Something dramatic during the 2008 World Junior Championships took John Tavares' breath away. No, it wasn't the beautiful scenery in the Czech Republic or the magnitude of the event. He is not easily awed. It was something else, something powerful.
It was Kyle Okposo, leveling him.
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"We were starting the game and we were playing against each other on the wing, so we were matched up the first shift," Tavares said after the Islanders' practice at IceWorks in Syosset yesterday. "I had the puck on the wall and he hit me. He kind of knocked the wind out of me and I realized just how strong he was."
Right after that tournament, Okposo made the leap from junior to pro. Now, he is a legitimate candidate for the U.S. Olympic team and a sturdy guide and winger for Tavares, the valuable rookie.
"He really plays like a veteran. He really has turned into a leader, on and off the ice," Tavares, 19, said of Okposo, 21. "He has been great to me. It's fun to play with a guy like him."
Okposo will be on Tavares' right side Thursday in the No. 1 draft pick's first game in Ontario, Canada - his native province and country, where he is a major celebrity. Tavares will handle the media storm just fine, considering he has done that since he was 14. His right wing will be a reassuring presence during his shifts against the Ottawa Senators, who have some rough customers (Jarkko Ruutu, Chris Neil, Matt Carkner).
Not that Okposo is a fighter, but he doesn't get pushed around, either. "That has been part of my game since I was a young kid and I don't think anything is going to change now," said Okposo, upbeat about the Tuesday night win by his beloved Twins.
The Islanders are coming off a solid opener Saturday, a shootout loss to the Stanley Cup champion Penguins, in which Tavares scored his first goal. "It was definitely fun to see him enjoy himself so much," Okposo said. "Pregame nerves were setting in a little bit, so I just talked to him, kind of like guys talked to me on my first night. I just calmed him down, reminded him it's just a hockey game, one of many."
As memorable as it was for Tavares, the Islander whose play was most breathtaking was Okposo. "Well, if anybody was talking about him as if he were a surprise, they weren't watching the second half [last season]," coach Scott Gordon said. "He has established himself as a guy who just does everything right."