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Mary Tanti is on the phone, in full conversational stride, discussing the reticence of her son, 20-year-old Tony, a second-year right wing for the Vancouver Canucks. "Isn't he hard to talk to? So quiet, that boy. I say to him, 'When are you going to find a girl?' He's only had two girl friends, you know. And he says to me, 'Ma. I don't have time.' All he has time for is his hockey."
The words are tumbling out faster now. "He was always such a good boy. Never hung around down at the plaza when we lived in Toronto. But he always had so many games. I'm his mother and I only got to talk to him at the rink."
We don't know what those kids at the shopping plaza are up to nowadays, but, at week's end, Tanti had 19 goals—second only to Wayne Gretzky, who had 24—and 14 assists and was in third place in the NHL's scoring race, 21 points behind Gretzky. On Sunday he scored twice and assisted on the game-winning goal as the Canucks pulled it out against the Canadiens 4-3.
In the highly unlikely event that Tanti catches Gretzky, it wouldn't be the first time. In the 1980-81 season, Tanti broke Gretzky's record for goals scored by a first-year player in the Ontario Junior A Hockey League with 81 in 67 games for the Oshawa ( Ont.) Generals, a team whose motto is: "Less thunder in the mouth. More lightning in the hands." Tanti fits that dictum to a T.
"I try to play like Mike Bossy," Tanti says of his No. 1 hero, the New York Islander right wing. "Bossy knows where the net is without looking. Sometimes, when my back is to the goal, I can still see the net in my mind. I've always been like that. It's nothing new, but it's nothing I can explain."
Tanti is not much given to explanations or to talk of any kind. There is not only no thunder in his mouth, there is hardly any sound at all. He has a natural reserve that borders on extreme shyness. "I don't mind signing a few autographs," he says, "but I look at what Gretzky goes through, and I think it's terrible. I couldn't stand it. He gets no privacy."
Considering his celebrity status and exceptional good looks—black hair in tight natural curls framing a face by Botticelli—Tanti would no doubt be a hit in Vancouver's Granville Island discos and bars, but he has chosen an almost ascetic life-style. Tanti will move into a house in suburban Coquitlam on Dec. 1, but for now is renting a basement suite in the home of sports-shop owners Larry and Nina Luongo. He spends his off-ice hours helping out in the Luongos' store, reading or listening to the tunes of the '60s and 70s, some of which were conceived before he was.
" Bob Dylan is my favorite singer," he says. "I listen to him, Jim Croce or Harry Chapin before games. I like songs that tell a story or have a meaning." Tanti's tastes in reading can tend toward themes of isolation. He just finished reading Canadian author Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf. "It's about this nerdy guy studying wolves, and he lives all alone in the Arctic for six months and...."
But such is Tanti's standoffishness that he was unpopular with his first pro team, the Chicago Black Hawks. The Hawks claimed Tanti in the first round (12th overall) of the 1981 draft and brought him to camp that September. The older players interpreted Tanti's quietness as snobbishness. One Chicago veteran was quoted as saying, "If I wasn't so concerned with my own game at the time, I might have taken him aside [and] slapped some sense into him."
"I don't know what the problem was in Chicago," Tanti says, "but maybe part of it was my not realizing that in the NHL guys are playing for a living, and a new guy can't come in and say, 'Hi. I'm Tony Tanti. I'm 19. I'm here to take your job.' "