“Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to another team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt. They hate him now. Boooo! Different shirt! Booo.” —Jerry Seinfeld, New Yorker
UNIONDALE, N.Y. – They couldn’t rewrite history, so they took Sharpies to their sweaters.
As they filed into and filled the refurbished old barn drunk, giddy or both for the night they’d been licking their chops and preparing their props for, the New York Islanders faithful — a group very much still an LIRR ride away from the acceptance stage of grief — came custom dressed for the occasion of John Tavares’s return to town.
Sure, there were the sweatered swarms of Lees and Gillieses and Bossys, Barzals and Yashins and Cizikases.
But oh so many of them sported the laundry of the one that got away. Above the No. 91 on their replica jersey, they had pasted or taped or stitched something funny, mean or both over their former hero’s surname.
More than one of them wore LIAR. Several TRAITOR. Too many to count wore PAJAMA BOY.
There was SELLOUT and B. ARNOLD. I spotted a SNAKE and a RAT SNAKE, and a grown man in a camouflaged, numberless Isles sweater with the nameplate SNAKE HUNTER.
Above the bright-orange 91 on their backs, some got deep: WHY?
Some biblical: JUDAS.
Some obscure: PALFFY.
They wittier among them called on creativity to correct the TAVARES they’d worn proudly across their shoulder blades for nine winters:
FIRST PLACE WITHOUT…
thank u, next.
I sat for the length of a coffee and watched them as the scooted away from a tailgate that began five hours before puck drop in the frigid cold on a weekday in a windswept parking lot, the only heat generated by the occasional sweater burned in effigy, the false warmth of multiple domestic beer crushing, and the cranked-up car speakers.
“Psycho,” by Post Malone, was blaring, which made me happy.
These are the people new head coach Barry Trotz — the Jack Adams front-runner on track to guide the Islanders to their first regular-season divisional title in 31 years — says surprise him at the Home Depot with hugs and thank-yous.
These are the people that destroyed actor/director/Isles fanatic Kevin Connolly’s Twitter mentions when he pleaded for class.
And the pajamas — oh, the pajamas. Never mind that, technically, Tavares had tweeted a boyhood photo of himself snuggled in Toronto Maple Leafs bedsheets on Canada Day, when he announced he’d be leaving the Island to “live a childhood dream.”
Isles fans took the Pajama Boy angle and beat it to a wonderful death, sporting their own orange-and-navy flannel lounge pants to Nassau Coliseum like the angriest slumber party ever.
A child young enough that it was way past bedtime sped down to the glass for warm-ups holding aloft a homemade sign that read: “Go home, Pajama Boy!”
Lusty boos rained on Tavares during
The puck had yet to drop.
“We were loving it. We thought it was hilarious,” said Leafs defenceman Justin Holl, who skated up to Tavares. “I was joking with him. I said, ‘At least they forgot.’ ”
The variety and endurance of the vitriol maintained during the home side’s cathartic 6-1 embarrassment of Tavares’s chosen team reached you-had-to-be-there levels.
“Extremely passionate,” said new Isles captain Anders Lee. “They love our team, they love the Island. Without them, we have nothing.”
So often the lazy phrase
Full-throat, in-unison chants of “JT sucks!”; “We! Don’t! Need! You!”; and “A– H—!” rocked the walls before the two-minute mark.
Later, the hordes mixed in a “Barzy’s better!” and a “Who’s your daddy?” They sprinkled in a “Where’s your jammies?” and an “It’s your bedtime!”
The second J.T. hopped the boards for a shift, the boo birds would screech like vultures. During one offensive-zone draw, a man dressed as Halloween villain Michael Myers, mask and all, jumped up from his seat, ran to the glass near the left circle and made a throat-slashing gesture at Tavares.
The poor guy’s tribute video was inaudible for all the booing and chanting and swearing. A den of “white noise” Holl described it from ice level.
Still, Tavares’s ex-teammates all tapped sticks and Tavares himself saluted his haters without irony.
“You must be a real special player and real special person for them to honour you like that, because they only boo you if you’re important,” Babcock noted.
Trotz loves how his group — a sum-greater-than-its-parts outfit that has now embarrassed Toronto by a combined score of 10-1 this season — feeds off the locals’ energy.
“As a visitor, they’re on top of you,” Trotz said. “It feels like they’re breathing down your neck a little bit.”
And it wasn’t all mean. Not at all. They were having a blast and smiling and paying keen attention to the game.
Defenceman Johnny Boychuk got a fright when Mitch Marner’s skate came up and accidentally brushed his neck, so he rushed off to the dressing room holding a towel over his throat.
Trotz later said the incident was “milli-inches” from something really bad, but Boychuk returned. Immediately, the fans gave him a standing ovation and turned their chants to “JOHN-ny! BOY-chuk!” And you wondered why more fan bases couldn’t care this much. Be this loud.
Maybe the fans who watched their best player and best asset walk for nothing, leaving a hole in their hearts $77 million in cap space could never fill, got it all out — the spitting and yelling and running over jerseys in parking lots and backing up over them to make good and sure.
They seemed happy embarrassing the Maple Leafs 6-1. Maybe they needed this win more than Tavares did.
“I expected it was coming,” said Tavares. “No one’s walked in my shoes. I know that. I was always trying to be open and honest. No one has to like my decision.”
As Tavares spoke, his post-game scrum was momentarily interrupted by a fan who spotted him in the bowels of Nassau.
“John, you suck!” he heckled.
The buzzer had long sounded. History had written its win.
But the guy had paid hard-earned money to speak his pain, and that was his decision.