A few hours before Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals, Mike Tanev made the quick walk from his downtown Winnipeg hotel and visited the team store inside Bell MTS Place. He was busy perusing the T-shirt and hoodie racks among fellow Jets fans, scouting out garb as gifts for various relatives, when he overheard a woman whose own souvenir search had stalled. “I want to buy a jersey,” the woman lamented, “but they don’t have any with TANEV on them.”
“I’ll be the only one in the arena wearing one,” Mike replied.
That rare item came straight from the source, of course—the white threads that middle son Brandon wore at the outdoor Heritage Classic in Oct. 2016 during his rookie NHL season. A year and a half later, though, the Jets might want to consider thinking about stocking those shelves with No. 13 apparel. Capped by an empty-netter during Tuesday’s 7-4 win over Nashville, which helped lift the Jets to a 2-1 series lead, Tanev has now scored goals in four straight Stanley Cup Playoff games, endearing himself to a delirious fan base and proving his worth on the biggest stage in franchise history.
That the 26-year-old left winger has found a home in the Winnipeg lineup, flanking third-liners Adam Lowry and Bryan Little for most of this postseason, should surprise exactly no one.
An undrafted free agent who signed with the Jets in March ‘16, he is a shifty puck hound and snappy checker whose father dubs “a bundle of fire.” It probably helps that Tanev also possesses seemingly limitless energy, at least to the extent that former Providence College teammates joked about him requiring toys on the bench to stay occupied between shifts. “He’d always be standing up, alway ready to go,” Friars coach Nate Leaman says. “He never stops.”
Well … not quite never.
“It’s funny,” Mike Tanev says. “People don’t understand that he was out of hockey for four and a half years.”
The system does not reward those who take breaks. It is increasingly specialized, month after month, jammed with pressurized tryouts and obsessive parents. And yet Brandon Tanev— future NHLer, future sought-after Winnipeg Jets sweater—barely played competitive hockey as a teenager growing up in the Toronto suburbs. “Just waiting for the day that I would mature and get the size I needed to put myself back into hockey,” he says.
That was the biggest—or smallest, rather—issue. Entering high school at East York Collegiate, Brandon stood several inches short of five feet tall and weighed significantly less than 100 pounds. Naturally this did not prove appealing to local coaches, like the group whom Mike overheard at one Christmas tournament, laughing and wondering why a fifth-grader was allowed on the ice with much older skaters. (Brandon was the same age as everyone else.) “Everybody in Toronto are all geniuses, right?” Mike Tanev says. “If you’re not big enough, they don’t want you.” And when no one wanted Brandon during his minor bantam year, Mike pulled him out of the system.
“Obviously, you’re upset,” Brandon says. “You never want to step away from something you love. Being in a hockey-crazy town like Toronto, it was difficult. But looking back now, I think it was the right play. You’re watching your friends play, you’re thinking I should be out there alongside them. When you get that chance to get back into it, you love it even more.”
Don’t get the wrong idea: He wasn’t some sedentary basement-dweller while away from the sport, staying active with cross country, track and soccer at school. He also played around 10 games each year for the East York boys ice hockey team, though admits that barely qualifies as “very low level.” Mostly Brandon passed time whizzing around local outdoor rinks—shinny in the winter, roller hockey in the summer—and staying fresh by working with a Czech skills coach that Mike knew named Dusan Kralik, whose list of clientele also includes John Tavares and P.K. Subban. All the while, he held onto a promise from Mike: “When you grow, you’ll play junior.”
The spurt mercifully arrived during his final year of high school, though even then Brandon only climbed to roughly 5-foot-7. Fortunately that was enough to earn a spot with the OJHL’s Markham Waxers in Ontario, where he turned heads as a point-per-game playmaker before migrating westward to join the Surrey Eagles of the BCHL, another junior A league located in British Columbia. One year later, Tanev found himself matriculating at Providence, the proud owner of a full ride to a rebuilding Division I college program. Reached over the phone recently, Leaman chuckles at the memory of that “stringbean” of a recruit who arrived on campus in late 2012.
“Tanny,” he says, almost wistfully. “I’d take him on any team, any time, anywhere.”
As it stands today, the Friars were plenty lucky to have him. Goodness knows they might not have captured their first-ever NCAA title if it weren’t for Tanev, then a junior marketing major, dashing across the slot and whipping the game-winning goal against Boston University in the third period of the 2015 title game at TD Garden. “That will never be forgotten,” Leaman says. “The thing is, after you coach someone like Tanny, you’re always looking for the next one. That’s what an impact he had on us as a program and me as a coach. He’s one of a kind.”
Well … not quite one of a kind.
See, there was a reason Tanev remained so steadfastly confident that one day he would return to the game he loved, no matter how long he stayed away: His older brother had blazed the exact same trail. Like Brandon, Christopher Tanev was forced to step back from competitive hockey as a teenager due to size constraints. Like Brandon, he eventually joined the Waxers, reached the Frozen Four—for Rochester Institute of Technology in 2010—and signed an NHL contract as an undrafted free agent that spring. Now he is a defenseman for the Vancouver Canucks, earning $4.5 million per year and enjoying the job security of a no-trade contract.
“Understanding how he dealt with that situation, it made me want to do the exact same thing,” says Brandon, who also spends each summer training with Chris at former NHLer Gary Roberts’s renowned facility in Toronto. “If I hadn’t seen him go through that process, coming back to play hockey would’ve been more difficult. He paved the path for me.”
The players exited Bell MTS Place, turned right onto Portage Avenue, and headed eastbound through a sea of white-clad Jets fans cheering and cheersing every stride. This was three weeks ago, not long after Winnipeg beat Minnesota in Game 1 of the first round, a 3-2 triumph that gave the city its first playoff victory since the franchise migrated from Atlanta. And since Tanev lives within walking distance of the arena, he experienced all the revelry from ground zero. “I didn’t know what to expect with our fans and our crowd [before Game 1],” Tanev says. “It’s been so crazy and surreal how every night the crowd and the atmosphere gets better and better.”
Amid the high-fives and hell-yeahs, Tanev was reminded of why he chose Winnipeg in the first place. Numerous other NHL teams courted his services after his final year at Providence, but there he saw an enticing combination of a hockey-mad market and an up-and-coming roster, featuring burgeoning superstars like top-liners Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. “You can see the pieces they had on their team,” he says. “It was only a matter of time. You want to be a part of that. It was definitely the right choice.”
No doubt that Winnipeg would agree. Partway through his son’s rookie season in ‘16-17, Mike ran into Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff on the team’s annual father’s trip. At the time Brandon was playing on the one-year, two-way contract that he had signed out of college, meaning that he earned significantly less whenever Winnipeg demoted him to its AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose. “I told Kevin, if he gets a one-way contract, you’re going to see a totally different Brandon,” Mike recalls. “When you’re a borderline guy, your main focus is to not go down to the minors. So you have a different mentality. You play to stay in the lineup. You play cautious.”
And cautious is not Brandon’s nature. Mike remembers opposing collegiate defensemen shying away from pucks in the corner because they caught sight of Brandon, barreling down the ice, looking to check them through the glass. “My game is fast and physical,” he says. “I’ve always been taught to work hard and be tenacious. Then, once you have the confidence to hold onto the puck and make plays, it can all come together and work.” True to Mike’s promise, Brandon indeed rounded a corner this season, finishing with 18 points in 61 games, including his first career hat trick against the Bruins on March 27 and this recent four-goal postseason binge.
Maybe it’s not enough for his jersey to hang inside the team store quite yet, but Tanev is at least turning heads among hockey royalty. Around the family home in East York, Mike occasionally runs into Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey, who once inquired about Brandon’s story. So Mike told Coffey about the four-and-a-half-year hiatus, about the national championship at Providence, about what he likens to hitting the “Powerball lottery” odds by having two sons make the NHL via the same winding road.
“That’s impossible,” an awestruck Coffey replied. “No one takes time off in those crucial years and turns into a hockey player.”