TORONTO - John Tavares can’t remember exactly what pleasantries he exchanged with Nazem Kadri when the two former London Knight teammates briefly crossed paths at a Toronto hotel on Sunday.
“It was a very quick encounter,” Tavares said, indicating he and Kadri did not have the chance to blab extensively.
Of course, had the two ex-junior linemates had more time to chat, the subject du jour very well may have been about how to deal with the public limelight. It is a topic Tavares knows all about.
After all, years before he was plucked first overall by the New York Islanders during the 2009 entry draft in Montreal, John Tavares was a household name among hockey fans in southern Ontario — and the country.
He was billed in some circles as being the “next Gretzky,” an unfair tag to plop on to the shoulders of any kid. Yet that was the type of pressure Tavares faced almost every day, the type of hype that accompanied him even during his minor hockey career.
Simply put, being in a fishbowl has been a fact of John Tavares’ life for a long time. Like it or not, that’s just the way it is.
But, especially in recent months, he has seen the shoe on the other foot, one belonging to Nazem Kadri.
Selected six spots behind Tavares at No. 7 overall by the Leafs at the ’09 draft, Kadri has been under the microscope of Leafs Nation from that day forward. That was never more evident than during Maple Leafs training camp last month when Nazem-palooza generated more headlines, television spots and, yes, even controversial sports section covers, than newcomers like Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong and Clarke MacArthur managed.
Having grown up in the Toronto area, Tavares was well aware of the omnipresent scrutiny Kadri was under during the latter stages of September. According to Tavares, Kadri passed the test with flying colours.
“I thought he handled it very well,” Tavares said Monday at the Air Canada Centre, where his Islanders were preparing to meet the Leafs.
“Going through something like that is a good learning experience. He’ll be fine. I think he’s going to be a great player.”
While they had faced each other as opponents on numerous occasions, the Tavares-Kadri relationship really developed roots midway through the 2008-09 OHL season when the Oshawa Generals traded Tavares to Kadri’s Knights. The two immediately were tested on the same line, with Kadri shifted over from centre to wing.
Through it all, there was no shortage of playful barbs between them.
In fact, not long after Tavares had been acquired from Oshawa, a grinning Kadri told the London Free Press: “He still has some Generals blood in him but we’ll wash it out.”
“Nazem was a real fun-loving guy,” Tavares recounted Monday. “He wasn’t goofy or anything, but he was really easy going. He kept things very lighthearted.”
While he still needs to build up his strength, Kadri scored his first professional goal over the weekend for the Marlies, the opening on-ice salvo of what Leafs officials will be a lengthy lucrative career in the organization.
Tavares, meanwhile, had his own eventful weekend, coming back to the Isles lineup after missing the previous three games with what originally had been reported as a concussion. His return would be a noteworthy one as he scored an empty net goal in a 5-2 victory over Colorado.
“Actually, it wasn’t a concussion,” Tavares said. “I never really got hit in the head. My neck just kind of snapped. They just wanted to take a lot of precautions and I understand that.”
Tavares certainly looked in midseason Monday night. He scored the game winner at 3:26 of overtime after having assisted on the game’s opening goal midway through the second period.
Limelight or not, the guy can play. And, in his opinion, so, too, can Kadri.