NEWARK — On his first official day back in the New York area, John Tavares acknowledged the trail of hard feelings he left here. He knows what many Islanders fans think about him and what they likely will tell him at the top of their lungs when he comes to Nassau Coliseum Feb. 28 for the first time as a visitor.
He understands. But, before he led his Maple Leafs against the Devils Tuesday, he said that he agonized over his decision more than people know and he defended the work he did in every minute as an Islander.
“I tried to approach it the best way I could and I understood the dynamic of the situation. But at the end of the day, I had to make a decision that I felt was best for my career, best for my life,” Tavares said at Prudential Center Tuesday morning. “For a long time, I wasn’t really sure, but I had to come to that decision. I can’t control everyone’s opinion and what everyone sees, but I know how much I gave in my nine years on Long Island, how hard I played, how much I enjoyed playing there, how much I cared.”
When he was asked how life is now, he responded in the upbeat manner he always showed as an Islander, saying, “It’s great.” He added it has been a “whirlwind” chain of free agency, getting married, clearing out his Long Island home over Labor Day weekend, joining the new team “and now getting ready for Christmas.” His play and persona have been gifts to Toronto, his hockey-crazy hometown starving for a contender.
He has done his part on one of the better teams in the NHL. Tavares scored his team-leading 21st goal and had an assist Tuesday in the Maple Leafs' 7-2 win.
“I think in John’s case, he has surpassed even my expectations of what he brings, not only on the ice but probably just as important, off the ice,” Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas said. “He has been excellent in every regard.”
As focused and confident as Tavares always is, though, he admits it will be disorienting when he goes up against the Islanders’ crest in Toronto on Dec. 29. “I’ll just try to treat it, the best I can, like any game,” he said. “Will it be like that? I don’t know. It’s hard to say. There are a lot of good people over there, a lot of old friends.”
Even more volatile will be the Leafs’ visit to Nassau Coliseum, which he also still considers an old friend.
“I always tell people that’s one of the great buildings in our game. A great place to watch a hockey game, a great environment. Islander fans are a big reason why,” Tavares said. “It should be a lot of fun — a lot of great memories, from my first goal, my first game, my first playoff series there, a lot of Islander-Ranger games there. So I’m sure there will be a lot of emotions.”
Emotions remain raw among Islanders fans, who considered the superstar’s choice to post a photo of himself as a child in Maple Leafs pajamas as rubbing salt in a sore wound. He will be awash in boos on Feb. 28. Those are part of his new life, just like the expectation now to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
“He understands the pressure, especially in Toronto,” said Leafs defenseman Travis Dermott, 21, also from Ontario. “Once you meet him, you have no doubt he’s the type of guy who can handle that stuff. Just being able to see him and play with him every day is an honor.”
Maple Leafs fans respect their hometown superstar for the type of person he has become. “There is no question the major reason for that,” Tavares said, “is the time I spent on Long Island.”