John Tavares squared off with his inquisitor, and the silence after the question seemed to last forever.
It actually only lasted eight seconds, and was partially broken up by giggles, and then uproarious laughter.
“Do you secretly want to be on another team?” asked the child in the back of the auditorium to the superstar headed to free agency at the end of the season (barring a contract extension).
From his folding chair, Tavares gave no tells. He let the silence (and then the laughter) linger. And then, he answered, stone-faced: “Absolutely not.”
It was, most assuredly, a different type of news conference for the Islanders Tuesday afternoon at Merrick’s Birch Elementary School, where Tavares, Jordan Eberle and Nick Leddy braved the inquisitions of some of their youngest — and most boisterous — fans. The chants were loud, the cheers were loud, and the Islanders were game, even if Tavares — ever soft-spoken and polite — suggested that the questions, too, be asked “quietly and politely.”
Islanders School Day is, after all, meant to instill good values in kids across Long Island and Brooklyn, as 23 Islanders were dispatched to 10 schools to talk about things like bullying, health and nutrition, and teamwork. At Birch, the Islanders answered questions for a half-hour and then signed autographs for everyone in attendance.
“It was amazing,” said fourth grader Robert Krayevsky, a youth hockey player clad in an Islanders jersey and gripping an autographed puck. “When I was like five years old I started watching hockey and the first game I ever watched I think was the Islanders, and ever since then they were my favorite ice hockey team. I think it was amazing and I think it was one of the best days I ever had in my life.”
It was a thoroughly lighthearted afternoon. When asked how the team could improve, Eberle deadpanned: “Better leadership and better defensemen,” while pointing to Tavares and Leddy.
“I remember being a kid and having my heroes and if they came to speak to me, you listen,” Eberle said. He preached the necessity of eating vegetables and exercise to the kids who, admittedly, appeared a bit dubious at the suggestion. “When you have that power it’s good to do stuff like this,” he said.
Tavares, meanwhile, spoke of the importance of hard work and responsibility, and answered the questions with the thoughtfulness that would have been just as at home in a job interview.
“I think you realize the responsibility that comes with being an NHLer, the impact you can have on kids,” he said. “You start to reflect back and start to look at how you can do the same sort of things that the guys in front of you did — to not just be a hockey player but a role model. I wasn’t lucky enough [to have something like this growing up]. I would have been blown away . . . It would have been the thrill of a lifetime.”
And yes, he’s happy no one pressed him on free agency. Tavares isn’t saying what his decision will be. It’s clear he has a strong tie to the Islanders, but as of now, there’s no guarantee he won’t be somewhere else come July. Like, say, the Maple Leafs — his very favorite team growing up (that was another question the kids asked).
“Well, I’m glad,” they didn’t ask, he said. “They more just care about the game than all the other stuff that goes along with it. Some great questions and we had a lot of fun with them today.”