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Tavares embraces Isles with star power

John Tavares skates against the Philadelphia Flyers. (Jan.

John Tavares skates against the Philadelphia Flyers. (Jan. 12, 2012) Credit: Jim McIsaac

Fate, it seemed, had John Tavares completely boxed in. It had him drafted first overall by the Islanders, a last-place team that has not won a playoff series since he was a toddler. It dropped him into a franchise with an old arena that is rarely filled and with a future that is iffy at best.

Fate, though, discovered what opposing defensemen always do. Tavares is not trapped so easily.

Just as he slips away from the hounding and pounding to make an ingenious pass or score a goal (he has 20 this season), Tavares has found a way around his circumstances.

Rather than feeling marooned on Long Island, he has been liberated from a Canadian celebrity life that has been discussed since he was a hockey prodigy at 6.

Instead of feeling the scrutiny of hockey-intense Toronto, where he is from, he has had the freedom to grow in relative peace, riding the train or sitting in restaurants with hardly anyone noticing.

Midway through his third season in the National Hockey League, Tavares, 21, has grown into stardom. He is in Ottawa Sunday for his first NHL All-Star Game, not just because every team has to be represented and he had the best statistics on his roster, but because he is a true star. He lifts his entire team and embraces the chance to do it. He is The Guy for a franchise that desperately needs a guy like him.

For Tavares, being named to the All-Star Game was an affirmation of what the hockey world has come to know. "He's a top player in the league. That's why he's going to the All-Star Game," said Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf, a fellow All-Star.

"Johnny is a great player. I played with him at the Worlds last year," Phaneuf said at Nassau Coliseum on Tuesday, recalling the world championships. "I'm always matched up against him, so I see a lot of him when I'm playing against him and I know how skilled he is from playing with him. He has really, really come into his own this year. I think he has stepped up his game to another level. He has got another extra step of speed that's very noticeable."

In Tavares' case, being an All-Star is more than an honor. It is part of his job description. The Islanders had several excellent options when they had the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, but they decided on Tavares because he brought an extra case of cachet. He was the all-time leading goal-scorer in Ontario Hockey League history and was such a force that officials changed a junior hockey rule because of him (allowing advanced 15-year-olds to move up to the major junior level). The Islanders saw him as the type who could not only take the heat but provide the light.

Heck, he has even been recognized around Long Island. "I find that much more than I thought it was going to be," said Tavares, who has had a hand in 44 percent of the Islanders' 112 goals this season. "Everywhere we go, people always say hello and want us to do better. They're big fans."

A generation ago, the Islanders' homespun appeal and distance from any big-city glare helped build and sustain a dynasty. That is a poignant memory now, what with the team having finished last in its division for four straight years. The Islanders have not surrounded Tavares with players in their prime, having mostly a bunch of youngsters whom the organization hopes will develop. And still, Tavares does not feel stranded. To the contrary, before this season, he signed on for six more years.

"I can't speak for him, but I think he takes it as a personal challenge," said his uncle, also named John Tavares, who is the all-time goals and points leader in Major League Lacrosse and still is going strong at 43 for the Buffalo Bandits. "It is a challenge for him to take the team and help it grow. That shows a lot for John's character and commitment and speaks volumes for his talent."

The hockey-playing Tavares, one of only five Islanders to have scored at least 20 goals in each of his first three seasons (following Billy Harris, Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy), said: "I was selected here, the first pick overall, and that's a pretty big honor. A lot comes with that. The team has been great to me. Everyone has treated me like family. I owe it to the team, to the fans and everyone who's a part of this organization to give it my all.

"They have given me a lot of responsibility, they have put a lot of time into helping me be who I am. So I would love to be a part of turning it around. I think it would be great to make the Islanders once again a powerhouse. It's a great challenge."

It can be a painful one, too, given that the Islanders do not have a bunch of enforcers to protect him as he gets bounced around every game. "It's something I've grown up with, even as a young kid,'' he said. "It's something I've learned to handle."

He handles it by becoming quicker and stronger -- harder to catch and knock down.

"He just works on his game all the time, on the ice, off the ice," linemate Matt Moulson said. "That's just who he is. That's why he's so good."

Tavares comes by the effort naturally. His grandparents worked in nickel mines and his father grew up unable to afford skates that fit. The latter and his wife, Barbara, raised John and two daughters with their sheet metal roofing company, which does not offer All-Star-caliber perks.

"My dad's job was very physically demanding. They were tough hours of the day and he sacrificed a lot of time with our family," Tavares said. "He wasn't there every game, every practice. It was mostly my mom taking me to do those things. But I knew how much he wanted to be there and watch me grow up."

Joe Tavares was there for the Islanders' two road wins Jan. 17 and 19, and the whole family will be there Sunday, watching an All-Star Game. Fate seems to have the son penciled in for many more.

In fact, the All-Star Game seems less a reward for past work than a preview. "It's a huge confidence-booster," said the lacrosse-playing Tavares, who has appeared in a record nine MLL All-Star Games. "You say, 'Wow, I'm here with the best players. Maybe I am as good as they are.' "

The hockey-playing Tavares said: "I still have so much ahead of me. That's what I'm most excited about. I still have so much room to improve."

And he added, in direct opposition to what fate might have expected of him at this point, "I enjoy every day here."

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