NEWARK — After all that has happened between them, there still are two things on which John Tavares and Islanders fans agree. One, Nassau Coliseum is a fabulous place, and two, feelings are going to be off the charts there on Feb. 28, when he returns for the first time as an opponent.
Tavares was back in the New York area Tuesday with the Maple Leafs to face the Devils. Aside from a few days in early September, when he came to clear out his things on Long Island, it was his first trip back here since his bombshell decision on July 1 to leave the franchise he captained and epitomized in order to join his hometown team.
When he was asked Tuesday how life is, he responded in the upbeat manner he always showed as an Islander, saying, “It’s great.” He added it has been a “whirlwind,” encompassing free agency, getting married, finding a place to live, joining the new team “and now getting ready for Christmas.” His play and persona have been gifts to Toronto, a hockey-crazy city starved for a contender.
Entering Tuesday, he was the top goal-scorer (with 20) on one of the elite teams in the National Hockey League (sixth overall). “I think in John’s case, he has surpassed even my expectations and our expectations of what he brings, not only on the ice but probably just as important, off the ice,” Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas said. “He has been excellent in every regard.”
As focused and confident as Tavares always is, though, even he admits it will be disorienting when he goes up against the Islanders crest — the logo with which he was synonymous for nine seasons — in Toronto on Dec. 29. “I’ll just try to treat it the best I can, like any game,” he said. “Will it be like that? I don’t know. It’s hard to say. There are a lot of good people over there, a lot of old friends, guys that I’ve played with and developed close friendships with over the years.”
Even more volatile will be the Leafs’ visit to Long Island nearly two months later.
“I always tell people that’s one of the great buildings in our game. A great place to watch a hockey game, a great environment. Islander fans are a big reason why,” Tavares said. “It should be a lot of fun — a lot of great memories, from my first goal, my first game, my first playoff series there, a lot of Islander-Ranger games there. So, I’m sure there will be a lot of emotions for it.”
Emotions remain raw among Islander fans, who considered the superstar’s choice to post a photo of himself as a child in Maple Leafs pajamas as rubbing salt in a sore wound.
“I tried to approach it the best way I could and I understood the dynamic of the situation, but at the end of the day I had to make a decision that I felt was best for my career, best for my life,” he said at Prudential Center on Tuesday. “For a long time, I wasn’t really sure, but I had to come to that decision. I can’t control everyone’s opinion and what everyone sees, but I know how much I gave in my nine years on Long Island, how hard I played, how much I enjoyed playing there, how much I cared.”
Among his new teammates, “Just being able to see him every day and play with him is an honor,” said Travis Dermott, a 21-year-old defenseman who also is from Ontario. “He understands the pressure, especially in Toronto. Once you meet him, you have no doubt he’s the type of guy who can handle that stuff.”
Tavares knows Leafs fans consider him responsible and admirable. He appreciates that. And he appreciates how he came by it. “There is no question the major reason for that,” he said, “is the time I spent on Long Island.”