CALGARY - John Tavares has learned a difficult lesson for a talented hockey player who just turned 17, and that's patience.
The Oshawa Generals forward came to the Canadian junior hockey team's selection camp Monday knowing better what he has to do to play in the world junior hockey championship and it's not necessarily scoring goals.
Tavares, a 72-goal scorer in the Ontario Hockey League last season, was devastated when he was cut from the Canadian junior team a year ago at 16, even though few players that age ever play in the tournament that's a showcase for 19-year-olds.
Tavares was a member of the Canadian junior team that went 7-0-1 against Russia in the Super Series in August and September and he struggled at times during those eight games.
A natural and prolific goalscorer, Tavares was anxious to display his skills against Russia.
It took him awhile to come to grips with the notion he could still help the team win even if the puck wasn't going in the net, by winning faceoffs and battles on defence.
"I want to do what I do best but sometimes you've got to take a step back and realize what the main goal is and contribute into a team system," Tavares said Monday after stepping off the plane at the Calgary airport.
"That's a lot of what I learned and want to bring to the table in Calgary and hopefully in the Czech Republic. It's nice to know what it takes - accepting a role and understanding what I have to do in a team system to win."
The six-foot-two, 197-pound forward had one power-play goal and eight assists against the Russians in the Super Series.
"He played wing rather than centre for the first time in his life and he was called on to be defensively responsible and get in and do the forechecking and turn over pucks and not just wait for other people to do that," recalled Hockey Canada head scout Al Murray.
"It was hard for him and I think he learned a great lesson because the pucks weren't going in for him and yet he was still a very valuable part of the team because he was playing that two-way game. You don't just have to score to be a part of a successful program."
Tavares was one of 37 players - four goalies, a dozen defencemen and 21 forwards - invited by Murray to try out for the Canadian junior team. The roster was reduced by one to 36 before the players even stepped on the ice Monday as forward Nick Spaling of the Kitchener Rangers was sent home with mononucleosis.
Two goaltenders, seven defencemen and 13 forwards will be chosen to chase a fourth straight gold medal for their country at the IIHF world under-20 hockey championship, starting Dec. 26 in Pardubice and Liberec, Czech Republic.
The team will be selected by Friday as the players will be on a plane bound for Europe later that day, although head coach Craig Hartsburg wasn't ruling out the possibility of finalizing the roster by Thursday.
Tavares is one of 22 players invited who participated in the Super Series.
There are three others who suited up, but Sam Gagner of the Edmonton Oilers, Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins and David Perron of the St. Louis Blues were not made available to the Canadian junior team by their respective NHL clubs.
While Tavares had at least two more chances at playing for the Canadian junior team when he was released last year, it wasn't surprising he took it so hard because of his high expectations.
He was allowed to play in the OHL as a 15-year-old in 2005-06 under an exceptional player clause. He scored 45 goals and was named the Canadian Hockey League's top rookie that season.
Stung by his release from the Canadian team, he went on a tear over the second half of last season. His 72 goals were more than Wayne Gretzky scored at that age and Tavares was named the CHL's top player after a 134-point season.
"It was tough getting cut, a new experience for me and something I'd never had to deal with," he said. "I was still happy for the guys winning a gold medal. I definitely want to be a part of that and wear a gold medal around my neck and hear my national anthem while standing on the blue-line."
In Gagner's absence, there is room for a player to step into the role of chief goal-scorer.
Kyle Turris of the University of Wisconsin is the frontrunner for that, but Tavares is also a candidate based on his gaudy numbers in the CHL.
That doesn't mean, however, those players would get a free pass from playing defence, says Hartsburg.
"We're not worried who is going to get the points, whether it's John or somebody else, but we want players to play a complete game," he said.
Tavares was born five days too late to be eligible for the 2008 NHL entry draft and will have to wait until 2009.
Tavares's agent Bryan Deasley had approached NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daley and the Players' Association counsels during the summer about the possibility of creating an exceptional player clause that would allow Tavares into the 2008 draft, but Deasley said Monday "it's not an issue we're pursuing."
"You definitely have to be patient as a young hockey player for your career to unfold, so that's what I'm trying to do," Tavares said.
His role with the Generals has changed somewhat this season as he's currently off the pace to score another 72 goals, but he's on pace to better the 62 assists he had last season, with 24 goals and 44 assists in 30 games.
His Oshawa teammate Brett MacLean, also invited to this camp, leads the OHL in goalscoring with 35.
"With my teammate Brett MacLean doing very well and scoring a lot of goals, I'm learning to be more of a playmaker and I thinks it has helped me in growing as an individual and as a hockey player," Tavares said.