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Isles fans cheer loudest and longest for Tavares

by Brian Compton
UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Truth be told, what transpired at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Friday was the most exciting moment in this 37-year-old barn since Shawn Bates beat Curtis Joseph on a penalty shot in the 2002 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

For more than two months, New York Islanders General Manager Garth Snow could have told the hockey world that his club was selecting John Tavares with the first pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Snow was given the right to make such a proclamation on April 14, when the 30th-ranked Isles won the Scotiabank Draft Lottery after finishing the 2008-09 season with the worst record in the NHL.

But Snow wouldn't divulge the news on that night or any other up until Friday. It came down to Tavares -- the Ontario Hockey League's all-time leading scorer -- or Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman. It even could have been Matt Duchene, who darted his way up the scouting rankings during the course of the season. Tavares, however, had been the consensus No. 1 pick since scoring 72 goals as a 16-year-old in the Ontario Hockey League.

Tavares was certainly the chosen one by the majority of the roughly 10,000 fans who showed up at the Coliseum on Friday. Some walked through the arena doors two hours prior to the start of the draft, eager to begin celebrating the arrival of the team's first pure goal scorer since Zigmund Palffy skated here in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Prior to the start of the draft, there were videos featuring each of the big three prospects. Each time Tavares was shown, the cheers grew louder. It was obvious who the thousands in the building wanted. Afterwards, chants of "JOHN TA-VAR-ES!" got under way. Still, nobody in the building knew if Tavares would actually become a member of the New York Islanders.

With Islander greats Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Bobby Nystrom inside the Coliseum, Snow put an end to the drama in Montreal at roughly 7:15 p.m. Eastern time, when he claimed Tavares with the No. 1 selection. Snow couldn't get his newest player's last name out before chaos -- the good kind -- erupted back on Long Island. Confetti shot out of the scoreboard as fans high-fived each other at ice level. The goal horn sounded, a noise everyone here should become more accustomed to now that Tavares is on board.

Before the Isles even made their second first-round selection -- which came earlier than expected -- the team announced that fans who purchased season tickets on Friday night would have the opportunity to meet Tavares next week, providing them yet another reason to cheer. Jersey orders were fast and furious.

Yes sir, everyone on Long Island is pumped.

"It's very, very exciting," said Bryan Trottier, one of the franchise's all-time greats and the club's Executive Director of Player Development. "Great energy in this building tonight. There's a lot of very excited fans. It's really great for Long Island. He's an exciting player with terrific skills."

The excitement wasn't over, though. Moments later, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced in Montreal that the Isles had traded up for the Columbus Blue Jackets' No. 16 selection. Once again, the Coliseum roared. Snow was sticking to his plan to build within the draft.

But he wasn't done.

Unlike last year -- when Snow traded down twice from No. 5 to No. 9 to take Josh Bailey and stockpile draft picks in the process -- he moved up twice in this first round. After acquiring Columbus' pick (No. 16) in exchange for the No. 26 selection, Snow traded up again with the Minnesota Wild to No. 12, creating another buzz at the Coliseum. With the 12th pick, Snow grabbed puck-moving defenseman Calvin de Haan, who nearly averaged a point per game (8 goals, 55 assists in 68 games) in his first season of junior hockey (Oshawa).

Trottier, along with Scott Gordon and his coaching staff, will have the opportunity to work with Tavares, de Haan and others that the Islanders will select when the draft resumes on Saturday when the club holds his annual rookie camp next month. Judging by his enthusiasm on Friday night, Trottier's ready to put the blades on right now.

"It'll be great to embrace the new faces and welcome the kids to the core group," Trottier said. "I'm sure the coaching staff is as excited as I am. Just a great night."

One that was long overdue on Long Island.

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