First thing’s first: If the Maple Leafs had made their first visit to Long Island back in November or December, none of these self-righteous national media tools would be taking the last few weeks to preach about how we’re supposed to handle this.
Because we wouldn’t be talking about it. And they’d have burned their #content #needs on piety back in the fall or early winter, and it’d all be over, and even the next meeting (April 1) at the Coliseum wouldn’t matter in this way.
Thursday’s game, John Tavares’ first on Long Island since he left July 1, would just be a rematch from a 4-0 drubbing by Team Trotz.
And we — “we” being Islanders fans — would be doing what we’ve done most days since December: pinching ourselves as we enjoy a season that is going far better than any of us imagined late last summer, with the departed captain a sorry afterthought.
Alas, the NHL schedule makers didn’t ordain that Tavares visit the Island — er, they didn’t ordain that Islanders fans finally get a chance to say goodbye (since, well, he kind of slithered out of town in the night) until now, in a fairly important game (standings-wise) on Thursday, Feb. 28.
So the media lectures and mockery are widespread and abundant, with others piping up that “Gosh, aren’t you over it by now?!” Just one example: Before the trade deadline briefly consumed All Things Hockey, TSN’s Darren Dreger was on radio dismissing it all (except not dismissing it at all): “If [Islanders fans] want to piss and moan now, who cares? Who cares?”
I mean, yeah exactly, Righteous Media Person: Who cares? Why do any of you [media] care? This is the first time a pretty significant player is returning to the place he professed to want to spend his whole career. So Islanders fans sure care. Why do you care if they care?
Oh, right. #goodcontent. #tunein.
Sports media like this sometimes like to have it both ways: Their entire career rests on the premise that fans be rabid, emotional and irrational enough that they will consume so much media that it’s worth it for a Canadian sports network to have reporters hanging outside a goddamned L.A. hotel in the last week of June to see what a free agent ate for lunch. That it’s worth it to skip work and attend a parade where drunken athletes celebrate a trophy. That it’s worth it to pay $12 for a beer because #themoment.
If fans — like, hundreds of thousands per team, millions in total — don’t suspend disbelief long enough to pretend that this stupid game really does matter, that their team’s fortunes really should influence their daily mood, then your career doesn’t exist. You’re a production assistant on a TV show, or a local reporter covering amateur and minor league sports, who never gets to wave an air of authority on national TV because a team insider or agent leaked news of a trade to you 300 seconds before the rest of our narrow little hockey-obsessed world found out.
So are some Islanders fans going to be stupid this week? Undoubtedly. Like 30 other fanbases will do from time to time.
Have some fans been troll-ish or hypersensitive to hockey media for perceived slights of their team this season? Absolutely, as sure as those media members will intentionally stir the pot...to get exactly that reaction...from exactly those same kinds of fans whose existence and passion is essential to their media careers.
Have some Isles fans willingly participated in a pretty cringe-inducing video produced by the local TV news channel? Of course. (And of course that media outlet was going to exploit this.)
Pardon them for caring that much. (But remember: You need them to care that much.)
Player’s Right to Free Agency...Fans’ Right to Closure
But it’s not just sour grapes, please understand that. Yeah, Tavares “gave” nine years to Islanders fans, but remember they gave those years to him, too. The money and the revenue sharing and the performance bonuses and the ability to hire a personal trainer and a nutrition guru and personal skating coach aren’t there unless these fans care that much.
So many pundits and fans keep using the strawman, “Hey, he had the right to sign where he wanted in free agency and you shouldn’t...’—NO SHIT, SHERLOCK. Only the fringe would begrudge a player’s right to free agency, as collectively bargained. It was how this “loyal Islander,” as Dreger put it, put JT first at a pivotal point in the franchise’s history and renovation that felt dirty.
Not to speak for the collective (and ignore the fringes), but generally the Islanders fan perspective is simple:
Want to move on? Great, fine. It sucks, really bad, especially after all we’ve endured, but just say so. Be straight about it. Don’t have your agent tell ownership “no trade please, we can work something out”...simply to avoid any spring inconvenience.
Thinking you’ll need until July 1? Alright, but...be honest about what “those tightly in the know” apparently understood, according to Dreger. In the end, Long Island’s robot star stripped all emotion out of the decision and went based on cold calculation about which team was best poised to win him a Cup.
As was his right. But we should’ve figured.
Many a fan has pointed out they’d be much more over it — and I’d venture plenty will be “over it” once Feb. 28’s chance for closure is past — if Tavares hadn’t done his “I want to be a one-team guy, I hope it works out here, I hope I can stay” script-reading day after day until the day came to put up or shut up and he slipped out the back door, “lifelong pajama dream” photo at the ready to immediately post to his previously dormant social media account.
(In retrospect, perhaps we should have expected that the captain who is dependably without tone would be so tone deaf in handling this.)
So yeah, there’s those sour grapes.
But there’s also the knowledge of what Islanders fans went through with Tavares. Yes, he’s a superstar. And he’s impressive in his relentless drive — the ways he improved his skating and his faceoff taking and his, um, backchecking, are all credits to him as a player. Islanders fans endured those weaknesses and flaws in his game while defending him to the death, rooting him on like the Little Backchecker That Could as he discovered there are three zones in hockey.
He’s so determined, so driven at constant self-improvement, so impressive as an athlete committed to his craft, that I’ve little doubt he’ll find a way to win a Cup some day. (I of course hope it’s as a third-liner and
shootout power play specialist with some third team in Year 7 of his current contract. As is my right.)
When Islanders fans chucklingly nod at the sight of him doing the Tavares Reach on the backcheck, or see him gassed at (what should be) the end of an extended overtime shift, it’s not just unfair bitterness.
No, it’s more than that. It’s collective recognition of what we went through as this player evolved into what he is today. It’s recognition that yes, he’s outstanding, and there’s only one John Tavares; but when you purchase him you get him warts and all. You get the flailing shootout attempts and the super-long OT shifts (unless Babcock has finally stopped that, I haven’t bothered to check) and the subsequent limp backchecks that come with them.
He’s probably better than all that now. Without following #91’s work in Toronto, I would bet Mike Babcock has — just as Barry Trotz would have — eliminated those final weaknesses from his game.
On Thursday Islanders fans will get the chance to see for themselves, and some will recall what was while others mourn and boo what could have been.
As is their right.