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'Exceptional' Tavares focused solely on World Juniors

by Dan Rosen

He knows all about the expectations. He understands how exceedingly high they have gotten. He knows people, even some in the hockey business, toss his name into sentences that also include the names of Sidney Crosby and Wayne Gretzky.

Yes, John Tavares knows all about the spotlight engulfing him on a daily basis. It's nothing new, nothing out of the ordinary anymore. Even though the kid who turns 18 in September hasn't been drafted into the NHL yet, he's already a superstar in the minds of many hockey people.

Just not in his own mind.

"I still have a lot to learn, so it's pretty easy to stay humble," Tavares said Sunday after the morning practice sessions at Hockey Canada's National Junior Team Evaluation Camp at the University of Ottawa Sports Complex. "I have a lot more developing to do."

Tavares, who missed being eligible for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft by five days, enters his draft year as the consensus No. 1 pick for the 2009 Draft in Montreal.

Whichever team wins that top pick not only will land a top-notch talent, they'll be adding one of the most mature teenagers ever to come into the League.

"He's going to be 18 soon and I can tell he's been through a lot," Pat Brisson, whom Tavares hired to be his agent last month, told "He has built his protection. He is guarding himself. He still has that naiveté to him, which makes him attractive. It's nice to see when someone doesn't always answer like a robot. He's human that way, and he means well, but he's guarded, too."

To better understand how to live in the spotlight, Tavares asks Brisson a lot of questions. Brisson can provide insight because he also represents Crosby and Patrick Kane, two North Americans who aren't too far removed from walking in Tavares' shoes.

"John is very curious and absorbs a lot, which is a good sign," Brisson said. "He's asking a lot of questions. That's a great quality that he has."

From what Brisson can gather, Tavares doesn't want to be known as the “Next One,” even if that's the tag attached to him these days.

"I'm sure he has goals that he's not sharing with anybody that will make him special, but a step at a time," Brisson said. "He doesn't want to put any extra pressure on himself. The last thing John wants is to come out and say I'm going to do this and that."

No, but Sunday morning Tavares did say that he wants to make the World Junior team for a second-straight year and that he wants to win the Memorial Cup with his Ontario Hockey League team, the Oshawa Generals.

Who doesn't?

Interestingly enough, Tavares never said he wants to be the No. 1 pick in 2009, even though it's assumed he will be.

"I try to keep those thoughts in the back of my mind and worry about what I need to do to get better each and every day," Tavares said. "Hopefully I can do more things this season that are even greater than what I've already done."

What he's already done is pretty amazing, and has become common knowledge to Canadian hockey fans.

"I'm sure he has goals that he's not sharing with anybody that will make him special, but a step at a time. He doesn't want to put any extra pressure on himself. The last thing John wants is to come out and say I'm going to do this and that.”

-- Pat Brisson, John Tavares' agent

Tavares was the first player to be granted "exceptional player" status by the OHL, which allowed him to be drafted several months before he turned 15; OHL draft prospects have to be 16 by Dec. 31 of their draft year.

Oshawa made him the first pick in 2005, and he had 45 goals and 32 assists in his rookie season to win Canadian Hockey League and OHL Rookie of the Year awards. He was the OHL and CHL Player of the Year in 2006-07 after posting 134 points in 67 games.
His 72 goals that season broke the record for a 16-year-old in the OHL previously held by Gretzky. This past season he proved how good of a playmaker he can be by turning in 40 goals and 78 assists for 118 points in 59 games.

Phoenix Coyotes prospect Brett MacLean was the beneficiary of Tavares' change in style, as he piled up 61 goals and a team-high 119 points in 61 games.

"I had to become more of a playmaker with the tight checking and the rise of MacLean on my team," Tavares said. "He played really well so I kind of played second to him and I was fine with that. I just got him the puck and he scored some goals."

Tavares' experience last year with Team Canada in the World Junior Championship proved he's able to adapt to a team. Realize, of course, that throughout most of his career his teammates have been adapting to him.

He made the 2008 team as the last forward, but earned a regular shift on the second line and wound up with five points in seven games, helping Canada win its fourth-straight World Junior gold.

"I had to become part of the team," said Tavares, who as a 16-year-old was cut from the squad before the 2007 World Junior Championships. "At the start, I wasn't involved too much, but the coaches told me just to keep working and pushing and that I was still a big part of the team. I was able to find my way."

Tavares finds himself in a strange position at this camp.

He's a returning gold-medal winner with no ties to the NHL, so just about everyone outside Hockey Canada – and most inside – sees him as a lock to make the team. As a result, the coaches are looking for him to provide some leadership, but he's still the second-youngest player in camp.

"I don't look at it like I have a spot on the team," Tavares said. "I have to go out there and work hard to earn a spot like I did last year. I definitely do try to bring leadership, but I still have to work for a spot."

So far, Canada coach Benoit Groulx -- who refuses to say Tavares is a lock to make this team -- likes what he sees.

"He seems to be in very good shape and I think he is pretty relaxed and confident on the ice, which is a good sign," Groulx said. "He's well-prepared for this camp and he wants to show everybody that he can be an important part of this team."

That team will come together in December, but this five-day National Junior Team Evaluation Camp marks the beginning of the most important year of Tavares' life. If he were anyone else, we'd be writing about what a really big deal that is and how much it means to him.

Except when you're John Tavares, 17-year-old Canadian superstar, everything you do is already a really big deal.

"I know there is a lot of pressure and there are high expectations, but I intend to fulfill my goals and help my team win a championship," Tavares said. "That's how I approach it. I only try to worry about the things I have to do."

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