World Class

John Tavares, Michael Grabner and Thomas Vanek are representing their countries - and the Islanders - on the world stage.

Tuesday, 02.11.2014 / 12:16 PM
Cory Wright

Every four years the entire world, from die-hards to casual fans, puts everything else on hold and tunes in to watch the best winter athletes compete.

For hockey players, the glory of capturing Olympic gold never fades and to this day, Americans still believe in Miracles. Performing on the biggest stage for hockey (in terms of viewership) can cement a player’s place in the history books.

During the games in Sochi, Russia, three current Islanders will take part in the Olympic hockey tradition. Captain John Tavares (Canada) and Austrians Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner will don their countries' colors, but they’ll all be chasing the gold.

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Tavares was home on Long Island when Team Canada won the gold at the 2010 Vancouver games. A rush of patriotism filled his veins when Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal and thousands of rejoicing fans sang O’Canada at Canada Hockey Place.

Four years later, Tavares has his chance to seize that feeling and write his own Olympic story, as he was named to the Canadian national team on January 7.

“It’s a huge honor and was a goal and dream of mine as a kid,” Tavares said. “Watching four years ago I wanted to give myself the opportunity to play for my country and win a gold medal. There are a lot of emotions… to receive the call is pretty special. It’s so much all at once, you just try to grasp it all.”

Tavares got the call from Hockey Canada about an hour before the official announcement and immediately shared the news with his parents. The emotional moment was captured by camera crews filming NHL Revealed.

“It reminded me a lot of getting the call for the World Juniors and for camp. It comes with a lot of emotions and energy,” Tavares said. “Some of those bonds you make and representing your country is really special.”

Tavares will play with a whose-who of NHL talent, skating alongside the likes of Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Ryan Getzlaf. It’s a chance to further raise his hockey IQ and learn from Stanley Cup winners, MVP’s and future Hall-of-Famers, though they may pick up on a few things he does as well.

“I’m looking forward to playing with everybody,” Tavares said. “It’s a great team, the depth is unbelievable and I’m looking forward to being part of a special group like that.”

“What better way than to learn from some of the top guys especially on the Canadian Men’s Team,” Tavares added.

While this is Tavares’ first Olympic Games, he is no stranger to the international stage. The Oakville, Ont. native has represented Canada at three IIHF World Championships (2010, 2011, 2012), won gold at two World Junior Championships (2008, 2009) and played in a Spengler Cup. Tavares scored at least a point-per-game in all three tournament formats, including 25 points (16g/9a) in 22 World Championship games and 20 points (12g/8a) in 13 World Junior games. The enlarged ice surface won’t be a problem for the smooth-skating superstar.

And with no guarantees of the NHL allowing players to participate in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, Tavares isn’t taking anything for granted.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to represent your country at the Olympics, especially for us as hockey players,” he said.

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The Sochi games will also be Vanek and Grabner’s first, as Team Austria did not qualify for the Vancouver games. Vanek, a former 40-goal scorer, and Grabner, a 30-goal scorer, headline the team and will be looked upon to provide offense for the upstart Austrians. Vanek was also named team captain.

Michael Grabner and Thomas Vanek headline Team Austria.

“It’s an honor to play for your country, especially on a stage like this,” Vanek said. “For us, it’s fun to be there. We have a tough task ahead of us. It comes down to goaltending and we’ll have to play smart, but we have some guys in the lineup that can make plays. Are we going to be huge underdogs? We will be, but we have to play smart.”

The Austrians haven’t qualified for the Olympics since 2002, but both Vanek and Grabner have international experience. Vanek has 17 points (7g/10a) in 19 World Championship games, while Grabner played on the Austrian U18 and U20 teams in World Junior Division 1 tournament.

“I am happy and honored to represent Austria in the Olympics,” Grabner tweeted after the announcement. He was optimistic, signing off his tweet with “#goinforgold.”

The tournament favorites can look past the Austrians at their own peril. There have been some major upsets in the last few Olympics, including the Swiss team’s 2-0 shutout over Canada in 2006 and team Belarus eliminating Sweden in 2002. Even if the upset eludes the Austrians, Vanek sees competing at the Winter Games as a huge step in growing the game in his home country.

“Our country needs to start at the youth level and invest money there,” he said. “It’s about building more rinks and having good coaches. We have to do it like the Swiss did. They brought some coaches over [from North America] and they trained their own coaches. That’s the model we should follow as a country.”

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The gold will be there for the taking, but each player will get something more out of the Olympics. For Tavares, it’s a chance to showcase himself against the world’s elite and add to a sterling resume; for Vanek and Grabner, a chance to grow the game at home.

The Olympics are all about the world coming together, but someone has to win the final game and someone has to score that game-winning goal. That player will be immortalized in hockey lure and at the end of the day; it could very well be an Islander.

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