of 2018.

New York fans were gutted by the departure. The vitriol was fierce when he first returned wearing blue and white.

Tavares, for his part, has never uttered a disparaging word about Long Island.

"Two great organizations," he said. "It's been a lot of fun, a great journey. (Sunday) might be one of those times when you take a step back and reflect a little bit."

Apart from the work in the gym and on the practice rink, Tavares said the mental side of a high-pressure, demanding sport — especially in a Canadian market dreaming of a return to playoff glory — remains a work in progress.

"You never have it fully figured out," said Tavares, who suffered a devastating head injury in the 2021 playoffs, but had a clean bill of health at the start of last season. "That's just part of the journey and continuing to adapt and get better." 

Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano hit 1,000 games last season with Seattle after a long career in Calgary. He knew Tavares from summer skates, but connecting up close has been eye-opening on a roster that also boasts fellow stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

"He just puts the work in, I don't know how else you can explain it," said the 39-year-old Giordano. "A great example for all of us. I know I'm older than him, but you can look up to guys like that."

There's also an appreciation for what Tavares has done, and done consistently throughout his career, outside Toronto's locker room.

"Keeps getting better," New York Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant said. "Guy's been around a long time — 1,000 games — and it seems like he played every game the same."

Toronto blue-liner Timothy Liljegren said young players like himself look up to Tavares.

"You realize what you have to do to be in the league for a long time," said the 23-year-old.

Giordano remembers the build-up to his 1,000th game.

"Not a huge list," he said. "It's a hard thing to do. It was a very proud moment. 

"He has it circled, for sure, on his calendar."

And teammates are convinced there are more milestones to come for Tavares as the pages of his career continue to turn.

"Loves playing hockey," Rielly said. "Loves the grind, loves the work. 

"I don't expect him to stop any time soon."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2023.

___

Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.



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