UNIONDALE, N.Y. — John Tavares knew he would get a hostile reception from New York Islanders fans in his first visit as a visiting player since the former captain left to sign with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent last summer.
"I don’t really expect it to be a very welcoming return," Tavares told reporters Thursday before the Maple Leafs faced the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. "Just going to go out there and play the best that I can. Just worry about what I can control. The game is played between the boards, so I’m just going to go out there and put my skates on just like I have my whole life."
The face of the franchise for nine years after he was selected No. 1 overall by New York in 2009, Tavares repeatedly said during his final season here that he hoped things would work out but wasn’t sure what would happen. He has also insisted he agonized over his decision to leave before announcing it on July 1, the first day of free agency.
"It was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life," he said. "Obviously, it took me some time to do it because of how difficult it was and really not sure what I wanted to do until I made the decision."
Islanders fans have been vocal on social media about their lingering displeasure with his departure, with most saying it is with the way he left after saying he wanted to stay, and not with actually choosing to leave.
The fans booed loudly when Tavares and the Maple Leafs hit the ice for pregame warmups, and several times during their skate. They also serenated him with choruses of "We don’t need you!" and other derisive chants. At least one plastic snake was thrown on the ice and an Islanders jersey was thrown in Tavares’ direction as he left the ice.
The boos and chants returned when the Maple Leafs came back on the ice for the game, and also when Tavares entered play in the opening minute. Fans also booed during a video tribute to Tavares midway through the first period, and again loudly chanting "We don’t need you!" as the video ended.
New York began the day tied with Washington atop the Metropolitan Division with 79 points. The Islanders, who have lost three of their last four, hold the tiebreaker because they have played two fewer games and host the Capitals on Friday night.
Asked what he would say to the fans if he was given a microphone, Tavares said: "I’ve made that message many times. I embraced being an Islander. When I was here, I loved it and gave it everything I had.
"Of course there’s a lot of emotions that go through you, but at the same time I can only control what I can control. I just tried to be open and honest with my decision. So at the end of the day, it is what it is. I’ll just go out there and play hockey and try to help the Maple Leafs."
Toronto, which has won three straight, is third in the Atlantic Division.
Tavares had 272 goals and 359 assists in 669 games in New York. This season, he leads the Maple Leafs with 36 goals and is third with 32 assists.