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Weight reflects on the early years as Tavares nears 1,000-point milestone

William Nylander and John Tavares William Nylander and John Tavares - The Canadian Press

Game time never came soon enough for Doug Weight. 

"I was nervous all day," the veteran of 1,238 NHL outings recalled. "I hated game days. It just sits in your stomach."

And those nerves only grew as he inched closer to 1,000 career points during the 2008-09 season with the New York Islanders

"With the 1,000 game [milestone] you just keep dressing, and you jump on the ice and it's coming," Weight said. "But with 1,000 points you're like, 'Oh my God, it's never going to come. Am I going to get it hurt? I'm 39-years-old. I haven't scored in two games.'"

Weight, a centre, finally hit four digits when he picked up two assists during a game in Arizona on Jan. 2, 2009. He had family members and friends in the crowd that night. 

"It's a really, really cool number," said Weight, who became the eighth American-born player to reach the mark. "That was special to me." 

Leafs centre John Tavares is four points away from joining his one-time Islanders teammate and coach in the exclusive club. What does it mean to him?

"I'm not there yet, so it's hard to really say," Tavares noted before picking up his 996th point during Saturday's overtime loss to the Boston Bruins. "But no doubt, watching players and guys who accomplish that milestone, obviously really significant."

Tavares is on track to become the 98th player in NHL history to record 1,000 points. Only six players have reached that number while playing for the Leafs (Norm Ullman, Glenn Anderson, Doug Gilmour, Larry Murphy, Mats Sundin and Alexander Mogilny).

"Just trying to keep my head down and going to work and let that happen when it happens," the 33-year-old centre said. "It's a special milestone, so keep plugging away here."

Plugging away is what Tavares does best. It's what he's always done since breaking into the NHL during the 2009-10 season while playing alongside Weight in New York. 

"John was always about the next practice and the next opponent," Weight said. "I tried to change him as much as I could. No, it's an amazing asset that he has."

Tavares lived with Weight and his family during his first few seasons in the NHL. Even back then, Tavares was laser-focused. 

"We'd be watching a hockey game and he's like pausing it and then we have to go through the play that we just saw," Weight said. "I'm like, 'John, can I just watch the game?'"

Weight, who currently serves as a hockey operations advisor for the San Jose Sharks, lived with Kelly Buchberger during his first couple of seasons in Edmonton early in his career and wanted to help out Tavares in the same way. So, after a discussion with general manager Garth Snow, he invited the first-overall pick to live in his guest house. 

"I loaded it up with water and all kinds of stuff," Weight said. "I was really excited to hook him up. He's like, 'Actually, I only drink a certain brand of water and I don't really eat this.' He brought all the stuff back. He found three places to go shop and they were like 25 minutes away. Every meal was meticulous. I like to think our family eats clean, you know, organic, but he's on his own page and, obviously, it's worked."  

Weight admits that he didn't figure out his ideal regiment until his 30s, but Tavares already seemed to have his down pat as a rookie. 

"It was pretty remarkable," Weight said. "My wife just looked at me and said, 'He's 20 years younger than you, but he's a little more mature.'"

Tavares is as consistent as they come. He's racked up 996 points in 1,051 games during his NHL career or 0.95 per game. This season, he's once again on track to be around a point-per-game player with 21 points in 22 games. 

"He's not slowing down," Weight stressed. "He has an amazing hockey IQ. I love watching him play ... He's just a savant of the game. He's going to keep going and keep scoring."

After retiring as a player, Weight worked as an assistant general manager and assistant coach with the Islanders for six years. He was then the head coach for a year and a half. So, there wasn't a season during Tavares' nine-year run in New York when he wasn't working with Weight.

"I talked to him for three years about being low and slow, low and slow, come back to your zone, get the puck on your stick and get it out of your zone," Weight said. "I swear, I watched him do every drill for four more years after we had that discussion, and there wasn't a time when he wasn't in his own crease stopping and working on that part of his game and it shows ... He's playing such a great 200-foot game."

Tavares wore the 'C' in New York and now is the captain in Toronto. Weight believes the Mississauga, Ont., native is well-suited for a leadership role. 

"It's because he's himself, first of all," said Weight, who also served as captain for two franchises in his playing days. "I believe the word 'selfish' is overused in a bad way. There's many times when you're coaching or you're playing, and you got to tell players to be selfish. That means you create your own environment to get yourself to be the best. You need to be the best because it makes the team better. It doesn't mean you're doing things selfishly and not playing a system or a team game, but it means you prepare yourself. You have to be your best and John's amazing at that."

Tavares evolved to the point where he's now helping others find their own happy place. 

"He's learned you don't change the person you are, but you got to open your eyes a little," noted Weight. "If Mitch Marner is struggling a bit and he's [young], I have to go over and take him to dinner and worry about him a little bit here. There's a million things that go on in the room ... We talked about it a lot in New York when he was the captain. It's amazing how much you have to deal with especially for a kid that's that uber focused like him."

Tavares led the Islanders to their first playoff series win in 23 years in 2016. He led the Leafs to their first series win in 19 years last season. Both times Tavares scored the overtime winner in the clinching game. 

"I haven't been in that locker room in Toronto, but just by the way they play I can see he's done a great job," said Weight, who hoisted the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. "I'm not making any predictions, but I like what I see in Toronto. People are still complaining, but there's a time for that team. There's too many great people and great players. You win one round, and it comes quick."

Weight clearly holds Tavares in high regard, but it wasn't always smooth sailing for them. There was a hiccup early in their relationship.   

"He crashed my Range Rover," Weight said with a smile. "I wasn't too happy with that."

Weight shakes his head and laughs as he thinks back to that day. 

"He's such a great athlete, but he didn't get out of the driveway. It's not a small driveway, either. He came in, you know, in his innocent way and said, 'Dougie, sorry.' I’m like, 'What?' He's like, 'I just ran into the tree.' I'm like, 'What tree?! How can you hit a tree?' So, rough beginning."

Weight, who started his career with the New York Rangers, was sure to get Tavares back over the years. 

"Actually, I could care less," Weight said of the car mishap. "It was kind of worth it to have something over his head. And I've had him scared a couple times. I have a lot of friends in New York City. I had him scared white where I had to stop the whole process so he wouldn't start crying."

Weight smiles. 

"I'm not always the nicest guy."

Oftentimes before practice, Weight would bring then Islanders coach Jack Capuano over so he could mess with Tavares, who was trying to warm up his hands. 

"I'd be the guy shooting pucks across and hitting his puck and looking away," Weight said. "I'd have Cappy next to me and say, 'Act like you're talking to me.' So, I'd fire it across, and I'd hit it like five times in a row and he'd be so mad and trying to find out who did it."

The pair remain friends although Weight is careful to keep his distance during the season. 

"He knows I'm watching and proud of him," Weight said. "He's a great kid. He's a great husband. A great father. A great leader for that great Maple Leafs tradition."

Tavares is also carrying on the tradition of veterans looking after rookies. He invited 21-year-old Matthew Knies to live with him. Fraser Minten also lived with the Tavares family at the start of the season before being reassigned to the Western Hockey League.

"I'm so happy to see he's doing the same thing," Weight said. "He's just a wonderful kid. My wife and kids enjoyed him. We had a great time. I hope it helped him."

"I talk a lot about how Doug Weight did that for me as a young player and being around his family and the wonders that did for me, so to be able to come full circle in a way is great," Tavares, a father of three, said early this season.

"My boys love it. It's a win-win for all of us."