Tavares rolling in the Isles

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:58 AM ET

As he stands in the bowels of the Air Canada Centre tomorrow night, nervously waiting to make his first NHL appearance in Toronto in front of family and friends, Oakville native John Tavares admits he'll have "a few butterflies" churning in his gut.

What he won't have are regrets that he could have been a Maple Leaf, the team he cheered for growing up.

Had Brian Burke been successful in prying away the top overall pick from the New York Islanders in a trade at the June entry draft, Tavares could be wearing Leafs blue, not Islanders blue.

Didn't happen.

Had the Leafs listened to those webheads known as Tank Nation -- a group of diehard fans pleading for the team to go down the toilet last season in order to finish 30th and grab Tavares with the No. 1 pick -- he might today be calling Toronto his hockey home.

Didn't happen.

And, had Tavares pulled an Eric Lindros and refused to go to the team that targeted him -- in this case the Islanders -- he could have demanded to end up with the Leafs.

Didn't happen.

In fact, according to Tavares, it was never going to happen, despite pre-draft suggestions that he wouldn't -- or shouldn't -- report to the Isles.

"I don't think you should be picking where you want to go," Tavares, 19, said in an interview with Sun Media. "Finding out who takes you is part of the fun of the draft. That's the way it should be. You wait your whole life to get drafted and see where you end up -- Canada, out west, the U.S.

"It's a great challenge to come to an organization like the Islanders and help try to turn things around. People have been great to me. It's a great place to play. Once you've been there, seen the area, the history of the team, you realize what a special place it is to play."

Tavares admits a buzz has started around the team, given its respectable start to the season. He is aware of all the No. 91 Islanders jerseys sprinkled throughout the antiquated Nassau Coliseum for home games. And he knows the expectations that have been placed on him by a fan base that was represented by more than 10,000 members at a June draft party inside the Coliseum, one that went bonkers when his name was announced.

Of course, there might be a similar roar in his honour tomorrow at the ACC, where his mother, Barb, predicts more than a 100 supporters could be cheering him on. Included will be his aunt, Teresa, who already has been doing up Tavares posters for the game.

"It'll be exciting," he said. "I think a lot of people are coming. I've heard from some I don't even know.

"I guess it will mostly be a home game for me."

Barb expects her famous son might be a bit jittery in the opening minutes.

"It will be a special night for him," she said. "It might be tough at the start. He might need a few shifts to settle down."

Then again, handling intense public focus in Toronto is nothing new to Tavares, even when the attention is not of his doing.

That was the case two years ago when reports surfaced that the Leafs were trying to lure him to the Marlies, their American Hockey League affiliate. Because his efforts to gain eligibility for the 2008 draft -- one year early -- seemed unobtainable, it was suggested that a lucrative deal with the Marlies might be a more attractive option.

Once again, didn't happen.

"That whole (Marlies) thing kind of came out of nowhere," he said. "It was kind of an unfortunate thing for me and my teammates ...

"That definitely didn't come from me. I was just excited about playing junior. We had a real competitive team in Oshawa that year and had the chance to go far. It definitely caught me off guard. It put even more of the spotlight not only on me, but on my teammates too. It was never my intention to do that."

Heading into play yesterday, Tavares topped all NHL rookies with 19 points, including nine goals. That was just one point ahead of his roommate, fellow freshman Matt Moulson, who Tavares has been working out with for the past four summers.

"John played hockey and lacrosse with Matt's younger brother Chris," Barb explained. "That's how Matt and John got to know each other."

Said Tavares: "It's been great having Matt here and to be on hand when I scored my first NHL goal."

That special moment occurred in his first NHL game, when he registered a goal and an assist on opening night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Oct. 3.

"I thought I could do well early on," Tavares said. "I'm learning the adjustments and I'll continue to learn."

All the while, Leafs fans can only watch the young Isles phenom strut his stuff tomorrow and wonder what might have been.

MIKE.ZEISBERGER@SUNMEDIA.CA


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