As soon as it became evident the 2012-13 NHL season would be delayed, John Tavares knew he was headed overseas. He just didn’t know where, exactly.
After a few conversations with Islanders captain Mark Streit, who left immediately after the last Collective Bargaining Agreement expired on Sep. 15 to join his hometown club, SC Bern, in Switzerland’s top league, Tavares made the decision to join his Islanders teammate.
“That was important for me to try and find a team where I knew somebody, Tavares said. “I had heard a lot of great things about Bern and the type of place it was and how much they care about hockey over there. They have a really good team so I just felt at my age, and where I’m at in my career, it was important for me to keep working on my game, getting better, and be as ready for the start of the NHL season as possible.”
Streit had made a point to reach out to his star center, who led the Islanders in scoring in each of his three seasons in the league.
“I talked to him and texted him right away,” Streit said. “He’s a hockey guy. He wants to play. He came and lived 2-3 weeks at my place. It was great to have him there. People were excited that he came over.”
After missing the first few games of the Swiss season, Tavares contributed heavily to Bern’s success on the ice. Even after returning to Long Island, he’s still leading the team in scoring with 42 points (17 goals, 25 assists), despite playing only 28 of the team’s 36 games.
“We had a good time, played well and worked on our games,” Tavares said. “I’ve worked on a lot of things over the last couple of years and I just want to keep getting better at them. I thought that taking too much time away from game action wouldn’t be beneficial to me. Playing in Bern was great - it was the right time and right situation. Looking back on it, I can already say it was 100-percent the right move.”
At mid-season, Tavares was also part of the tournament-winning Canadian squad at the Spengler Cup, the annual week-long tournament between Christmas and New Year’s, hosted by HC Davos, the Swiss club Streit started his professional career with in 1996.
“That tournament was a lot of fun,” Tavares said. “The community in Davos has a lot of ski resorts and a tremendous tournament going on. I always appreciate the opportunity to represent my country, so that was a great week with some great hockey and great sightseeing over the holidays.”
Away from the rink, Tavares credits his captain with helping him adjust to Swiss culture. On off days, the two took excursions around Streit’s home country.
“Switzerland is a great place to live,” Tavares said. “But going to a country I’d never spent any real time in, where I don’t speak the language, and I wasn’t going over with any family, I think it was important for me to have somebody there to help the transition early on.”
Streit took Tavares to dinner, showed him the nearby mountains and even went to a tennis tournament, where he introduced the center to Roger Federer.
It sounds like a trip the 22-year-old Canadian should remember for the rest of his life.
“Visiting the Swiss Alps was pretty cool,” Tavares said. “The sightseeing there was called the ‘Top of Europe.’ It’s the highest peak you can visit in any mountain range in Europe, so I got to do that, which was really nice.”
For Streit, the chance to play in Bern was also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Despite playing for nine seasons professionally in Switzerland before coming to the NHL, the 35-year-old had never played for his hometown club. He led Bern defensemen in goals (seven), assists (19) and points (26) in 32 games.
“It was absolutely special,” Streit said. “I lived five minutes away from the rink. I never played for my hometown team, so it was great. My family and all my friends got to see me. Bern is a pretty big hockey town. It was nice to play there, but I was really hoping and praying the whole time that the negotiations here worked out and they would reach an agreement. Now I’m just really thrilled to be back here playing hockey.”
Both players made the best of the hands they were dealt. Streit believes that Tavares was just as much a treat for Switzerland as Switzerland was for Tavares.
“I think it was a great time for him and a great experience,” Streit said. “I don’t think it’s going to happen again in his career that he’s going to need to play in Europe, so under the circumstances it was great for me and him, and great for the fans in Bern. They loved him. He’s a flashy player and it’s fun to watch him.”
Tavares agreed, adding that the hospitality the locals showed him made him feel welcome in his new surroundings.
“It’s a very safe, very clean, very enjoyable place to live,” Tavares said. “It was really a transition though. Obviously the language barrier was difficult, but people were very kind. A lot of people gave a great effort trying to speak English, knowing that I didn’t speak the language.”
In addition to Streit and Tavares, several other Islanders spent time playing meaningful games for European clubs, including Andrew MacDonald, Josh Bailey, Michael Grabner, Frans Nielsen, Jesse Joensuu and Rick DiPietro. The Islanders captain believes that the number of players who played regularly in Europe will only help the Islanders get off to a quick start when the season starts.
“I think it’s an advantage,” Streit said. “John and I played 30-plus games and had good practices. Some other guys played in Europe as well so that can help. We have to take advantage of that as a team and have a really good start to the season.”
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