By Sean Hartnett
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More than two years ago, a serious injury forced John Tavares to accept his Olympic gold medal dressed in a suit and tie under his Team Canada jersey.
A torn MCL and meniscus sustained against Latvia in the Sochi Games quarterfinals robbed the Islanders captain of his chance to contribute to Canada’s semifinal matchup against the United States and gold medal game against Sweden.
“Those are the games you dream about playing in: an Olympic final, an Olympic semifinal, playing against the U.S., obviously a great Swedish team,” Tavares told the CBC earlier this week. “I didn’t get that opportunity. I was still fortunate to obviously be part of that team and play up until the point I got hurt, but in saying that you obviously want to be part of those games.”
Tavares stood with the assistance of a crutch under his left arm while the Canadian national anthem played over the loudspeakers at Bolshoy Ice Dome. He finished the tournament as a bystander and pointless in four games.
At this point, it remains to be seen if Tavares will ever get the chance to represent Canada in an Olympic final. The threat of NHL participation at future Olympic games being shelved means that the upcoming World Cup of Hockey is all the more important to Tavares and fellow league stars.
A fractured relationship between the NHL and the International Olympic Committee could cause the league to pull out of the 2018 Pyeongchang games. The IOC has thus far refused to pay for travel and insurance costs for NHL players. Last time around in Sochi, the IOC footed the bill for $14 million toward travel, accommodations and insurance, while the International Ice Hockey Federation spent $18 million. Additionally, members of the NHL’s Board of Governors have expressed concerns about shutting down the league for three weeks and the risk of players suffering injuries during midseason Olympic breaks.
“Somebody’s going to have to pay it and I don’t think it’s going to be us,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said prior to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. “For us to have to pay to go to the Olympics based on everything that’s attendant to that, putting aside the fact that we get no access to our players, we don’t get to promote the fact that we’re there, and we have to disrupt our season, as I indicated in my remarks, I don’t see the board wanting to pay for the privilege. And by the way, it does cost us money now, just to deal with the things we have to deal with beyond the costs they pick up.”
For Tavares, the World Cup of Hockey will be his chance to make up for lost time on the international stage. Over the past three seasons, he has ranked seventh in the NHL with 1.014 points-per-game, 11th with 95 goals and tied for 13th with 28 power play goals. Tavares finished last spring’s playoffs with 11 points in 11 games, including two game-winning goals, as the Isles won a playoff series for the first time since 1993.
Head coach Mike Babcock is planning a major role for the Oakville, Ontario native in the days leading up to Canada’s tournament opener against the Czech Republic on Sept. 17. Tavares has skated on Canada’s top power play line alongside Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos during training camp. Canada will open its pre-tournament schedule with an exhibition game against the United States at Nationwide Arena on Friday night.
Although Tavares is constantly among preseason Hart Trophy favorites, something that isn’t talked about enough is his big-game credentials. After all, he is a career 22-point skater in 24 playoff games. Since making his 2009 debut, Tavares ranks eighth among active NHLers with 0.917 postseason points per game and fourth among active skaters with 0.458 playoff goals per game.
On any given night, he is capable of carrying the Isles on his back and shows an ability to dominate high-traffic areas by jamming in a ton of goals around the crease. Bereft of a supporting cast in Brooklyn capable of getting him to the Stanley Cup Final to this point, Tavares will have full opportunity to demonstrate his greatness as a key component of a loaded Canadian roster once the World Cup of Hockey gets underway.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey