Boos and snakes greet John Tavares in return to Long Island
Leafs star prepared for what's to come against Islanders
John Tavares seemed resigned to his fate.
The heart and soul of the New York Islanders for nine seasons, the team's former captain bolted for the Toronto Maple Leafs in free agency last summer after a prolonged soap opera of "will he or won't he" that gripped the hockey world.
Tavares was torn between the franchise that drafted and nurtured him, and the pull of going home to play for the club he grew up supporting in the suburbs just west of Toronto — one whose logo adorned the sheets on his childhood bed.
Set to return to his old stomping ground for the first time Thursday when the Leafs visit the Islanders, the 28-year-old knows what's in store from a passionate fanbase that feels he left their team hung out to dry.
"You have a sense of what it might be like," Tavares said prior to Thursday's game. "Whatever it is, it'll be."
'We don't need you'
The fans booed loudly when Tavares and the Maple Leafs hit the ice for pregame warmups, and several times during their skate. They also serenaded him with choruses of "We don't need you!" and other derisive chants. At least one plastic snake was thrown on the ice and an Islanders jersey was thrown in Tavares' direction as he left the ice.
The boos and chants returned when the Maple Leafs came back on the ice for the game, and also when Tavares entered play in the opening minute. Fans also booed during a video tribute to Tavares midway through the first period, and again loudly chanting "We don't need you!" as the video ended.
A video of fans reacting to their former hero's departure produced by a local TV station that included words like "traitor" and "snake" went viral on social media this week. Initial reaction to his July 1 signing in Toronto was vitriolic.
John Tavares brokes <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Isles?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Isles</a> fans hearts when he left for Toronto in July. Thursday he’ll face those fans on LI for the first time. It won’t be a warm reception. Watch <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/DearJohn?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#DearJohn</a> today on <a href="https://twitter.com/News12?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@News12</a>. <a href="https://twitter.com/eyesonislesFS?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@eyesonislesFS</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/Offside_Tavern?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Offside_Tavern</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/Section_329?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Section_329</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/IslesGirl3?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@IslesGirl3</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/islesfanrico?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@islesfanrico</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/gothambatman14?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@gothambatman14</a> <a href="https://t.co/8mzvxzaDw9">pic.twitter.com/8mzvxzaDw9</a>—@KMaherNews12
It's not so much that he left New York. It's how and when everything unfolded with the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft that gnaws at Islanders fans, although he was well within his right as an unrestricted free agent to do so.
Repeatedly explained decision
Tavares has repeatedly explained his decision to leave for an opportunity he felt he couldn't pass up.
Speaking this week in Toronto, the veteran centre said he hopes his legacy in New York will be that he gave everything, even though that wasn't enough to get the team where it needed to be in the standings.
"I really embraced being an Islander," said Tavares, who had 35 goals in 2018-19 heading into Wednesday's action. "I loved it. It was a great place to play. I never didn't enjoy my time there, even when things weren't going well. I did everything I could to help the team hopefully win a Stanley Cup.
"Unfortunately we weren't able to do that and I take responsibility, especially being the captain, not doing a good enough job consistently."
New York made the playoffs in just three of his nine seasons, winning only one round, but Tavares scored the fifth-most goals in the NHL during his tenure, three back of Corey Perry and seven shy of Sidney Crosby.
"I gave it everything I had," he said. "Just tried to be the best player and person I can be."
The rest of the Leafs will do their best to support Tavares in his return.
"It's going to be crazy," centre Auston Matthews said. "We need to make sure we're prepared despite all the stuff going on around it."
Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly added that teammates have been gently ribbing Tavares about what's in store.
"I'm sure he has mixed emotions," Rielly said. "It's important we play well for him. That's really what he wants."
The game will be played at the renovated Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum — the Islanders are splitting their schedule between the old rink that served as their home from 1972 to 2015 and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the next few seasons — which will add even more spice to the atmosphere.
"Your first game, first goal," Tavares said. "A lot of great memories, spent a lot of time there.
"It'll be fun to be in that environment again."
While their fans are still angry, the Islanders haven't missed Tavares on this ice.
New York sits tied atop the Metropolitan Division with Washington, while Toronto was three back of Boston in the Atlantic heading into Wednesday's home date with Edmonton.
Islanders get best of Leafs
The Islanders also thumped the Leafs 4-0 in Toronto at the end of December in their first game against Tavares.
"Everyone thought it was a one-man team," New York head coach Barry Trotz, the favourite to win the Jack Adams Trophy, said recently. "There's more to the Islanders than just one man.
"There's some really good pieces, some really good people."
WATCH | Islanders blank Tavares, Leafs:
And while his former fans might not want to hear it, Tavares said he will always cherish his career on Long Island.
"I grew a lot in my time there and am really thankful for the impact a lot of people had on me," he said. "I gave it everything I had on a daily basis and tried to do the best I could for the Islanders.
"[I] was really proud to be one."