The date that New York Islanders fans have had circled on their calendars since the summer has finally arrived. Thursday night inside Nassau Coliseum John Tavares will make his long-awaited return to Long Island.
In many situations when a former player returns as an opponent, a video tribute followed by an emotional standing ovation takes place. Tavares will likely get that video tribute from the Islanders during a first-period television timeout, but the warm and fuzzy feelings that usually follow will not be present. It will be loud inside the building, but the boos will drown out any fans wanting to show their appreciation for the franchise’s former captain.
Two months after he made the decision to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs in free agency, Tavares told me that he was hoping for a “positive reception” from the Islanders faithful in his first game back in New York. Even then, he understood his move wasn’t popular with many fans who felt betrayed by him.
Walk around Barclays Center or Nassau Coliseum this season and you’ll spot many “91 TAVARES” jerseys have had the nameplates changed to either “91 GORING” or “91 TRAITOR,” thanks to tape and a Sharpie. This week, a local news station published a video with a “Dear John” theme that had fans sound off as if Tavares was on the other end of the message.
Whatever happens with the fan reaction when Tavares, who played 669 regular season games with the Islanders, steps on to the ice, he can’t control how they’re are going to feel.
“I don’t really try to worry about it,” Tavares said after the Maple Leafs’ 6-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers Wednesday night.
“Like I’ve said many times since Day One when I was drafted there, I fully embraced being an Islander. I loved it and I gave everything I had. Whatever it is now, it’s not up to me to convince anybody that. I’ve got enough to worry about. I’m just trying to play my game to help the Maple Leafs, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
“I think it’s something he needs to put to bed and get on with it,” said Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. “The great thing about fans is they pay their money and get to say whatever they want. He’s a good man, he was good for their franchise, he’s great for our franchise, he made a decision to come home. I don’t know if anyone can fault you for that.”
As he’s done numerous times since signing with Toronto, Tavares defended his move and the process he went through in making the decision to leave New York.
“I think I had every right to go through the process that I went through,” Tavares said “I tried to be open and honest when I made my decision. I had no idea what I was going to do until I made my decision. People can take it whatever way they want, but I’m just going to go out there and play and do what I have to do to be at my best. All I can do is control what I can control.”
Maybe over time the hard feelings from Islanders fans will soften, much like how we’ve seen the relationship between Pittsburgh Penguins fans and Jaromir Jagr evolve since his departure from the city in 2001.
Or maybe not.
If feelings soften, it won’t happen for a very long time. Islanders fans are eager to shower Tavares with boos Thursday night while celebrating a turnaround season that has the team in first place in the Metropolitan Division. A win against the Maple Leafs will be huge for more than just reasons of revenge.
Tavares won’t get the “positive reception” he’s been hoping for, but that’s to be expected. How will he feel being on the receiving end of such negativity after his nine years with the franchise? He’s not sure.
“Hard to say what I’ll feel,” Tavares said. “I’m sure it’ll be an emotional evening, but at the same time I want to try to focus on playing and just go out there and do what I have to do.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.