Tavares primed for 'once in a lifetime opportunity'

New York Islanders centre John Tavares (91) works to keep the puck away from Los Angeles Kings...

New York Islanders centre John Tavares (91) works to keep the puck away from Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty during the second period November 14, 2013, at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. (Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports)

JOHN MATISZ, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:22 PM ET

Three months out, John Tavares is already catching himself champing at the bit.

Although the Canadian men’s hockey team roster won’t be finalized until after Christmas, Tavares is a virtual lock to represent his country at the Sochi Olympics.

“I’d say you can start to feel it, like it’s getting closer,” Tavares told QMI Agency Wednesday during a one-on-one interview. “It comes in and out of my mind, and mostly it’s about having the opportunity. I don’t think it’s about the pressure, or the stress about it.”

The New York Islanders captain, not surprisingly absent from Canada’s forward contingent last Olympics as a 19-year-old, looks primed for a leading role in February.

Coming off a season that concluded with Hart Trophy finalist honours, and not missing a step through 22 games this year, Tavares will undoubtedly leave his rabid Olympic-viewing days in the past.

“I think I watched every game of every team,” said a smirking Tavares, talking about 2010’s Vancouver Olympics.

Tavares, who at 23 is already in his fifth NHL season, is part of a select group, which includes Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Shea Weber, all but guaranteed a spot on Canada’s roster. The Mississauga, Ont., native’s nine goals and 25 points this season puts him on pace for career highs in both categories.

However, as the recent loss of all-world sniper Steven Stamkos revealed, anything can happen to anyone. It showed even the fittest players in the world can encounter tough luck. Tavares, a noted health freak, has managed to miss only three games over his NHL career.

“That’s really a freak injury,” Tavares said of Stamkos. “There’s nothing you can really do to prevent that. You can’t go into games thinking about that. All you can do is prepare yourself as best as possible.”

If it turns out Stamkos is unavailable for Sochi, another layer of significance would be added to a top-tier forward like Tavares. Instead of centering the third line behind Crosby and Toews, as many predicted before the injury, could he land in a top-six spot on the wing?

“To be on a team like this — probably the toughest team to make in hockey — any role, any specific position,” he said when asked about a potential position switch. “I don’t think it matters. It’s about playing for Canada and trying to win a gold medal. You make the sacrifices you need to make.”

While Tavares’ exact duties on the international stage are to be determined, it’s abundantly clear the Islanders are his team. Named captain following Mark Streit’s departure to Philadelphia this summer, the 6-foot-1, 205-pounder is still getting comfortable steering the Long Island ship.

“I think it’s something I’ve gradually grown into,” said Tavares, adding his leadership style skews more toward leading by example as opposed to being a strong vocal presence. “I think you’re always aware, trying to be aware, of the locker room and the way we’re playing. Where can we be better? What do we need to do to get better? What do we need to continue to keep doing?”

Sporting an 8-11-3 record and on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, the Islanders have struggled to find their footing this season.

After a late-October trade, which saw Tavares’ best buddy and linemate Matt Moulson, plus two draft picks, head to Buffalo for Thomas Vanek, the team hasn’t improved, going 4-6-1 since the swap.

“It’s been up-and-down, but we’re still right in the thick of things,” Tavares said.

Signed through 2017-18 at a bargain $5.5-million salary cap hit, Tavares has plenty of time to help craft a Stanley Cup-contending squad in New York.

Playing a starring role on a stacked Olympic team again, however, is probably less likely. A lot can happen in four years, and there’s no guarantee NHL players will be participants in the 2018 Games.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Tavares, nodding with excitement.

TAVARES THE COMPLETE 'PACKAGE'

John Tavares insists it was “just a hit.”

Rubbed out by Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nikolai Kulemin in the second period Tuesday, Tavares appeared to go face-first into linesman Don Henderson’s, uh, package.

“I was in a spot where I couldn’t go either way,” Tavares said Wednesday, playing it totally straight. “You just take the hit and hope that nothing’s wrong. It kinked my neck the one way, so I was just a little stiff, but I actually feel really good today.”

His Islander teammates busted out their cell phones following a 5-2 loss at the Air Canada Centre, waving the photo evidence in Tavares’ face.

“I know the guys were joking with me after the game, (showing me) the pictures floating around,” he said. “People have been making fun of it a little bit, but what can ‘ya do?”


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