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Tavares Encyclopedia Epilogue: What I Learned From Two Years in Limbo

I have the receipts but the Islanders don’t have John Tavares anymore.

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Tavares Encyclopedia Composite

The funniest aspect about the John Tavares Contract Encyclopedia is that it started with the most un-John Tavares-like thing of all: an interesting quote.

In July of 2016, while in Toronto to train and take in a Blue Jays game, Tavares did a Sportsnet radio hit with host Andrew Walker. When Walker jokingly asked Tavares about possibly joining his hometown Maple Leafs when his Islanders contract was up in two seasons, Tavares shot him down immediately and decisively.

I would not count on that. I think I’ve shown my commitment, my appreciation and my desire to play on Long Island. I would love for that to continue for the long haul. I think that you look at some of the greatest players in the game have been able to spend their entire careers somewhere. I hope I’m in that same position.

Being from Toronto, people are going to make those connections and it is what it is. That’s nothing I can control. I just want to go out and be the best player and person i can be for the Islanders day in and day out and I’m just going to focus on tomorrow and the upcoming season.

A couple of weeks later, Tavares told Arthur Staple, then of Newsday, similar sentiments about his love for Long Island (“John Tavares has no desire to leave Islanders when contract is up”). A day after that, Tavares told Sportsnet’s Luke Fox that the worst ice he had played on during the previous season was in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre and not Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, home of the Islanders and notoriously sloppy conditions. So back off, Leafs fans.

It became clear early on that the question of his free agency would persist whenever Tavares would do an interview, play a game, pop up in conversation or merely just exist on this planet. So instead of posting a separate article each and every time he was asked about it, I figured it was a better idea to keep the links in one place with just a little commentary to tie them together. Less work for me, easier to find stuff later and might make a cool realtime story, right?

I had the perfect title, too: The Complete Encyclopedia of John Tavares Telling the Toronto Maple Leafs to Get Lost. If the first three entries were any indication, Tavares was going to be doing exactly that repeatedly before eventually re-signing with the Islanders.

Wrong, wrong and wrong again.

Over the next two seasons, The Complete Encyclopedia of John Tavares Telling the Toronto Maple Leafs to Get Lost morphed into the first volume of a trilogy. Volume one lasted from the summer of 2016 through the 2016-17 season and into that offseason. The John Tavares Contract Encyclopedia Volume 2 started at training camp 2017 and carried throughout all of 2017-18. When he still wasn’t signed at the end of last season, The John Tavares Contract Encyclopedia Volume 3 was born to cover what was sure to be an eventful offseason.

The three massive documents finally clocked in at a hefty 96,472 words of quotes, links, commentary, articles, tweets, videos, podcasts, soundbites and anything else I felt told the story of this significant moment in Islanders history. It follows the complete tale of how the Islanders had, then lost, the best player they’ve employed in 20 years, and how he went from having no reason to leave the team that drafted him to having almost no reason to stay.

The story changed over time. From, “There’s no way the Islanders won’t sign him by July 1, 2017” to “There’s no way the Islanders go into the season without signing John Tavares” to “There’s no way the Islanders get to the trade deadline without signing John Tavares” to “There’s no way the Islanders let Tavares get to free agency.”

Tavares himself started out proclaiming his love for the Islanders, the franchise and the fanbase. Then he wanted to take everything into consideration. Then he was silent. Then he was gone.

In the end, the joke was on me. I never thought the Islanders would flat out suck for two straight seasons, creating an environment that Tavares felt he couldn’t win in. I also never expected his exit to go down in such a cold, cryptic way. There is a lot of blame to go around for how the story played out and I like to think that this complete series made that clear.

Taking on this project was, without question, one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made in my life. And I’m someone who went on opening weekend to see Highlander II: The Quickening, a theatrical movie release so awful and traumatic that it has been altered frequently, buried by its studio and disowned by practically everyone who made it.

“The Encyclopedia” caused me a great deal of stress and anxiety. It took me on an infinite and unhealthy roller coaster ride of emotions, monopolized my ever-shrinking free time, made me an unreliable friend, made my Twitter feed a bore and generally robbed me of my desire to ever watch, read or write about the Islanders ever again.

But it was also, like anything else, a learning experience.

William Goldman is the screenwriter for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride and many other major films. He’s also written a number of books on screenwriting and movie making and is quoted frequently for boiling the movie business down to its most essential truth: “Nobody knows anything.”

For Goldman, that phrase means that studio heads, producers, directors and everyone all the way down the line have no idea what makes a movie a hit or a bomb. They think they do, but they really don’t. And just because something worked once (or was rejected by one person), doesn’t mean it won’t have the opposite result somewhere else later. Studios turned down E.T. and Star Wars, but greenlighted Hudson Hawk and Bonfire of the Vanities because of their own reasons, and were wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.

For me, “nobody knows anything” applies to the army of insiders, writers, reporters, bloggers, analysts, personalities and talking heads that have been yammering about John Tavares’s free agency for years. Forget that he finally finished Canada’s wet dream and joined the Maple Leafs. The amount of hot air passed off as “information” over the last two years is enough to form its own star. People have been talking out of their ass about John Tavares since before he joined the Islanders in 2009, and the frequency and intensity of it has only increased over time.

I’m not just talking about anonymous Twitter rumor merchants, who trade in making declarative statements from “sources” they absolutely do not have. I’m also not only talking about citizen bloggers (like me) whose passion about their team and sport is so great that they feel the need to write about it all the time, but who don’t have the inclination or the intelligence to actually read up on a subject before spouting off about it.

I’m also not just talking about people like TSN’s Craig Button, former NHL GM and current blowhard “expert” whose total knowledge of NHL teams other than the Leafs can fit neatly into one 18 ounce cup of Tim Hortons coffee with room for extra cream. And I’m not just talking about the hundreds of Toronto-based national writers who use the Islanders as their own personal punching bags because their mostly U.S.-based fans, unlike Canucks, Oilers, Flames and Senators fans, will probably never read it.

I’m talking about professional writers and reporters who know what weight their words hold and who still made fantastic leaps in logic based on some reasoned speculation because they needed to have answers when some talking head asked them, “What do you see happening with Tavares?”

I’m talking about guys like Craig Custance, an excellent writer for years and the foundation for The Athletic’s American hockey expansion, who had Tavares ready to be traded last summer based only on the last 20 games of the Islanders season. I’m talking about guys like Pierre LeBrun, one of the most trusted hockey insiders, throwing around for a solid week on a few separate outlets the idea of a sign-and-trade deal between the Islanders and a potential suitor that was never going to happen and was probably planted on him by agent Pat Brisson or maybe one of those very suitors.

These are smart, well-informed writers throwing noodles against a wall and hoping they stick. And I totally get it. You can’t keep saying, “I don’t know” when you’re on Leafs Lunch or Insider Trading because the audience needs to hear something. And even if they did say, “I don’t know,” either they or a host would launch into Tavares rosterbation anyway, totally negating their original statement.

It was exhausting and demoralizing. It made me feel like the entire world was against the Islanders, which wouldn’t be a surprise because everyone basically hates them anyway. I didn’t need to write and/or edit 96,000 words to tell me that. The Islanders get no benefit of any doubt because they have not earned any in quite some time. With one single action, John Tavares, the face of the franchise, validated every single criticism of the organization he once represented and defended so forcefully.

When Mike Bossy - of all people - is floating bogus trade rumors across Montreal on the radio and saying Tavares turned down a contract extension just to stir the pot, it’s enough to curl your hair into an embarrassing perm.

Which brings me to the Montreal Canadiens, who I learned have the absolutely, hands-down, thirstiest, most delusional fanbase in the NHL. The Leafs might have been the beginning and ending of The Encyclopedia, but the middle was all about the Habs and GM Marc Bergevin’s genius plan to base his entire franchise on a player he didn’t have and whom, it turned out, didn’t even want to talk to him. The Montreal hockey media played along like a demented Greek chorus, never questioning whether or not Tavares would even want to suit up for le bleu blanc et rouge. I mean, they’re the only historic team in the NHL! Surely no team has ever, like, had good players before...

Among my favorite examples of Hab-sanity in The Encyclopedia were radio host Mitch Melynk posting his fanboy slashfic to the paying customers of The Athletic and this bit of preseason tampering from Canadiens owner (!) Geoff Molson:

Tavares kept a lot of writers busy over the last months of his Islanders tenure, providing the easiest and laziest basis for articles, editorials, mailbags, polls, slideshows, videos and interviews of any type. I mean, the Avalanche’s resurgent season was barely over before Denver writers were pegging Tavares taking his talents to the Rockies. If you wrote about Tavares needing to join the Rangers for whatever reason, congrats: you played yourself. Not only did the Islanders’ main rival signal a full rebuild before the season was over, but you didn’t need to know Tavares that well to know he wouldn’t do that.

Look at the two appendixes at the bottom on Volume Three to see 59 links to various blog posts attaching Tavares to teams all across the NHL. Since 2016, John Tavares has been a blogger’s best friend. Canucks, Hurricanes and Red Wings fans: thanks for playing.

While my anger and frustration might seem aimed at these folks who were just doing their jobs (or their hobbies), it is very clearly the Islanders and John Tavares that made this tragedy happen.

So what was the overall lesson I learned after two seasons in the Hockey Phantom Zone, hurtling helplessly through space while watching my team’s best player be pulled at by the gravity of 30 other solar systems?

I learned that the Islanders aren’t worth it.

I spent a lot of time and energy on a team that still has a long way to go before it’s considered a functional National Hockey League franchise. Even hiring a Stanley Cup-winning GM and Stanley Cup-winning coach isn’t enough to keep the Islanders from being the islanders, that worse case scenario for all professional teams to avoid.

The final giant, stomach-turning hill on this roller coaster was when the Islanders landed former Capitals coach Barry Trotz two weeks after he took that team to their first championship. Lou Lamoriello AND Trotz? Hell yeah! No doubt Tavares would re-sign right away now, right? Right...

Instead of spending my time reading, writing, collecting, compressing and otherwise being completely buried under this one singular topic, I should have been spending more time with people and hobbies that bring me actual joy, not continued misery. Instead of getting angry about what Gord McDipshit said about Tavares today, I should have been living. Instead of losing sleep over how much John Tavares may or may not love Long Island, I should have appreciated my own home more often.

Instead of hoping against hope that my shitty team might finally - finally - have it all, I should have realized that I already have enough, and this whole sports thing is just frosting.

I spent every other day for two years collecting the receipts. And now that I have them, I never want to look at them again.

Thanks to everyone who read, shared, clicked or commented on any or all volumes of The John Tavares Contract Encyclopedia. Thanks to Dom for doing even more than he already does because my writing time was mostly taken up by this project (to which he added a few entries as well). Thanks to Arthur Staple, Brian Compton, Mike Carver, Noel Fogelman and other Islanders podcasters and writers for their support. Thanks to Chris Nichols, formerly of FRS Hockey, for his transcriptions of Sportsnet and TSN radio and TV spots that I’d never see in the states. You don’t know me, but I literally couldn’t have done this without you. I hope you get a new gig soon.

And thanks to my wife and daughter for giving me the space to take on this beast and spend way too much time with it rather than them.

I set out to tell a story and I did it. I don’t like the ending, but then again William Goldman once said he didn’t enjoy any of his own writing, either. And he wrote the screenplay for Misery.

As John Tavares earned his right to free agency, I believe I’ve earned my right to take an extended break from social media and maybe even the Islanders. That second part’s undecided as of now. But I’ve overloaded myself to the point of exhaustion and I feel the need to shut it down for a while and let my engines cool.

I have little doubt Tavares and the Leafs will win a Stanley Cup or four in my lifetime. Maybe we’ll get lucky and the Islanders will, too.

But if that happens, I want to enjoy it for the gravy that it is. Not be drowned in it.