John Tavares seems 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.
Not everyday you can live a childhood dream pic.twitter.com/YUTKdfMALl
— John Tavares (@91Tavares) July 1, 2018
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. “Whatever it is, it’ll be.”
What it could be is nasty.
While the Islanders are expected to pay tribute to Tavares at some point during the game, he will almost assuredly endure a rough reception.
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A fan video 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Former Rivals Join Forces In Sin City
Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone battled numerous times in the Atlantic Division. Now they’re on the same side with the Vegas Golden Knights. Pacioretty, who was acquired from Montreal before the season, and Stone, nabbed just before Monday’s NHL trade deadline from Ottawa, joked about it after the former scored in Tuesday’s 4-1 win over Dallas. “When I scored, (Stone) said, ‘I never thought I’d be cheering for one of your goals,'” Pacioretty said. “He’s a great guy and he’s going to be here for a long time and I’m really looking forward to playing with him.”
Flames Continue to Push
Calgary grabbed its sixth straight victory Tuesday to reach 40 in just its 63rd game. The Western Conference-leading Flames have reached 40 wins faster just once in their history, accomplishing the feat in 59 outings back in 1988-89 when the franchise took home its only Stanley Cup.
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Joshua Clipperton’s weekly NHL notebook is published every Wednesday
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press