The Islanders' best player hobbled into Nassau Coliseum Tuesday morning, with one crutch under his left armpit -- he lost the other crutch in Sochi -- and one gold medal in his pocket.
After suffering a season-ending knee injury during Canada's run to Olympic gold, Tavares returned to Long Island still feeling proud -- and ready to go again, despite general manager Garth Snow's words of frustration after Tavares was hurt last week.
Tavares got a small bit of good news: He does not need surgery on his knee, which has a near-complete medial collateral ligament tear but not a serious enough torn meniscus to need surgery.
Despite the injury, Tavares was delighted to have played for his country.
"For me, as a player I think it's important for us to play," Tavares said. "I think you saw how much we enjoy representing our countries at that level. But you put ourselves in [Snow's] shoes, you can understand why teams are concerned about injuries. Certainly I know he cares a lot about the Islanders and so do I. There's always that concern anytime you step on the ice. It's a tough situation. I love playing for my country and if I got the call again, I would."
Tavares said it was "surreal" when he had his gold medal placed around his neck on Sunday following Canada's 3-0 win over Sweden. The sting of missing that game and the semifinal win over the United States still hits Tavares.
"I'm still having a tough time with the fact that I'm not going to be playing for a while," he said. "Those two games I missed over there were the biggest ones, and the ones as a kid, if you ever get those opportunities, it might be the only chance you get. It was no fun missing them. But we had such a great team, and to be able to play the games I did play and receive the gold medal was pretty special.
"This goes right up there, if not the top for accomplishments for me. To play at the Olympics, really one of the highest honors in sports, it really was a tremendous experience."
Tavares lockered next to Sidney Crosby. Sitting next to the game's top player and teaming with a few more of the elites of the NHL is something Tavares won't soon forget.
"I got to sit beside Sidney in the room, so I got to learn a lot from him," Tavares said. "Jonathan Toews is really a tremendous leader, he's very vocal and he just really knows how to set the tone. His ability to step up when it matters most really impressed me, and obviously learning from Sidney, Shea Weber, guys who have accomplished a lot in this league will really help me in the long run."
Whether Tavares, 23, will get another crack at the Olympics will be a hotly debated topic in the coming years. But in the short term, without needing an operation, he should be able to return to the Isles at the start of training camp in September.
An operation would have cut into Tavares' valuable offseason workout time. He'll be able to resume workouts in 8-12 weeks. Not soon enough to return for this season, unless the Islanders go on a miraculous run over the final 22 games without Tavares, but soon enough to have a full, rigorous summer regimen.
"I've had this MCL injury before," Tavares said, referring to a torn left MCL he suffered when he was 16 during a tryout for Canada's under-18 international team. "I didn't miss any games. I remember not being able to do a whole lot, especially in the beginning. So it's an adjustment. Just be here, support my teammates, put everything I can into rehab and therapy and get back to where I need to be, and even better."