He left his Islanders days behind on July 1, making his reasoning crystal clear in a tweet that featured a photo of himself as an Ontario kid sleeping soundly between his Toronto Maple Leafs sheet and blanket with this caption overhead: “Not everyday you can live a childhood dream.”
So there was John Tavares playing for his childhood dream team Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, skating against the Rangers. He had a pointless game in Toronto’s 4-1 loss.
Tavares will have a more significant return to New York on Feb. 28. That’s when he will face his old team at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum in front of the fans he left behind after nine seasons. But Tavares won’t be second-guessing The Decision there.
Regrets about leaving the Islanders and going to Toronto? Not even a few.
“I have absolutely no regrets,” he said. “I’m in a great spot here. It’s been a tremendous opportunity, and we’re just beginning.”
Despite all of Tavares’ achievements for the Islanders, the forecast for his reception is chilly, given all the disappointment and anger that was expressed when he chose to take Toronto’s seven-year, $77-million offer as a free agent.
“Obviously, it’ll be nice to see a lot of familiar faces and be back in a place that . . . still does mean a lot to me in my career,” Tavares said. “As best I can, I’ll try to treat it like any other game. Obviously, it probably won’t be like that . . . Whatever the reception is, I’ll just focus on playing and trying to play well.”
The Islanders won the first meeting against Tavares, 4-0 at Toronto on Dec. 29. They’ve excelled without their 28-year-old former captain and franchise center, rising to the top of the Metropolitan Division.
But Tavares has been worth every cent the Maple Leafs have paid him. He has 33 goals and 27 assists in 55 games and is plus-15 for a 34-18-3 team that is second in the Atlantic Division (a point behind the Islanders in the Eastern Conference standings) and has the look of a Stanley Cup contender.
“He’s a great pro,” coach Mike Babcock said. “So he’s a good example for our young, high-end quality players to look up to, to watch and to see what he does and get an understanding of what you have to do if you want to be great every day in the league.”
Linemate Zach Hyman called him a “role model” in the locker room. “A great leader, brings it every day,” Hyman said. “His preparation is second to none.”
Tavares is just happy living his childhood dream.
“When I made the decision, it felt right to me,” he said. “I felt it was the best thing for me and my career.”