Last Thursday was an Islanders fan’s dream. Tavares came back to Long Island and he and his team were embarrassed in front of a capacity Coliseum crowd. It was a great atmosphere from before puck drop. Fans crowded the Leafs side of the ice and began taunting Tavares during warmups. His first shift came 18 seconds into the game and it was met with boos, which turned into cheers when he lost the faceoff and the Islanders carried the puck out of the zone. Chants of “We don’t need you!” “Barzal’s better!” “Where’s your jammies!?” and “Past Your Bedtime” were some of the friendlier cheers, and they went throughout the night, nonstop.
The Islanders won the game 6-1. Toronto scored first after Tavares set up Marner and Hyman in front of the net, but the Islanders scored two unanswered after that. Then when Toronto thought they tied the game at 2, the goal was called back on an offsides call. The Coliseum erupted and it was only Isles from there. Isles’ captain Anders Lee’s goal would stand as the game winner. Robin Lehner made 34 saves. Tavares’ line was active but couldn’t get on the board after the first period.
As Butch Goring mentioned during the broadcast, no one left, at least from the Islanders side. However, there were multiple reports of Maple Leafs fans leaving not because of the score, but because they were being harassed by fans. One fan said he was having fun, despite the blowout, but was verbally and physically abused by fans. Many were also upset over vulgar chants, “traitor” and “snake” jerseys, and throwing things on the ice and at Tavares himself.
It was not a comfortable night for Tavares, the Leafs, and their fans. That was the goal from the start. According to many fans, it’s what he deserved. Tavares left the Islanders as a free agent last July 1st after leading the Isles on for most of the season that he wanted to stay in New York. He would often be quoted saying that he loves Long Island and wants to play there. However, as July drew nearer, he was convinced by his agent Pat Brisson to explore other options and decided to take less money and term to play in Toronto.
Islanders fans felt betrayed afterwards, and rightfully so. Tavares said himself in his article in the Players’ Tribune that he was grateful for everything that the Islanders gave him from teammates, coaches, management, a home, and a chance. Despite this, he walked out, leaving the already shackled team with practically nothing. He went to the land of plenty, where he could live out his childhood dream.
But after watching how Isles’ fans behaved on Thursday night, few have sympathy for their plight. Steve Dangle of Sportsnet compared the situation to when Mats Sundin left the Maple Leafs in 2009 to play for the Canucks. He said that he didn’t want to be traded saying that he wanted to win the cup “the right way,” in a full season. He subsequently signed a two year deal with Vancouver and ended his career there. Whether or not the analogy is applicable, he felt the Islanders’ fans had no right to go to the lengths they did.
Former New York Ranger released an explicit video in which he expressed his distaste at Isles fans. “What did you expect him to do? Lie during the season?” he said. “He did what every athlete does when they know they aren’t coming back to the team.” “Those greasy Islanders f****.”
Articles from ESPN and CBC made sure to list the fans’ faults. The publication from ESPN discussed a pro-Tavares Islanders fan and his experience in “hostile territory” for wearing an untarnished Tavares jersey and bringing his son with a Maple Leafs version.
“The fans who have, through the decades, felt the indignity of having their team dismissed as second-rate or disparaged as a feckless franchise 36 years removed from their last bout of relevance, and thus, the fans who saw Tavares deciding that the Maple Leafs provided him with a better chance to win as another example of that indignity, manifesting in feelings of betrayal and abandonment,” so the article accused.
CBC decided to take the “high road” if you can call it that, and posted a flurry of tweets and posts from mostly Canadian journalists from the game bashing Isles fans for their treatment of Tavares. At least they didn’t justify the emotions as “a carnival of catharsis for fans who share a complex bond of inferiority.”
Don Cherry falsely said that the Islanders drew 17,000 fans for the game and only 13,000 against the Capitals the following night as a way to downplay the Islanders fans’ passion. In truth, the Islanders never had a stadium capable of hosting 17,000 fans and they still won more cups than the Leafs in the last 50 years.
Even some Islanders fans seemed against the excessive antics. Despite the rampant boos that erupted during and after the tribute video, a few fans still stood and applauded their former captain. As mentioned in the ESPN, there were a few who even kept their Tavares’ jerseys intact.
Did the fans cross the line at certain points? In my humble opinion, yes. Throwing anything on the ice is an embarrassment to the team you represent. Some of the vulgar chants were also slightly unnecessary. The other ones were effective enough. But did Tavares deserve everything else? I think so.
John Tavares did something no one of his prominence had done before him. Mats Sundin had a no trade clause, the Leafs were on the decline, and he was nearing the end of his career. Tavares asked not to be traded, the Islanders were up and coming (and hired a new coach and GM), had a new arena deal in place, and was entering his prime. He loved it here. Those are his words, not mine. As the media and other figures attack the fanbase, they must recognise firstly that the Islanders are a proud franchise, not the “dump” that Tavares “deserved” to leave. Secondly, no one did anything like this before, and the coverage of the saga ought to be treated as such. He hurt, intentionally or unintentionally, many Islanders fans. He got what he deserved.
“No one has to like my decision, but I just tried to explain what it is and how I got to that point.” Tavares said to a reporter as a fan walked by and shouted “JT sucks!”
Whether or not it was the decision alone that affected him, it represented the fans displeasure with their former captain.
After the game, the city of Toronto declared a national holiday, Tavares Day, for their beloved son and greeted him to a round of cheers and applause at their game against Buffalo.
It takes a long time for wounds to heal. For some, this one may never fully heal, with or without a Stanley Cup. The Islanders are 2-0 against Tavares’ Leafs this season and despite the criticism, they still sit among the best in the Eastern Conference and continue to defy the odds with every win.