OTTAWA - All eyes were on top prospects John Tavares and Victor Hedman going into the world junior hockey championship and Tavares came out on top.
Not only did the slick forward from Oakville, Ont. get a gold medal, he was named MVP of the tournament.
"It's an honour, but it's a better feeling being world champion," said Tavares, who is expected to be chosen first overall in the NHL draft in June, perhaps just ahead of Swedish defenceman Hedman.
Tavares led the tournament in scoring until the final game, when teammate Cody Hodgson had two goals and an assist in a 5-1 win over Sweden to take the scoring title with 16 points - five goals and 11 assists. Tavares was right behind with eight goals and seven assists.
But it was Tavares that went into the tournament carrying the pressure of being Canada's latest phenom. He had a strong tournament, even if he was the goat on Sweden's only goal as he gave up the puck at the blue-line and then fell while chasing goal-scorer Joakim Andersson.
"It makes it easier when the guys make you feel like you're just part of the group," said Tavares, one of four Canadians to win a second gold medal in as many years. "For me, it was just playing my game.
"I knew I'd get my opportunities. I knew I was counted on, but I never felt pressure to score a lot of goals or put up great numbers. It was just playing my game. I can say I gave it my all. I left it all out there."
The six-foot-six Hedman proved to be a smooth skater for a big man who is not afraid to jump into the rush and go hard to the net.
"He's a good player, you can see that with his size and his speed and the way he reads the play," Tavares said of his rival. "I just wanted to play my game in the team system. It was never about me. It was about playing for Canada."
Hedman was too upset about suffering a lopsided loss in a game Sweden was supposed to win to think too much about the draft.
"I played well, but it's hard to say - we were here to win gold and it doesn't matter if I played good or bad," said Hedman. "We wanted the gold medal. I tried to play my best in every game."
Tavares said he will return to his junior club, the Oshawa Generals, on Tuesday to share his gold medal with his teammates. But there are rumours that Tavares has already been traded to another OHL club, likely the London Knights.
"I have no idea about that," he said. "Oshawa's been great about just letting me play and to worry about this after.
"The staffs been great here at keeping my mind focused. When I get back, we'll see what happens. Hopefully, things will work out and I can stay, but if not, we'll see what happens."