Tavares all for NHLers returning to Olympics

Canada forward John Tavares, right, and forward Jeff Carter, second from left, celebrate with defenseman Drew Doughty. Mark Humphrey/AP

Were you to drop in on John Tavares for a visit during the last couple months you almost certainly would have seen his most valued piece of hardware.

The gold medal he brought back from the Sochi Olympics was in such high demand that he ended up just leaving it out on a cabinet in his living room. Consider it an easy conversation-starter.

“I haven’t put it in a display yet or anything,” Tavares said during a recent chat. “I was showing a lot of family members, a lot of friends, this summer. It was out pretty often.”

That medal — and the good memories attached to it — are what the New York Islanders captain remembers most about his first Olympic experience, not the way his tournament ended. Tavares was on crutches when “O Canada” played at the Bolshoy Ice Dome after suffering a partially torn MCL and meniscus in his left knee during the quarter-final win over Latvia.

His season was over on Feb. 20.

Not only was it the first extended layoff he’d experienced during a five-year pro career, but it’s also the longest he’s ever gone between games since taking up the sport. Seven months is an agonizing absence for a rink rat. And with NHL training camps set to open this week, there might not be another player in the league more excited to get back to work than Tavares.

“Oh I’m ready,” he said.

There is certainly reason for optimism on Long Island, where the acquisition of goalies Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson should make an instant impact on a team that was dead last in save percentage last season. Adding forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin will provide some much-needed depth up front.

This could also be the year that Tavares challenges for the NHL’s scoring title.

A lot of signs have him trending in that direction. He is already among the league’s elite offensive players after producing the fifth-best points per game average over the last three seasons — trailing only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos and Claude Giroux. Tavares is the youngest member of that group and should just be entering his offensive prime with his 24th birthday coming on Saturday.

Remember, as well, that he was third in league scoring when the Olympic break hit last year and he is coming of another excellent summer of training alongside Crosby and other NHL stars. The recovery from the knee injury was completed by May and didn’t impact his off-season routine whatsoever.

Rested and relaxed, Tavares is focused on being more consistent this season and leading the Islanders back to the playoffs in their final year at Nassau Coliseum. Despite the injury setback in Russia, one thing that remains unchanged is his passion for international competition.

“It sucked, it was disappointing and it wasn’t an easy thing to deal with, but I’d go again and represent my country,” said Tavares. “For sure.”

The organization that employs him didn’t hide its disdain for the tournament back in February. General manager Garth Snow told Newsday that it was a “joke” the team lost its best player while he represented Team Canada and cited it as “the biggest reason why NHL players shouldn’t be in the Olympics, it should just be amateurs.”

Tavares met with the general manager after he returned to North America. Snow apologized for putting him in a bad spot, according to Tavares, and that was basically the end of it.

“I think he understands what it’s like being a player and being an athlete and having those opportunities,” said Tavares. “How could you not want to be a part of something like that? I think he felt bad about the whole situation when I got home.”

One thing that stood out during numerous conversations with top players at last week’s NHL media tour was how divided opinions are on whether the league will allow them to return to the Olympics again in 2018.

Tavares, however, was unequivocal. Even with the next Games heading across the globe to Pyeonchang, South Korea, he doesn’t believe the NHL will still away.

“I watched a lot of hockey after I got back (from Sochi) and it was great,” said Tavares. “The way things responded afterwards — how well the league did, I think revenues and attendance were still great and the game was still good to watch and there were so many good storylines post-Olympics.

“I think it captivates a lot of people watching the Olympic Games and what athletes do there and then following them when they get home.”

After a long wait, we’ll soon get to see what is next for him.

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