Ahead of his time

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:11 AM ET

John Tavares isn't even 15 years old yet, and already it's not a stretch to call him a two-sport athlete.

Tavares wasn't available for comment last night on his successful application to be made eligible for the Ontario Hockey League draft on Saturday because he was playing junior A lacrosse for the Mississauga Tomahawks in an exhibition game in St. Catharines against the Athletics. Tavares, who turns 15 on Sept. 27, is the nephew of National Lacrosse League superstar John Tavares, who has been called the Wayne Gretzky of his sport.

Is the younger Tavares the next Wayne Gretzky of hockey? Probably not. But there is no denying his talent level and the impact he could have on the game for years to come.

"Has he burned me this season?" said John Nelson, who has coached against Tavares' Toronto Marlies minor midgets. "He has burned me for three years. When I watch him, it's not work for him. It's play time. He takes a lot of abuse but he picks his spots by scoring goals."

The 6-foot-1, 175-pound Tavares has long had a passion for competitive sports. His mother, Barb, said there were times when John was not scheduled to be on the ice for four or five days at a time and he would ask his mother to call area rinks so he could get his own ice time.

"I know they are using the term 'exceptional,' but the word I prefer to use is unique," Tavares' coach and member of his representative team, James Naylor, said. "He has something innate that allows him to compete, whether it's in a practice or a championship game. (The OHL) will be a wonderful fit for him. All he is doing is moving up with his peers. If they were to hold him back (from playing in the OHL) next season, that would be a change."

Tavares, who had 83 goals in 77 games this past season with the Marlies, has drawn comparisons to former New York Islanders sniper Mike Bossy.

Off the ice, people who have met him rave about his maturity.

"When you look at all the criteria, the bottom line is his character," sports psychologist and Maple Leafs development coach Paul Dennis said. "He has humility. I think his family and coach have nurtured his character ahead of schedule."

Kevin Burkett, who was on the evaluation panel that gave the OHL the stamp to declare Tavares draft-eligible, repeatedly said yesterday the screening process was tough. Yet Tavares passed "with flying colours."

"John Tavares is that once-in-a-while person who is capable of playing in the OHL at the age of 15," Burkett said.

There will be no cap in future years as to how many 15-year-olds can apply for exceptional player status, but because the evaluation process is rigorous, Burkett does not expect an onslaught of applications.

"What the parents think is irrelevant," Burkett said. "(Whether) he is he exceptional or not is judged by people who are in a position to make those judgements."

FOUR MORE YEARS

Stan Butler has signed a four-year contract extension with the OHL's Brampton Battalion. Butler, 49, has been the club's coach and director of hockey operations since it began play in the league in the 1998-99 season.


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