Wednesday was a time to celebrate a true milestone in Islanders franchise history. They will finally have an arena to call their own and the credibility that comes with a stable future.
From now on, the focus turns to John Tavares and whether Wednesday’s announcement about the Belmont Park arena will have an impact on his future with the Islanders.
“As time goes on and you take time to think about things, look at the big picture, it’s very positive for the organization, for us, for the fans,” Tavares said after the news conference at Belmont Park. “For my situation it’s really exciting news. I’m not going to say it’s going to change or ultimately make my decision, but everything that’s involved in my daily life plays into it and going to the rink, playing games is a big part of that.”
It’s no secret that two-plus years of commuting by train or car from the Island to Brooklyn for games hasn’t been fun for Tavares or his teammates, none of whom live in the city. As captain, Tavares led the charge to get then coach Jack Capuano to move the team’s gameday morning skates out of Barclays Center and back to the team’s practice facility midway through the 2015-16 season, and they haven’t returned.
Tavares’ decision to wait on negotiations for a contract extension this past summer had to do primarily with the future home of the Islanders, but also other factors. The team needed to be pointed in the right direction on the ice and, despite a recent 3-6-1 slide that carries the Isles into Thursday’s game with the Ducks in Brooklyn, the Isles currently sit in a playoff spot at 18-13-3.
There have still been no real contract overtures from either the Isles’ side or Tavares’ camp, according to people on both sides, even as the reality of Belmont grew closer in recent weeks. With the season in full swing, the intensely focused Tavares, who is tied for third in the NHL in scoring with 42 points, has preferred to look at upcoming games, not upcoming years.
“We’ll continue the way things have been going, keeping the communication open and taking it one day at a time,” he said. “A lot of focus on the ice, on getting us to the playoffs. I’ve always stated how much I enjoy being here, playing here and wanting it to work out here.”
Islanders general manager Garth Snow didn’t want to say Wednesday how the arena announcement would impact Tavares’ plans. He is, of course, enthusiastic about what a permanent home will do for the team as a selling point to potential free agents and their families.
“It’s going to be a world-class arena built for hockey,” Snow said. “That’s something we haven’t had.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who has worked with more than a few Islanders owners over the years, sees what a new facility will do for a franchise that he’s had to defend and deflect moving talk about for a long time.
“This really represents a huge investment in the club, in Long Island,” Bettman told Newsday. “Scott Malkin’s ownership of this franchise has delivered on every promise he’s made about insuring that not only was this going to be an opportunity for a world-class facility, but this is a world-class organization when you look at how the team’s playing, management, you look at everything they’re doing to invest in the practice facility. This is consistent with their vision for this franchise.”
All that has an impact on Tavares’ decision. Malkin was in Los Angeles two weeks ago to chat with Pat Brisson, Tavares’ agent, presumably giving the latest in a year-long series of progress reports on the arena. That individual attention is not something other Islanders are getting and shows how badly the Isles want Tavares to stay.
Even without playing his own hand, Tavares understood what Wednesday’s announcement meant to the team he’s been a part of for eight-plus seasons and to a fan base that’s been battered around for a lot longer than that.
“This is where the team belongs, where it started,” Tavares said. “The New York Islanders are called the Islanders for a reason . . . Ownership is extremely committed to making it a special place to be, making it a very unique experience — what I mean by that is having the true identity of the Islanders come out, not only with us playing there but being built around our fan base and highlighting what it means to be an Islander player and an Islander fan. It’s obviously really special.”