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John Tavares ready to burst into super stardom with Team Canada

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders - Game Three
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UNIONDALE, NY - MAY 05: John Tavares #91 of the New York Islanders skates in warmups priot to the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 5, 2013 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

CALGARY — In 2002, when Canada won gold in Salt Lake, John Tavares was 11. He watched the game in standard definition with minor-hockey teammates at a buddy’s house in the Toronto area.

In 2010, when Canada won gold again in Vancouver, John Tavares was 19. He watched the game in high definition with New York Islanders teammates at Doug Weight’s house on Long Island. When Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal against the United States, he and fellow Canadian Matt Moulson jumped up. Weight, a three-time U.S. Olympian, did not.

“You think about it a little bit,” Tavares said. “You dream about it a little bit. And you look forward to having that opportunity.”

In February, when Canada goes to Sochi, Tavares will be 23. He will be watching in 3-D, because he will be on the ice unless something unforeseen happens in the meantime. He is among the new guard of Canadian stars – Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux, Logan Couture – who can play center or wing and make a difference in their Olympic debuts.

Tavares has a chance to raise his profile even further after a breakout season. He was a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player after scoring 28 goals – third-most in the league – and leading the Islanders to their first playoff appearance in six years. He had three goals and five points in six games as the Isles scared the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. If anything, he has been made stronger now – by the success, by the failure, by the taste of top-level competition.

“There’s really nothing quite like playoff hockey, and just in the first round, that experience was phenomenal,” Tavares said. “I still think about it every day, how much fun that was, what an opportunity we had. I think it drives you even more to want to be more successful and reach your ultimate goal and push yourselves even more. I thought we played really well. We had a really good chance to win that series, and we just didn’t take advantage of our opportunities. We kind of let one slip away.”

Tavares does not want to let this one slip away. This could be the last time the NHL sends its players to the Olympics, because the league has clashed with the IIHF and the IOC, the next Winter Games will be in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and the NHL owners and players might want to stage their own tournaments and keep the money. That means this could be Tavares’ one and only opportunity to represent Canada on this stage and win an Olympic medal. He said he viewed it like world juniors, an almost once-in-a-lifetime chance.

Team Canada is looking for forwards with speed, smarts and skills to excel on the larger Olympic ice surface. Tavares is not a blazer, but he is not slow, either. He can skate, and boy, is he smart and skilled.

“When we talk about guys that can move around the ice, he can move around the ice,” said assistant coach Claude Julien. “You don’t just want blazers that can’t think the game.”

Tavares is also valued for his versatility. His natural position is center, and he has played it most of his life. He could fit in well behind Crosby and Jonathan Toews. But if the Canadians need him on the wing, he can play there, too. He has played there before – on the big ice.

He played on the wing in his first world juniors in the Czech Republic. He played in Bern, Switzerland, during the lockout and spent 25 games as a left winger. He represented Canada at the Spengler Cup, a tournament in Switzerland, and spent the whole tournament on the left wing.

“Anywhere I can contribute and be a part of the team and play a role that can help this team win, that’s what I want to do,” Tavares said. “Whatever sacrifice that is, whatever minutes that is, I’m willing to do that.”

Executive director Steve Yzerman and coach Mike Babcock do not mention Tavares among Team Canada’s leaders, but only because the Canadians have so many leaders and he hasn’t been to an Olympics before. Listen to him talk. Look at how he plays.

The Islanders drafted him first overall in 2009 and put him on a dreadful team in a half-filled, old building. He didn’t complain; he embraced it. He improved as the team slowly improved around him, putting up 24 goals and 54 points, then 29 and 67, then 31 and 81, then 28 and 47 in the lockout-shortened, 48-game season – the equivalent of 47 and 80 over a full, 82-game season. He became the captain of an up-and-coming team that filled that old building last spring and rocked it, and he earned a lot of respect around the league.

“He’s a guy that’s developed immensely in a little bit of time,” said Julien, the coach of the Boston Bruins, who has seen Tavares often in the East. “And you’ve got to give him credit, too – even more credit – because I think it’s even harder to develop when you’re going through tough times like they have in the past years. It’s easy for a player to develop in a real positive environment. He didn’t get that luxury at the beginning. But now it’s turning around, and it’s turning around because of guys like him.”

To think Canada could win gold again because of guys like him.

“I remember as a kid,” Tavares said, “what a feeling it was, how proud I was to be Canadian, and if I ever had the chance …”

The chance is coming.

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