It's been a week and a half since John Tavares divorced the Islanders. A week and a half to digest what happened, to consider all of the scenarios that might possibly have led to the papers being served at a very late hour on June 30. Has there been enough time to gain perspective? I'm not so sure about that. I once was served with divorce papers. It took me years to get over it. But this is sports, so I would think the recovery period would be shorter. At least I hope so.
We are not yet at that point. We might never reach that point. But there has been enough time to at least think it over. No one needs to hire a lawyer. No one has to think about the kids. There are no assets to divvy up. To be sure it wasn't a Seinfeld breakup -- "It's fine. It's been really nice dating you for a while, and good luck!" -- but it certainly would have been better for Islanders fans if it had been.
Tavares issued his apology to Islanders fans, in a long "letter" published in The Players' Tribune that of course was ghost-written by a professional working off whatever Tavares said into an audio recorder. That aspect of it is fine, because that's how these things are done. No one expected handwritten scribbles on a wet bar napkin. Unfortunately for Tavares, it fell short of his presumed goal of pacifying the masses of jilted Long Islanders, who despite having some faults are one very proud community. They might not like to admit it, but deep down they are New Yorkers, only with beaches and golf courses, some open spaces and a lot of traffic, and do not take rejection lightly. They also have a fine-tuned radar for bullshit. Tavares might say that he "grew up on Long Island," but he does not understand Long Island.
John Tavares is tone deaf, and here's why.
First, he tried to describe the agony he went through in making his decision, despite acknowledging that he had already decided. It had the feeling of, "I've decided to marry this person, but now how am I going to tell my spouse?" The Montreal draft story was amusing, so that was OK. Then he said the best part of all was his teammates. Of the ones he named, only two remain with the Islanders: Josh Bailey and Cal Clutterbuck. People have been wondering why Lou Lamoriello has been collecting fourth-line players these past few days. It's because players like Clutterbuck, who has an onerous contract, will be gone by opening night. That will leave only Bailey.
Based on the players that he named, it suggests that Tavares might not have developed similar relationships with Mat Barzal (whose name he couldn't remember at his Toronto news conference), Jordan Eberle, Anthony Beauvillier, maybe even the veterans Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk and many others who shared the dressing room with him.
I wondered this past season, especially in the second half of it, if there wasn't a problem in that room. When I was a beat reporter covering hockey, I always knew the pulse of the team because I could, in the parlance of the profession, read the room. I'll admit that's difficult to do when all you have to go on is piss-poor postgame coverage by a TV network owned by your most-hated rival, but something wasn't right: the outbursts and sheer frustration displayed by coach Doug Weight, the droning on of "I blame myself, I need to do better" by Tavares, his own body language on and off the ice, the words and actions by both of them and others, the fact that the team was clearly less than a sum of its parts. Sometimes the most talented player shouldn't be captain. I'll stand on my belief that something was wrong, and that Tavares' mood and his impending departure -- players sense such things even if they don't know it for sure -- had a negative impact. I think it was confirmed when Lamoriello said that the culture needed to change, a very strong clue that something was wrong. I believe that Lou was referring to the organization as a whole, but as captain, Tavares was supposed to be in charge of some of the culture, at least in the dressing room. Maybe we'll find out someday.
Remember, Tavares challenged to be an "exceptional player" so he could be drafted into Canadian major juniors at age 14, then unsuccessfully tried to have the rules changed so he could be drafted into the NHL a year early and also to play in the American Hockey League at age 17. Does that make him seem like a team-first player? It makes him seem more like a gifted player in a hurry to get to where he wanted.
Back to the letter. Tavares finally got around to talking about the fans and Nassau Coliseum, which can be a very exciting place to play a hockey game. As he pointed out, the fans are on top of you there -- it's very much like the old Yankee Stadium was -- and I don't doubt his emotions about it. He might have felt different if he had to navigate the rotunda and try to use a bathroom between periods, but aside from not acknowledging the years when attendance was poor, from a player's standpoint I suppose he's being honest. So he ignored the really bad years. That's OK -- we all choose to remember what we want to remember.
Yet he never shared a single story of his interactions with any fan or group of fans, or even about life on Long Island itself. No recollections of any personal experiences he had on Long Island, or reasons why he liked it there. The closest he came was Doug Weight letting him live in his house. Aside from what hockey people did for him, there was nothing. Zip. His image of Long Island seems to be only that it's full of a lot of people of different ages being really loud and, boy, that was cool. I know Tavares is a professional athlete with no more than a high-school education, and most certainly he isn't good at expressing himself, but isn't that kind of vacant?
But here's where Tavares really went off the rails. This was supposed to be an apology to Islanders fans, no doubt in hopes that they won't show up en masse in Islanders pajamas and boo his ass every time he lays a skate or touches a puck on Islanders ice for the rest of his playing days. He spent 15 paragraphs -- some of them long ones -- explaining why he loves the Maple Leafs so much, and then he included the now immortal picture of him drooling on his Maple Leafs bedding when he was a child. As someone said on Twitter, it was like sending a breakup letter to your girlfriend and attaching a picture of your really hot new girlfriend. There's the knife in the back again.
The conclusion is that John Tavares isn't evil, he probably meant no harm, but he doesn't have a feel for people. He didn't understand what his message to Islanders fans needed to be. It should have been something along the lines of, "I'm sorry, I know I screwed you and your team. In hindsight I should have done things different. If I'd known it was going to come to this, I would have done it different. I knew Toronto was a possibility, but I didn't know if it would come to fruition, I didn't know if the Maple Leafs would be good by July 2018, I didn't know if they would be interested in signing me or even if they could, so I hedged my bets. I'm sorry you came out on the losing end of it because I was waiting to see what would happen."
That would have been closer to honest than what was published today. Instead, he showed himself incapable of truly comprehending people's feelings. That isn't unusual among highly successful people, especially those earmarked for it at unusually young ages. But he spoke so strongly about how important being a captain and a leader was to him, and being tone deaf is about the worst thing a captain and a leader can be.