Tavares wows fans at Wesbild

John Tavares’ timing on the ice has always been nothing short of impeccable.

Ever since he began garnering attention as a 14-year-old rookie sensation with the OHL Oshawa Generals, and now as the leading scoring of the New York Islanders with 67 points in 79 games in his sophomore year, his nose for the net has been uncanny.

It turns out his off-ice timing isn’t so bad either. The Oakville, Ont. native was able to combine two events into one trip to the Okanagan this week, celebrating Islander teammate Blake Comeau’s wedding in Kelowna, as well as hosting the John Tavares Block Party Wednesday afternoon at Wesbild Centre.

“With the long flight and travel it was easier to do both things together,” said Tavares, who seemed to take a shining to the Okanagan.

“It’s beautiful. Blake has talked to me a lot about it and I know a lot of guys that played here, whether it’s in Vernon or in Kelowna, and have moved on to the NHL or other professional leagues. They all seem to come back and spend their summers here.”

Vernon’s Liisa Seltzer won the nationwide Block Party contest held by Source for Sports, which brought Tavares, the Islanders’ first overall pick in 2009, to town to play some ball hockey with the Seltzer’s Pee Wee hockey team – the Five Star Awards Bulldogs. Her husband Steve is the coach, while Liisa is the manager.

“When I first signed my husband up back in the fall, we never really thought anything would happen because it’s a nationwide contest,” said Liisa, who entered at Sun Valley Source for Sports.

“When we let our team know, they were through the roof. They’ve been waiting an waiting for this.

“One of the boys on our team (Kobe Romanovitch), Tavares is his favourite player. Has been since he played junior. When he told his dad, his dad thought he was pulling his leg.”

The great thing about the block party is that it morphed into something much bigger than was originally intended. It became a fundraiser for Special Olympics Vernon, with its local athletes, including the Vernon Score Hawks, taking part in the ball hockey session.

Tavares has been involved in Special Olympics ever since he was selected by Oshawa in the Bantam draft.

“Special Olympics has always been big for me. I was asked to come out to one of the big dinners they do out in Toronto and it became a big hit. Me and Pinball Clemons (Mike, former CFL star) have done a lot of it together,” said Tavares, classy and mature beyond his 20 years.

“No matter what kind of mood you go in with, you leave there with a smile on your face. I’m real happy to be around special people like that.

“You see all the athletes out there, whether it’s the minor hockey team that won the contest or the Special Olympic athletes, and they’re all having a great time, playing some ball hockey and just enjoying each other’s company.”

An estimated 200 people showed up at Wesbild for a chance to meet the rising NHL star and take part in raffle prizes, silent auction and charity barbecue. In total, it raised approximately $2,500.

Sponsors included Grillers Meats & Eats, Sweet Caroline’s Bakery, Coopers Foods and Nor-Val Rentals.

“It has been so nice to see the sponsors get behind this and the community get behind it. It’s been a great turnout,” said Liisa Seltzer, whose son, Brennan, plays with the Bulldogs and took the opening faceoff with Tavares.

Said Brennan:  “I never really thought with everybody else from our team here that we’d actually get the chance to play with John Tavares because he’s such a big name in hockey. For him to come to our small town of Vernon from all across Canada was pretty special for us.”

Brennan was equally awestruck by the handful of Vernon Vipers – Dave Robinson, Bryce Kakoske, Dylan Walchuk Colton Sparrow, along with James Dobrowolski of the WHL Prince George Cougars – that joined in on the shinny.

Looking foward to next season, Tavares believes the Islanders will catch some teams by surprise. With a developing, yet largely unheralded, crop of forwards – including Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo, Matt Moulsen, PA Parenteau and Josh Bailey – coming into its owns, he has reason to be optimistic.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys with a lot of talent and they want to be great NHL players. We’re building towards something and this is a big year for us to take that next big step and push for a playoff spot.

“There’s a lot of expectation on Long Island, which I think there should be.”

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