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Tavares prepares to play big role with Team Canada

The Canadian Press

7/30/2008 5:39:45 PM

OTTAWA - John Tavares received plenty of attention this past week at Hockey Canada's national junior team development camp, but it was a good warm-up for the young star.

After all, it's expected he'll play a leading role in the spotlight when the world junior championship begins for real in December.

The forward from Oakville, Ont., is one of 10 players from last year's gold-medal winning team eligible to return as part of Canada's drive for a fifth consecutive title at the tournament and he's not side-stepping the responsibility.

''Overall, I've been working hard and trying to leave an impression on the coach,'' said Tavares, who plays for the Ontario Hockey League's Oshawa Generals. ''Being a returning guy, a lot of guys have been asking questions and I try to lead by example, mostly with my work ethic, and show it takes a lot to win a gold medal.

''But I still have to earn my spot so it gives me a little bit of an extra push to go a little bit harder and make sure I get my own spot.''

After four days of on-ice sessions, camp came to a close yesterday with a golf tournament. Over the next four months, Hockey Canada will keep an eye on the 44 players who participated before announcing its list of invites to the final selection camp in December.

It may seem strange to hear Tavares, who doesn't turn 18 until September, talked about as a team leader, but given the number of players who may not be available to Canada depending on how successful they are at making the NHL this fall, he's one player the coaching staff should be safe in counting on to form part of the team's core.

He's got plenty of international experience having played a big part in last summer's Canada/Russia Super Series and last year's tournament, where he had to adjust to life as a 13th forward.

He did so without complaint and, after gaining recognition as a pure goal-scorer earlier in his junior career - including a 72-goal season in the OHL two years ago, he appears to be rounding out his game nicely, which hasn't gone unnoticed by this year's coaching staff.

''John showed up in very good shape,'' coach Benoit Groulx said. ''He seems to be more mature, he seems to be more confident in himself with less pressure on his shoulders.

''I thought last year at the Super Series he had a ton of pressure on his shoulders and he's much more relaxed this year, so it's nice to have him at camp in that state of mind and he's been working hard and been doing what he's supposed to do.

''We're happy with him and I'm pretty sure he's looking to have a very good start with Oshawa and it's something we look forward to, to evaluate down the road.''

Tavares agrees with Groulx's assessment.

''I think I'm a little more comfortable and a little more relaxed,'' he said.  ''I've been very anxious to get this camp underway and I'm excited. I definitely understand how to handle it better and being through it before definitely helps.''

It's a big year for Tavares. After missing eligibility for this year's NHL draft by a mere five days, he looks like the likely first-overall selection next June.

Leading Canada to another success at the world juniors would help cement his status, although Tavares insists he'll be happy to accept any role with the team, no matter how big or small.

''There's a lot of guys who might make the NHL and are big question marks,'' he said. ''I understand that a lot of those guys might not be back  but even if I make the 13th forward again, I'd be pretty excited.''

In the meantime, Tavares will return to Oshawa where the Generals have undergone several changes since reaching the OHL semifinals last year.

Former NHLer Adam Graves and newly appointed Florida Panthers coach Peter DeBoer have joined the team's ownership group and coach Chris DePiero, who took over behind the bench late last season from Brad Selwood, has also assumed Selwood's general manager duties.

On the ice, the team has lost several of its veterans to graduation, so the team will have its work cut for it to achieve last season's success.

''We've got some first-class guys in Adam Graves and Pete DeBoer stepping in.

''It's exciting to see them and I know they're going to do a great job in turning things around because we do lose nine or 10 veterans and it's going to be a big hit to the team,'' Tavares said. ''We'll see how things go and hopefully we can compete for a playoff spot.''