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John Tavares to suit up Sunday for Knights after blockbuster deal

Friday, 01.09.2009 / 8:05 PM / News

The Canadian Press

LONDON, Ont. - As the most eventful week of his young life came to a close Friday, junior hockey sensation John Tavares was well aware much more lies ahead.

First, the MVP of the world junior hockey championship has to get acquainted with his new London Knights teammates, then suit up with them Sunday after spending 3 1/2 seasons with the Oshawa Generals. Then, there's a prospects game back in Oshawa.

And then, he'll have to justify the most stunning deal in Knights history.

From now until the National Hockey League's entry draft in June, his every move will be analyzed as part of yet more scrutiny on the 18-year-old tabbed for months as the likely top pick overall.

Obviously weary from the whirlwind events that began with Team Canada winning the gold medal Monday - his second - he managed a smile when advised Wayne Gretzky once said his best time for relaxation was in practices and games.

"Yes, when I play, that's when I feel most comfortable," he said after a press conference introducing Tavares, and defenceman Michael Del Zotto and forward Leigh Salters.

Tavares, Del Zotto and goalie Daryl Borden come from the Generals in exchange for winger Christian Thomas, defenceman Scott Valentine and goalie Michael Zador plus six London draft picks in a deal made Thursday. Salters was added yesterday via a trade with Guelph.

"Coming to the rink every day, being with the guys and just playing is what I love," Tavares added. "I'm coming to a great organization but I'm leaving one, too. Winning the world junior was incredible and all I want to do now is help spread it around the room, what it takes to win."

He said it was 50-50 whether he'd be traded or remain with Oshawa. When the deal was made, he called his mother, Barb, and asked for guidance. They agreed it was a good step toward reaching the next level of his career.

Local historians had to go back to a deal that took defenceman Jim Schoenfeld and forward Rick Kehoe to the Hamilton Red Wings back in the late 1960s, part of a seven-player deal. But this one was a blockbuster, one designed to install the Knights as Ontario Hockey League and Memorial Cup contenders along with the Windsor Spitfires, who also were negotiating with Oshawa, lead the West Division and are 3-0 against the Knights this season.

The Oakville native will suit up, wearing No. 61, for the Knights' home game Sunday against Mississauga. Knights' general manager Mark Hunter gave him the night off Friday, feeling it was a bit much to ask of the tired kid.

"It will help to re-focus, to make sure I'm myself," Tavares said.

His regular number, 91, is worn by Knights Nazem Kadri, also considered a first-round pick in the coming draft.

Coming with an Oshawa teammate helps, Tavares said. He and Del Zotto came up together with the Generals and spent two years as roommates. Tavares arrived early, when he was the OHL's top pick in 2005 as a 14-year-old, having been granted "exceptional status."

Del Zotto, an offensive defenceman, was a first-round pick (20th overall) by the New York Rangers at last spring's draft.

"We came up together and we have the same instincts," Tavares said. "We communicate well."

If he is top pick by the NHL, Tavares joins two former Knights of recent years who've won that honour. They're Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Tavares said he was aware Knights coach Dale Hunter has a reputation for preparing players for the professional ranks and looks forward to whatever he can glean from his new coach.

Mark Hunter said natural ability and talent mark them all. He says he expects his new star's "leadership and unbelievable drive to win" will amaze some folks in the NHL. "They're going to be surprised how good he really is."

As for the youngster, he'll be on the go again next week with the top prospects game coming up Wednesday in Oshawa. And he's still reeling from the excitement of the world juniors.

"Playing in front of 20,000 people is something I'll never forget," he said in reference to the sellout world junior crowds.

He might, once he sees them on a regular basis in the National Hockey League.

Quote of the Day

Right now I'm just happy to be back and get through this season and make sure I do my job. I've never had an issue with having to prove myself again and I'll try to do it again. We'll see where it takes me.

— Defenseman Torey Krug on signing with the Boston Bruins
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