UNIONDALE, N.Y. - John Tavares' opinion on NHL players participating in the Olympic Games hasn't changed even though his New York Islanders' season ended on the other side of the world while he was wearing the colours of Canada.
"It's obviously a tough situation," the injured Islanders captain said Tuesday following his return from the Sochi Games. "I certainly love playing for my country, and if I got the call again, I would."
The 23-year-old Tavares tore the MCL and meniscus in his left knee a week ago against Latvia. He missed the final two games of Canada's march to the gold medal, and he will sit out the rest of the Islanders season.
The lone bright spot is Tavares was told by team doctors on Monday that he won't need surgery. After a rehab period of eight to 12 weeks, Tavares should be able to begin training for next season.
"It's been a pretty good first few days, actually," Tavares said Tuesday as he stood in front of reporters and cameramen for about 10 minutes inside the Islanders' dressing room while his teammates practiced at Nassau Coliseum. "My knee has responded really well. Having a gold medal has helped that as well, I think. It certainly was a tremendous experience.
"I'm still having a tough time (knowing) I'm not going to be playing for quite a while. I missed the last couple of games there, and those two games that I missed were the biggest ones, and ones as a kid if you ever got those opportunities ... there only might be one chance at that."
That is truer now than at any time since the NHL decided in 1998 it would take a multi-week break during Olympic years so its players could represent their countries.
Debate is heating up regarding whether the NHL benefits enough from the sacrifices it makes for the Olympics. Start times in this year's tournament were often early in the morning, and the time difference in four years in South Korea will be even less user-friendly for fans in North America.
Islanders forward Kyle Okposo wasn't picked for the U.S. team this time, but he said he isn't concerned about what will be in 2018.
"If guys aren't going to go, there is going to be some type of World Cup that guys are going to participate in," he said. "To represent your country at the Olympics is one of highest honours you can receive in your sport. Whatever they decide, I am sure the guys will still want to go regardless."
Then there is the injury factor. Tavares is the Islanders' biggest drawing card, and in a season in which the playoffs are a long shot for New York, fans have little incentive to trek out to games the rest of the way because No. 91 won't be on the ice.
"Are the IIHF or IOC going to reimburse our season-ticket holders now? It's a joke," Islanders general manager Garth Snow told Newsday last week. "They want all the benefits from NHL players playing in the Olympics and don't want to pay when our best player gets hurt.
"This is probably the biggest reason why NHL players shouldn't be in the Olympics, it should just be amateurs. It could have happened to anyone, it just happened to be us that lost our best player. A lot of people pay to see John play. It wouldn't matter if we were 10 points clear of a playoff spot or 10 points out. We lost our best player, and he wasn't even playing for us."
Tavares revealed on Tuesday that this is the second time he has torn the MCL in his left knee. The first also occurred while Tavares was playing for Canada. That injury, when he was 16, came during a tryout for the Under-18 team.
Getting hurt again hasn't lessened his desire to wear the Maple Leaf on his sweater.
"I think it's important for us to play," Tavares said. "You saw how much we love representing our countries, especially at that level. You put ourselves in (Snow's) shoes and you can understand why teams are concerned about their players and injuries. I know he cares a lot about the Islanders and this organization, and so do I. There is always that concern. With this game, there is always that risk any time you step on the ice—the possibility of injury.
"Whether it's my injury or injuries in general, obviously it's a concern, even for players. Guys don't want to get hurt. You want to go out there and play and play hard and do what it takes to win, but you want to come back here and contribute. You know how important it is playing for your club team. It's obviously a topic that will be discussed in great detail, so it's just weighing the pros and cons about participating in the Games."
The news of no surgery was a relief, and the flight home from Russia wasn't too bad, either, as players sat in first class and were able to lie down during their travels.
"Basically the meniscus issue really isn't as much of an issue as maybe what was thought," he said. "Basically it is just a bad MCL tear, not a complete tear but pretty close. I am just going to have to take my time and make sure I get healthy."
Tavares, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NHL draft, is third in the league in scoring with 66 points—including 24 goals. He has played in all but one of the Islanders' 60 games this season, and in his five NHL seasons has sat out only four games out of 354.
"I was just hoping that he was going to be OK," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said about when he first learned of Tavares' injury. "Obviously we know how important he is to our hockey club. When you talk about a most valuable player to your team, the way that we play and the success we've had, he is a big part of that.
"When he went down, the first thing was make sure it is a situation where he is going to rehab real well and get back sooner than later."