Here’s a question for every Islanders fan to ponder: When John Tavares plays against the Rangers, whom are you rooting for?
That a person might have to at least pause for a second speaks volumes about how the former captain was received Thursday night at Nassau Coliseum.
I had fully expected Tavares’ return to Long Island with the Maple Leafs to be one-and-done, that the fans would get the booing out of their systems and move on.
Two words about that prediction: No chance.
What we saw instead was the birth of a rivalry. The intensity of the animosity was just too great to suggest it will disappear anytime soon. Anyone who expected closure saw the opening of a whole new chapter. It brought out the best in the Islanders, who played a stellar game in a 6-1 win.
At times, it brought out the worst in the fans. Someone threw an Islanders jersey at Tavares as he left the ice after the pregame warmup. Not good. Occasionally, the chanting included words you would not want to hear from your second-grader.
By and large, though, it was pretty darned exciting. And the crowd had every right to express itself in person to Tavares, just as he had every right to sign as a free agent with his hometown team.
Islanders fans had been poorly served over the years by ownership, management, politicians and the league (as was Tavares). They always saw Tavares as their one loyal advocate. They took it personally when he left after asking not to be dealt last season (thus the crowd’s capper of a chant, “Please don’t trade me!”).
General manager Lou Lamoriello went on WFAN earlier this week to say he hoped fans would not boo a player who had been a first-class citizen and great performer through nine Islanders seasons. Fine. But Lamoriello had indulged in his own sour grapes after he was rebuffed by Tavares, saying he prefers great teams to great players (as if they were mutually exclusive) and pointing out that the Islanders had not been all that successful during Tavares’ tenure.
So it was only fair that the fans finally had their say.
Tavares heard lusty boos every time he touched the puck — in warmups. When Anders Lee scored in the second period, they chanted, “Let’s go Captain!” to rub it in on the guy who used to wear their “C.” In one of their favorite mocking songs, they substituted “Tavares” for “the Rangers.”
Booing drowned out the audio in the video tribute to No. 91. Sportsmanlike, he raised his stick in salute to his former followers. “They have their feelings and it’s out of my control. I just tried to show my acknowledgment for the nine years I had here,” he said afterward.
As with any bad breakup, there might yet be a layer of regret. As much as the crowd chanted “We don’t need you!” the Isles certainly could use him. They could use a big scorer now and in the playoffs. Plus, it would have been terrific to see what he could do under a Hall of Fame executive and a Stanley Cup-winning coach.
Meanwhile, perhaps the euphoria will wear off in Toronto. Without a lot of cap space, how can the Leafs bridge the chasm between themselves and Tampa Bay? If the Leafs don’t win a Cup in three years, Tavares could bear scrutiny he never would have faced on Long Island.
“He played a long time here. I know for certain that he loved it here and really cared about this team in trying to win,” said Matt Martin, an Islanders winger and Tavares friend. “It didn’t happen and obviously he has found himself a new situation.”
Martin was asked before the game if Thursday represented closure. He said, “I’m pretty closed with it.”
The same sentiment did not echo in the stands, where one chant told the former favorite: “You’re a liar!”
Maybe someday Islanders fans will recognize Tavares for having done so much and cared so much. I will never forget how he appreciated his series-clinching goal in 2016 because it meant so much to fans who hadn’t witnessed such a thing in 23 years.
But that “someday” definitely was not Thursday, and it does not appear to be on the near horizon. Welcome to the rivalry.