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Islanders, fans give Tavares grand welcome

Wednesday, 07.08.2009 / 3:37 PM / 2009 NHL Offseason News

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The New York Islanders rolled out the blue-and-orange carpet for John Tavares on Wednesday afternoon at Nassau Coliseum and called it a re-birth for the downtrodden franchise.

Fans filled the arena floor to watch Tavares' introductory press conference. Howie Rose, the Isles' television voice, emceed the event. Tavares sat at the dais with GM Garth Snow and coach Scott Gordon. In the first row sat owner Charles Wang, last year's first-round pick Josh Bailey, Tavares' family and new assistant coach Dean Chynoweth.

A video tribute, which Tavares watched with a strained neck, played on the center-ice scoreboard, which had been lowered into a position directly behind the dais. Snow handed Tavares his No. 91 jersey, the same number worn by legendary Islander Butch Goring during the dynasty years. Billy Jaffe, Rose's partner in the broadcast booth, conducted a Q&A session.

The 500 or so fans, some of whom ditched work to be at the event, chanted Tavares' name the way the 10,118 that packed the Coliseum did on draft night. One even yelled, "You're going to like it here, John," as Tavares swung his jersey over his head.

It was memorable and special, but Tavares, only 18 years old, handled it like a seasoned veteran. That's probably because when it comes to managing unyielding hype and overwhelming expectations, Tavares already is a pro's pro.

"He's done this before," Snow told NHL.com. "He's probably better equipped to go through this side of the process than your typical 18- or 19-year old kid. He'll be fine."

Tavares, the first pick in last month's Entry Draft, is coming to the one New York team that somehow resides on the fringes of the sports media capital of the world. The Islanders haven't won a playoff series since 1993, and as a result, the amount of local coverage the team has received has dissipated dramatically.

However, with the addition of No. 91, the die-hard fans on Long Island have renewed hope that their team is on its way back onto the New York sports map -- and more importantly, to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That definitely means there is pressure on Tavares' shoulders, but that's the norm for him. It could be argued that the hype Tavares is getting on Long Island doesn't come close to the hype he has endured in Canada since challenging the Ontario Hockey League's age restrictions at age 14.

Before Tavares, no player under the age of 15 could be drafted into the OHL. Because of Tavares, the OHL introduced an "exceptional player" clause that allowed Tavares, then 14, to be selected No. 1 by the Oshawa Generals in the spring of 2005.

Since then, Tavares has been one of North America's top teen-aged talents and received Sidney Crosby-like hype throughout his four-year OHL career.

He twice played for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship, and was tournament MVP in Ottawa this past winter as Canada again won gold. He broke Peter Lee's 33-year-old OHL career goal-scoring record this past season and finished his career with 215. His 72 goals in 2006-07 broke Wayne Gretzky's single-season OHL record.

So, yeah, Tavares is well prepared for the New York spotlight.

"I think being familiar with (the spotlight) helps," Tavares said. "It's a much bigger stage now being in the National Hockey League and there will be new experiences, but dealing with this when I was 14 and handling all the cameras, the requests, the fan attention and the eyes on me definitely will help me through my process."
"It's a much bigger stage now being in the National Hockey League and there will be new experiences, but dealing with this when I was 14 and handling all the cameras, the requests, the fan attention and the eyes on me definitely will help me through my process." -- John Tavares

Tavares' process is just beginning. He already has pulled an Islanders sweater over his head twice -- once at the draft and again Wednesday -- but he will go to work Friday when the team opens its development camp in Syosset, N.Y.

Gordon, for one, is anxious to see the organization's prize on the ice this week and in September, when training camp opens. That's when he'll get a better idea of where Tavares fits in and what players will work best alongside him.

The one thing Gordon doesn't want is for Tavares to feel as if he has to do more than he's capable. The Islanders want Tavares to be just one of the players -- albeit the most hyped -- that make up the team's young core, which for now includes Kyle Okposo and Bailey.

"There is going to be a bit of an adjustment; you expect that from any player, whether they're a first-overall pick or in the seventh round," Gordon told NHL.com. "They are playing against men, not boys. Everybody is bigger and skates faster. The players are smarter and probably better coached. It's not an easy task, but usually players drafted in his position have such a good head on their shoulders and the transition is a lot quicker than what it might be for others."

Tavares said he doesn't see himself as a savior, but there is little doubt that fans and maybe even the organization see it that way. As one media member noted Wednesday, they don't just hold these grandiose press conferences for just anybody, let alone for someone who has never played a shift in the NHL.

Tavares is smart, so he knows the wonderful hospitality he has been receiving on Long Island for the past two weeks will last only so long. As soon as he rolls up his sleeves and goes to work, the welcome mat gets rolled up, too.

There is work to be done and he'll be doing in front of the watchful eye of a hopeful fan base dying to see the team they love get back some of the glory of its storied past.

The good news is, those die-hard fans are putting their faith in a teenager that is well-equipped to handle the rigors encountered during the journey.

They have the hockey-mad country of Canada to thank for that.

"All markets are pretty big, maybe not as big as New York, but I understand dealing with the pressure of expectations," Tavares said. "I can't wait to get started."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.
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