Maple Leafs’ John Tavares not trying to change Islanders fans’ minds

Andreas Johnsson scored two goals and the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Edmonton Oilers.

TORONTO — You really don’t get the sense this return to Long Island carries any extra meaning for John Tavares.

It has been seven months since he signed with his hometown team, tweeting "not everyday you can live a childhood dream" along with that old picture of him sleeping under Maple Leafs bed sheets, and only a scheduler’s quirk has delayed his first visit back to Nassau Coliseum until now.

Thursday’s game will be an opportunity for New York Islanders fans to voice displeasure at their former captain or show some appreciation. What it won’t offer is the chance for Tavares to change history or sway public opinion or better explain a free agency decision that he’s spoken so openly and honestly about since signing his $77-million deal in Toronto.

Over time, he figures, the record will speak for itself. He poured his heart and soul into nine seasons on the Island and then decided to come home to chase the Stanley Cup.

Nothing less, nothing more.

"I don’t really try to worry about it," Tavares said after Wednesday’s 6-2 win over Edmonton. "I mean, like I’ve said many times, since Day 1 when I was drafted there I fully embraced being an Islander. I loved it and I gave it everything I had. Whatever it is now, it’s not up to me to convince anybody of that.

"I’ve got enough to worry about in just trying to play my game and help the Maple Leafs. So, that’s what I’m going to do."

This is a return to the building where he played his first NHL game back on Oct. 3, 2009 and scored his first NHL goal. The place where he celebrated hat tricks and overtime winners and was the toast of a loyal, passionate fanbase that suffered through the ups and downs of failed arena bids, repeated roster mismanagement and an ownership change.

That he’ll receive a hostile reception in his first game back as a visitor isn’t up for debate. There was a "J.T. sucks!" chant there earlier this season in an Islanders game against Chicago.

"The great thing about fans is they pay their money and get to say whatever they want," said Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "He’s a good man, he was good for their franchise, he’s great for our franchise and made a decision to come home.

"I don’t know if anyone can fault you for that."

Tavares understands why some of the people who once stopped to ask him for autographs or photos are now referring to him as a "snake" or "traitor" in nasty online posts.

"Well I left, so…"

But the former No. 1 overall pick with a sterling reputation pushes back against the notion he’s done anything wrong here.

Sure, he repeatedly professed his love for Long Island while playing out the final year of his contract last season. It was how he felt. And it’s not as though the Islanders were left out of the free-agent process, with new general manager Lou Lamoriello getting a dinner with Tavares in Manhattan shortly after he was hired and then being the first of six teams invited to pitch him in the days leading up to July 1.

"Well I mean I had I think every right to go through the process that I went through," said Tavares. "I tried to be open and honest when I made my decision. I had no idea what I was going to do until I made my decision."

The fact he chose to leave guarantees that some fans will never forgive him. That’s part of sports. It’s something that tends to happen with stars in basketball and baseball far more often than in hockey, which is why there’ll be so much attention paid to what happens here.

There will be extra security measures put in place by the NHL in case anyone tries something unsavoury, but the Leafs weren’t worried about safety.

"Lou’s in charge of that organization and he’ll have it buttoned down and there’ll be none of that," said Babcock. "I’m not concerned about that one bit. I’m not on social media 24/7 so I don’t know what everyone’s saying or much care, to be honest with you."

The veteran coach planned to pull Tavares aside for a little chat before heading to the arena. He has some of his own experience in this area after leaving the Detroit Red Wings to sign with Toronto back in 2015 and acknowledges that a return is a little tougher when it involves a city "where you left."

"It’s way easier to go back when they fire you. It’s a fact," he said. "Or if they kick you out of town then no one holds any kind of hard feelings, but that’s life. You make decisions and they get to say what they want."

Tavares has said plenty already — going all the way back to July 1, when he took the unprecedented step of holding a conference call with New York-based reporters to discuss his decision after participating in an introductory press conference in Toronto.

There is little more that can be added after 63 games in Maple Leafs colours. The die is cast.

The 28-year-old has lived up to his monster deal both in production and the example he sets each day, scoring 36 goals and 68 points while playing the fewest minutes since his second year in the league. That’s a product of being part of a stacked forward roster, something he never truly got to experience on Long Island.

There is a touch of irony in the fact the Islanders have finally found some structure under Lamoriello and new head coach Barry Trotz immediately after Tavares left, climbing all the way to the top of the Metropolitan Division through three-quarters of the schedule.

"They deserve a ton of credit," said Tavares. "They’re having a tremendous season. Obviously to go from last in a lot of defensive categories to [No. 1] in pretty much all of them is extremely impressive."

As painful as this break-up may have been, both parties are thriving in new circumstances.

Consider this the next step towards closure and moving on. Whatever happens, no matter who wins or how Tavares plays, the emotions won’t be as raw when the Leafs return to the Island on April 1.

"Well I think it’s something he needs to put to bed and get on with it," said Babcock.

"It’s hard to say really what I’ll feel," Tavares added. "I’m sure it’ll be an emotional evening, but at the same time I want to try to just focus on playing and just go out there and do what I have to do."

That’s what got him here in the first place.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.