“You don’t want quiet buildings.” —Barry Trotz
UNIONDALE, N.Y. – Matt Martin blows up a smile bigger than one of his finished checks.
The thoughtful bruiser has just been asked if there might be a little money on the board for this one, the much-hyped John Tavares Return Game at Nassau Coliseum.
“Yeah, probably,” he grins.
Martin, and Leo Komarov, will be skating against their former team Thursday night, too, but the former Leafs’ story barely registers as sidebar-worthy on an evening New York Islanders fans have had circled on their calendars for 243 days, perhaps in blood. Or spit. Or tears. Or imported snake venom.
“They’ll make it hard on him tonight,” Martin assures, “but John is a hell of a player, and he had the right to do what he did. That was the decision he made for himself and his family. As a team, we’ve kinda moved on from that.”
Perhaps no one individual can offer quite the balanced perspective of the J.T. “homecoming” that Martin can.
Martin has played for both organizations, including stints with the Isles both with and without Tavares. Tavares, a friend, spoke to Martin in advance of his decision to get an understanding of what goes on behind the Leafs’ closed doors.
Martin knows what it’s like to take a Mitchell Marner pass and a Mike Babcock earful, what it’s like to wonder how long the commute to a Brooklyn basketball arena will take him or how long Garth Snow will take to build the kind of winning culture Lou Lamoriello can seemingly establish overnight.
So, let’s let Martin explain the sense he has surrounding Thursday’s potentially toxic, hopefully cathartic affair from here (edited for clarity):
WHAT THE FANS’ MIGHT BE THINKING…
“They’re passionate, for sure. They care about this team. The situation in front of us right now, they just felt hurt by it all. Johnny was here for nine years and was the face of the franchise.
“When he first got here [in 2009], we went through some dark days. There wasn’t a lot of fans in the building. The organization wasn’t in a good place. Then he gets drafted and there’s some hope. A few years, we make the playoffs and things are looking bright.
“Y’know, we all kinda came up together, me, John and a lot of guys in this room.
“He was the next big thing. He poured his heart out into this organization for nine years. They watched him grow, watched him become a star.
“Then he leaves.
“Rightfully, people are able to feel upset about that. They’re passionate about the team. The Islanders fans are very supportive of me, and I know they were of him as well. They just felt hurt by it all. That’s totally within their right.
“Fans are entitled to have their opinions and feel however they want to feel about things. There were some dark days. When he was drafted, I think it wasn’t easy for them watching him leave.
“I expect they’ll be hard on him tonight, and I’m sure he expects they’ll be hard on him tonight. Inside of hockey, that’s all great. Fans boo — that’s all fine. Some of the other stuff? That’s whatever.”
WHAT THE ISLANDERS ARE THINKING…
“He’s happy where he is in Toronto, and we’re happy with where we are in the standings [first in the Metropolitan Division]. We’ve moved on from him, and he’s moved on from us. Tonight is just another big hockey game for our team. We need to get a win.
“I don’t think I really care about all this. For us, we’re just worried about winning games. We’ve put him leaving behind us a long time ago. We want to beat ’em for sure, but we want to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, climb in the standings and ultimately win a Stanley Cup.
“All this stuff that’s isolated the game, all the stuff you [media] guys are talking about, we’re not worried about it. We’re worried about playing well and structured and getting back on track because we haven’t been our best lately.
“In terms of the players, a lot of guys had something to prove. You guys know my situation. Leo in the playoffs not playing. Can Barzy [Mathew Barzal] be a star without John? Bails [Josh Bailey], Leezy [Anders Lee] … a lot of stories like that throughout the room. As much as John leaving was hard, it was an opportunity for guys to show their worth in a different way and step up. This has been a team-oriented a season as I’ve ever been a part of: four lines, six D, two goalies. It’s been a positive year overall.”
HOW TAVARES MIGHT TAKE A HOSTILE HOMECOMING…
“I would imagine he’s been booed in other arenas before. We want our crowd to make it hard on opposing teams any night, and they do a pretty good job of that.
“He’s one of the best players in the world for a reason. He’s been through all different types of adversity and situations. As a team, we need to be hard on their entire team. I was over there. They’ve got a lot of talent and high-end players. It’s going to be a battle.
“It was a decision that was completely within his rights. I know for certain that he loved it here and really cared about this team and trying to win. Didn’t happen. Obviously, he’s found himself a new situation.
“Tonight’s going to be a fun one. For sure.”