Islanders fans setting unforgettable stage for Tavares’ return

HC analyst Brian Burke joins the Starting Lineup to discuss a couple important things people are overlooking when assessing the Maple Leafs chances in a playoff series against the Bruins this time around.

UNIONDALE, N.Y. – Kelly and Spence Capotosto rarely miss New York Islanders games.

But even though they’ve met John Tavares, had jerseys signed by him and cheered him on for nine years, they can’t bear to attend his homecoming of sorts Thursday night.

“It’s going to be too much like a UFC crowd,” said Kelly, 46, of the bloodthirsty mob she expects will congregate at Nassau Coliseum to jeer Tavares.

“I don’t like the way he conducted himself and left at the end at all, but I don’t want to see the booing and people talking over the game.”

A capacity crowd of 14,500 will indeed fill the seats in the grand old barn Tavares plied his trade in as captain until July 1 when he chose to sign a seven-year, $77-million deal with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.

And the natives are restless – eager to share their displeasure with the way they felt Tavares led them on before tweeting a childhood picture of him sleeping in Leafs bed sheets, proclaiming, “Not everyday you can live a childhood dream.”

In the lead-up to his first game as a visitor here, the fans have written letters, filmed a Dear John video and defaced his jersey.

On Thursday night they’ll get their chance to vent in person.

“Pajama boy is gonna get exactly what he deserves from us,” spat Joe Bucca, who was wearing a No. 91 jersey at Tuesday’s Islanders game against the Flames with “TRAITOR” splashed across a duct-taped name bar.

“Every time he touches the puck we’ll let that traitor know you can’t treat New Yorkers that way. You can’t lead us down the garden path and say you want to retire an Islander and then pull the rug out from under us. Actually, I can’t talk to you anymore because I have to rest my voice for him.”

If the passion of New York’s sports fans was ever in question, the Dear John video pieced together by News 12 Long Island with jilted fans sending messages to their new enemy quelled any doubts.

“You went from being the saviour, the captain, the chosen one, to a lying snake,” said Matt Taub, fighting back tears.

“You can count your money in Toronto while we sit in first place.”

While it’s all clearly over the top, the emotion in the video and on the concourse of the Coliseum is very real, setting the stage for a return few will forget.

Security will be on high alert as many are worried it will turn into an ugly scene, prompting the Leafs to forego staying at the Long Island Marriott across from the stadium, where most teams stay.

“I’m anticipating a pretty wild crowd and a great atmosphere,” said longtime Islander Thomas Hickey, who attended Tavares’ wedding in the summer.

“We’ve got passionate fans and they’re going to be ready. The biggest thing at the end of the night is who is going to win, but I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of stuff in between. Our fans will get up for this one.”

While Hickey said he and many of his teammates defend Tavares’ rights and decision to ply his trade elsewhere, he’s also sympathetic with the locals who felt Tavares strung them along until signing day.

“Of course they’re sour – I understand both sides,” said Hickey, who called Tavares a great friend and teammate.

“I can understand being upset because once you know our fans they are loyal and passionate and you’re either with them or against them. I respect that side of it too.

“As a player you can see both sides of it and understand both of them.”

Tavares reiterated earlier in the week he loved his time as an Islander but realized he was probably in for a rough ride.

Predicted by many to finish last in the league in Tavares’ absence, the Islanders has flourished under the guidance of new GM Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz. Fans are thrilled by the unexpected development of seeing the revamped club leading the Metro division, but it doesn’t take away from their fury.

Lamoriello took to the radio Tuesday to try calming the masses.

“He had every right to make the decision that he did to go and to go to free agency, and I respect that,” said the Islanders’ president and general manager on WFAN, adding he hopes Tavares’ reception isn’t filled with vitriol.

“Let’s put it this way: I hope it’s rethought. I hope it’s the respect he should be getting. I do understand the passion that the fans have… We’re talking about a quality human being who served his years here extremely well, and I hope that’s taken into consideration.”

Sweet Lou had his fingerprints all over the team’s decision to try shielding players from the distraction by canceling a scheduled skate at the team’s practice facility at the last minute and not making players available to the media.

“I think everybody is anticipating the game – definitely one that’s been circled on the calendar,” said Islanders veteran Andrew Ladd.

“Time will tell in terms of the reception that he’ll get. From my standpoint he did a lot of good things there. A true professional and everything he did was for the team.
He was involved in the community and was a great teammate. It’s part of the game. I went through it myself in terms of you get to free agency and you earn that right.”

Coach Trotz shrugged off the drama, suggesting his team meeting Wednesday revolved around keeping the players focused on the two points at stake against Toronto.

“Tomorrow is a big deal – John was the face of the franchise for a long time and he earned the right as a free agent to move on. I did it in Washington,” said Trotz.

“Obviously it will be an emotional night for John and people who have been on the island for a while as fans. Hopefully there’s a lot of energy helping us.”

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Former Islander and longtime Tavares teammate Travis Hamonic urged fans not to overlook all he did for the organization on and off the ice.

“I trust people are going to be receptive to him, knowing how much work he put in and how much he cared about being as Islander,” said the Flames defenceman. “The work John did off the ice – he would do so many things that no one would even know he was doing. John took care of a lot of people. He’s a special person.

“He’s also someone who is so focused I don’t think it will bother him. I don’t think he’ll hear any of the noise. Stuff rolls off his back pretty quickly.”’

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