TORONTO – The John Tavares show rolled into Toronto for a stop unlike any other.
The No. 1 draft pick and his New York Islanders teammates are currently locked in a stretch of playing 14 of 17 games on the road, but Monday’s visit to Air Canada Centre felt like a homecoming for the 19-year-old forward.
Tavares grew up in a suburb of the city and was able to visit with some familiar faces on Sunday.
“I just enjoyed being at home with my family and friends,” Tavares said before Monday’s morning skate. “I got a nice home-cooked meal from my mom. It was nice to sleep in my own bed as well.
“There’s nothing like being at home.”
Over the first 23 games of his NHL career, Tavares made one stop in Ottawa and two visits to Montreal. But this was something quite different.
The media demand was so high for Tavares that the Islanders decided to have him take questions from the podium prior to the game – an extremely unusual move for an opposing player.
Tavares is a big story wherever he goes and the team has tried to manage his exposure.
“We don’t want it to be a one hour press conference or anything like that,” said Islanders coach Scott Gordon. “The interest is obviously much greater when we come to Canada. When we were in Florida (it wasn’t like this). …
“It certainly hasn’t been a situation where he’s been smothered.”
Tavares made no secret of the fact the stop in Toronto was important to him. He talked about being nervous to step on the ice at the Air Canada Centre with as many as 100 family and friends in attendance.
The teenager spoke from the same podium where Leafs GM Brian Burke stood in April and pronounced that he intended to move up in the draft to select Tavares.
Even though Burke was ultimately unable to make that deal, Tavares conceded that he was flattered by the interest from the team he grew up cheering for.
“When someone comes out publicly saying they want you, especially an NHL GM, you realize you’re getting close to where you want to be,” he said. “I always wanted to be in the National Hockey League. At the time, there was a lot going on. You like to know people want you.
“(Islanders GM Garth Snow) did the same as well. He just did it in a different way.”
While many have hailed Tavares as a potential saviour of the Islanders franchise, it’s pretty clear that he’s just one of guys among his teammates.
The number of young-looking faces stands out during a quick glance around the team’s locker-room. After Monday’s morning skate, Tavares sat chatting with Josh Bailey, himself just 20 years old.
Tavares has been in the spotlight since joining the Ontario Hockey League at the age of 15 and quickly became a prolific junior scorer.
The success continued as he made the transition to the NHL, where Tavares had nine goals and 19 points through 23 games. Things have gone exactly as he expected so far.
“I knew I could contribute right away, I believed that I could,” said Tavares. “But I just wanted to make sure I adjusted well to all aspects of the game. I think at first the strength and the size of guys was kind of the one thing I took some time getting used to.
“I think now I’m really starting to find my way. I know what I need to do to be successful.”
Having the opportunity to play his first game at Air Canada Centre provided another small milestone in a burgeoning career.
It hasn’t been that long since Tavares was coming into the city to watch the Maple Leafs play as a kid.
“I think (my first game) was against St. Louis or Tampa Bay at the Gardens,” he said. “I must have been eight or nine. I remember going with my dad and I remember (Mats) Sundin scored a beauty backhander against St. Louis.”
The stage is now his.
During Monday’s morning skate, Tavares told teammate Matt Moulson that he’s never felt better on the ice than he felt while skating around the ACC.
“The city of Toronto means a lot to me, it’s been my home,” said Tavares.
But is he still a Leaf fan?
“No, not anymore,” said Tavares.