A homecoming can be a tender moment. It can be a time to reflect upon fond memories and to acknowledge and honor past accomplishments. This can be especially true for a professional athlete that returns to his or her previous longtime “home.”
That was not the case for Toronto Maple Leafs alternate captain John Tavares when he returned to his old Long Island stomping grounds at Nassau Coliseum last Thursday.
This was Tavares’ first time back to the home of the New York Islanders since he made his free agent decision to sign a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Leafs last summer, and the Isles fans welcomed him back with the warm sounds of booing and name calling.
“Liar!” “Traitor!” “We don’t need you!” These were just some of the “cleaner” words that were yelled at Tavares throughout the night, not to mention the numerous signs that depicted Tavares as a snake, old Tavares jerseys that displayed the word “traitor” across the back nameplate – fans even burned Tavares jerseys outside the arena before the game – and the multiple rubber snakes that fans threw on the ice at him.
Yes, the old Isles captain received a “warm” welcome home alright, and I thought this would serve as an appropriate time to draw some comparisons to the night the Tampa Bay Lightning’s ninth-captain, Martin St. Louis, made his first return to the previously-named Tampa Bay Times Forum after he was traded to the New York Rangers back in 2014.
More from Bolts by the Bay
- Tampa Bay Lightning: Maxim Groshev Stands Out at Rookie Showcase
- Tampa Bay Lightning Atlantic Division Preview: Boston Bruins
- Do the Tampa Bay Lightning provide Tyler Motte with career stability?
- Mikhail Sergachev hints a renewed vigor for the Tampa Bay Lightning
- Four training camp battles to watch with the Tampa Bay Lightning
To start, St. Louis requested to be traded. He did not wait for free agency nor was this a move that was completely out of his control. This was a response to former Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman leaving St. Louis off of Team Canada’s roster for the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, though it has been reported the decision was also influenced by St. Louis’ desire to be closer to his family and their Connecticut home, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
There is no denying the hard feelings that were felt by many Bolts fans, but there is also no denying the actual warm welcome St. Louis received upon his return to Tampa the following season, this time donning Rangers red, white and blue.
Sure, there were some boo birds flying that night, but there was also authentic cheering and applauding for a player that spent nearly 13 full seasons with the Bolts, winning two Art Ross Trophies, one Hart Trophy and a Stanley Cup.
It certainly does not compare, on any level, to this type of homecoming reception:
What Tavares went through was so bad, the Maple Leafs felt the need to recognize No. 91 at their next home game.
It is never an easy thing for a passionate fan base to let go of someone that became their “franchise player.” Fans want to hold onto them forever, keep them in their team’s colors forever and be able to say that they never played for any other team in the league…ever. But when it comes down to it, these are professional athletes and this is a professional league. It is a business.
Is loyalty involved in the decision-making process? Of course it is…sometimes. Is money involved in the decision-making process? Of course it is…all the time.
In the case of John Tavares, this was his opportunity to return to his hometown – just 30 minutes from Toronto – to fulfill a childhood dream of playing for the team he grew up watching and to cash in on some serious coin in the process.
Another example that compares almost identically to this situation was when Patrick Marleau chose to sign with Toronto and leave the only team he had ever played with in his NHL career, the San Jose Sharks. Despite the attempts by Joe Thornton to lure his longtime teammate to resign with the Sharks in 2017, Marleau chose the Leafs.
Now, what happened when he returned to the Shark Tank the following season? The video speaks for itself.
Anyone else getting choked up? Pass the tissues please.
What a welcome back that was for Marleau. Not one boo bird there that night, that is for sure.
So why bash Tavares so harshly Isles fans? Why destroy and tarnish what was an amazing past time in the Islanders franchise? Why throw snakes and old jerseys at your franchise’s fifth-leading all-time scorer, with the first four having retired numbers in your rafters?
Maybe it’s frustration over repeated years of just average on-ice performances – although the team is neck and neck with the reigning Stanley Cup champion Capitals atop the Metropolitan Division – or the fact that all home games are being split between two venues this season. Maybe it’s a cry for the team to bring back those classic “Gorton’s fisherman” sweaters permanently. Believe me I would love to see those too! Or maybe Leafs head coach Mike Babcock was right when he said in a report by The Athletic, “they only boo you if you’re important.”
To be fair, the New York Islanders organization did honor Tavares with a tribute video which was followed by stick salutes by the entire Isles team bench. This was the only classy move that night.
It will be interesting to see if Tavares ever joins those four other Islander leading scorers in the rafters down the line, despite this extreme rough patch in the Islanders-Tavares relationship.
Marty St. Louis saw his number 26 retired by the Lightning in 2017 as the first in franchise history. It was a pleasant ceremony that saw Yzerman and St. Louis truly burying the hatchet, as Yzerman gave a speech on St. Louis’ remarkable career.
It is said that hatred and love are separated by a thin line and this may very well be the case for Isles fans and their feelings towards Tavares. But for the time being, that line is a wall and Tavares is Long Island public enemy No. 1.
One can only hope that someday the Islanders faithful will appreciate what John Tavares gave them just as the Tampa Bay Lightning fanbase appreciated Martin St. Louis.