There’s been a lot of digital ink spilled over whether Islanders fans were right or wrong to boo John Tavares in merciless fashion in the wake of his return back to Long Island. “John Tavares gave nine years to that franchise, how dare they boo him,” seemed to be the general feeling. Even everyone’s favorite moral compass, Sean Avery, the guy so loved in the NHL he basically has no friends left from his entire hockey career, the guy who taunted homeless people, spoke up, saying that Tavares didn’t deserve to be booed because “he was a good captain and never got arrested.” Okaaaay then. But did Tavares deserve the absolute fury of Isles fans? I guess it depends on your perspective.
To most of the league, Tavares used his leverage (a NTC) to not get traded, as he wanted. Most reports say he was never approached about a trade, and many other reports say that’s because either he or his agent had adamantly expressed that he would sign at the end of the season and did not want to be traded because of his commitment to the Islanders. He then decided to go the UFA route which is his right, and signed with his hometown team in Toronto, also his right. I don’t think even the most aggrieved Islanders fans would argue that Tavares didn’t have the right to do exactly what he did.
Where Islanders fans differ is in how he handled the entire saga. While players like Erik Karlsson or Artemi Panarin expressed their desire to test free agency, Tavares kept reiterating how much he was hoping to stay with the Islanders for his whole career and win a Stanley Cup with the team, and how special that would be. He and his agent met with multiple teams during the UFA listening period, including weird invitees like the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins. It was there that he was swayed by the fancy video editing skills of a Toronto Maple Leafs employee who probably deserves a raise, and Mike Babcock promised him he’d play with Mitch Marner, and he was sold on that, taking a contract for one less year and probably around $1.5 million less a year.
The Islanders fans who had supported him for nine years — as everyone has pointed out — found out about his decision literal moments before he signed his contract with the Leafs, and the Islanders organization didn’t have that much more forewarning. And even with all of that, I think some fans could have forgiven him. After all, Islanders fans had put up two billboards demanding that management be fired for failing to put together a winner, the arena situation is a mess and likely will be until the new building at Belmont opens its doors, the list goes on. No one understands that the Islanders are dysfunctional better than Islanders fans.
But then: the tweet. Islanders fans know John Tavares as a robot; everything the guy did and said was the approved Right Thing to Do as a Good Hockey Man. And then he posted the childhood dream pic of him sleeping in Maple Leafs bed sheets, and Pajama Boy and all the rage from Isles fans was born. It made us think that JT was never truly one of us, that he never really “got it” about the Islanders the way he said he did.
Tavares knew that the Toronto media had been salivating about his return since the day he was drafted, had written articles basically saying that he was too good to play for the Isles, that we should be grateful he stayed for a slightly extended RFA deal, and basically took a dump on our franchise and Tavares’ teammates for those nine years, especially in the two years leading up to his free agency. How many times did people from Toronto talk about how Tavares is currently playing with the best teammates and linemates of his career, dissing guys that Tavares himself has said shaped him into the player and the man he is today. He had rebuffed the Toronto media multiple times, reassuring Islanders fans that he was going to stay no matter what the media was saying.
He knew about all of that, and said all of that, and still made his decision in a way that validated (in the minds of the media) everything they had been saying about the Islanders and John Tavares all along. And that’s his right to do so. It’s not his job to cater to the feelings of the fan base if he thinks there’s something better for him out there for his career and his family, but forgive Isles fans for not catering to his feelings for the first time ever on Long Island.
To fans that talk about other NHL franchise players who have left in the past: consider those players’ ages. Consider the fact that of the players mentioned in those conversations, not a single one was under the age of 30 at the time of their departure. They weren’t franchise stars at the peak of their career anymore, and a lot of fans are throwing out revisionist history, too. (Guess what, Martin St. Louis was booed until he retired and apologized to fans when the Lightning retired his jersey.)
Consider that the one comparable player in the Tavares situation could be Rick Nash, a first overall pick and franchise player who was booed for over four years every time he touched the puck in Columbus after his 2012 trade to the New York Rangers, only truly getting full appreciation from the Blue Jackets crowd after his retirement. And Nash even re-signed instead of going to free agency in 2010, and the Blue Jackets got back players who were part of their team for years after. The Islanders got nothing for John Tavares, loyal captain to the end.
Did Tavares deserve the level of vitriol he got? Maybe not. But he’s the most recent blow to a franchise that’s taken far too many since 1980s, a franchise that’s seen star players literally cry upon being traded here. A franchise that’s seen management trade away stars because they didn’t want to pay them, much like the Ottawa Senators are being forced to do now. A franchise that’s had arguably the dirtiest hit in NHL history alter the career of a franchise player and dampen hopes for a fifth Stanley Cup, a franchise that traded that player for one who desperately didn’t want to be here. A franchise that had to be rebuilt nearly entirely from scratch upon John Tavares’ arrival after the previous regime left basically nothing to work with.
Outside fans came back with the retort that Isles fans should be angry at management rather than Tavares, and trust me, we are. If the organization wanted to raise an extra few thousand dollars for charity, they should’ve put Garth Snow in a dunk tank out in the parking lot and let fans take a throw for $20.
Islanders fans don’t owe John Tavares anything anymore. He was paid for his time on Long Island, and while he was the Islanders’ star player and later captain, fans wore his jersey proudly and cheered his name. They campaigned for him to win the Hart Trophy in 2013 and were angry when he lost out on the Art Ross Trophy in 2015 by just a point. Fans celebrated the highs with him and lamented the lows. Fans speculated about trades to get Tavares better linemates, and were angry when management failed to pull them off. But fans are also fans of their teams, first and foremost, and not necessarily of any specific player when it really comes down to it. The only reason any of this exists, the only reason Tavares can even sign a $77 million contract for seven years is because fans from all parts of the world care very deeply about the success and failures of hockey teams every day, every year. Islanders fans care, and that’s why John Tavares got booed.
But hopefully now we can close the book on the worst of it. Tavares will probably still get booed every game back on Long Island, just like Rick Nash did. But Islanders fans will be cheering for our team, and the successes of our players. If John Tavares wants cheers and applause and support, he can find that in Toronto now. That’s the choice he made.