By Daniel Friedman
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John Tavares knows a thing or two about playing on the international stage.
The 23-year-old native of Mississauga, Ontario has represented Canada in seven tournaments since 2006 and has put together an impressive portfolio. Between the ’06 Under-18s, ’07 Super Series, World Junior Championships (’08-’09) and World Championships (’10-’12), Tavares has 59 points in 50 games.
His brightest moments have been during the WJCs. He’s a two-time gold medalist and racked up 15 points in 2009, tied for fourth-most by a Canadian player in a single tournament.
Tavares will be joined in Sochi by three other players from that ’09 Canadian Junior squad — Jamie Benn, Alex Pietrangelo and P.K. Subban. All four are making their Olympic debuts, and deservedly so.
It’s something Tavares has earned and has been looking forward to for quite some time.
“People look at this as the pinnacle of Canadian hockey, playing on this team,” he said. “It’s a lot of expectation … You’re playing at the highest level in the sport. You just try to look at it as a great opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Not everyone gets an opportunity like this. I feel very fortunate to have it. I don’t want to have any regrets going over there, I want to leave everything on the table.”
One reporter asked Tavares what he wanted to show the world.
“I’m honestly not worried about that,” he replied. “For me, you want to go there and win a gold medal for your country. Whatever role I’m asked to play for Canada, you accept that and you do that to the best of your ability. I’ll trust my instincts and what’s gotten me to this level.”
Early indications are that he’ll center the fourth line with Patrice Bergeron and Jamie Benn on his left and right wings, though he practiced with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on Tuesday. Tavares also lined up on Canada’s top power-play unit with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz.
No matter what line he plays on, he’ll get his chances. This is the kind of team that’s been designed with the flexibility to roll four lines; fourth line in this case doesn’t quite mean fourth line the way it usually does.
Tavares also reiterated that he’s happy to play anywhere and with anyone
“You play on a team like that — whoever you’re playing with, you’re pretty fortunate,” he said.
That’s not a company line; that’s a fact. Just look up and down Canada’s roster and you’ll see how much depth there is. To put things in perspective, Martin St. Louis and Matt Duchene are extra forwards right now.
I asked Tavares if he felt that going to Sochi could help him become an even better player at the NHL level.
“100 percent,” he replied. “In the World Championships, I got to play with some great players. You learn a lot from those guys. Whether you’re looking for things or not, you just pick up on things. Guys that have been successful, great leaders, are guys that are just consistent players on a daily basis. There are certainly a lot of guys you can learn from.”
There’s a growing perception that these Winter Olympics could be the last to feature NHL players, so it really could be a “once-in-a-lifetime chance,” as Tavares calls it. Either way, you can expect him to shine; he usually does while representing his country.
Canada begins play tomorrow, facing Norway at 12 p.m. ET.
THOMAS VANEK, MICHAEL GRABNER TEAM UP FOR AUSTRIA
How much longer they’ll be teammates on the Islanders is anyone’s guess, but they’ll join forces to represent Austria in Sochi.
It’s the first Olympic appearance for Austria since 2002, when they finished 12th. Vanek and Grabner, ages 18 and 14 at the time, respectively, weren’t in any position to make a difference. But they are now, and they’re ready to put Austria back on the hockey map.
Vanek’s looking forward to the experience.
“It’ll be fun,” he said. “Obviously, we’re a big underdog, but that’s OK. Hopefully we can surprise a few people.”
After his country qualified for the tournament last year, Austrian journalist Christian Schleifer noted that “people are already drooling over a team sporting Vanek (and) Grabner. People know that just one victory at the Olympics would be kind of a miracle, but everybody’s looking forward to the matchup with Canada.”
Vanek instantly became the national ambassador for the sport when he emerged as a goal-scoring dynamo in the NHL, and Bill Clement once remarked that “he probably won’t be the last one to come shooting out of Austria.”
He wasn’t. Grabner burst (literally, burst) onto the scene with the Isles in 2010, scoring 34 goals as a rookie, and has developed into a useful player. He hopes to have a similar influence.
“Hockey’s been getting bigger,” he said. “People are enjoying it. Hopefully we can get a few more Austrians over here.”
The Austrians begin their tournament against Finland on Thursday at 3 a.m. ET.
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