TORONTO — Milan Lucic still remembers the sweaty palms, the racing mind and the bout of insomnia. His return to Boston after eight seasons with the Bruins was anything but another game on the schedule, and it’s left him empathetic to what John Tavares is experiencing ahead of Thursday’s return to Long Island.
"You try not to think about it, you try to just focus on it like every other game day. You can’t help but think about it," said Lucic. "I remember the first time playing the Bruins [in February 2016] after I got traded and I don’t know how much sleep I got the night before or even the game day nap.
"I think I was just staring at the wall and at the ceiling thinking about the game."
Tavares has one advantage in that regard given that his Toronto Maple Leafs host Lucic’s Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday before closing out a back-to-back against the Islanders. He should be plenty tired when the bus pulls up to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning.
However, there’s an added layer of intrigue to his return because the one-time franchise icon and former No. 1 pick has been painted as a villain by fans in Long Island since deciding to sign a $77-million, seven-year contract with his hometown Maple Leafs on July 1.
A video released by News 12 Long Island on Tuesday included fans calling Tavares a "traitor" and a "snake." There seems to be little doubt he’ll be booed inside Nassau Coliseum despite pleas from Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello and actor/super fan Kevin Connolly, among others, to show the former captain some respect.
"You feel bad it’s come to this," said Oilers forward Sam Gagner, a close friend of Tavares whom he confided in during his free-agent decision. "You see all the things going on [social media]. But the guys that know Johnny, they know it was a tough decision for him."
"You look at JT, I think he made a decision that was best for himself and his career," said Lucic. "When you’re a UFA, you have the right and the opportunity to do that and he felt like he did [what’s best] for himself.
"It looks like it’s working pretty well for him so far."
Tavares is having a career year in Toronto — on pace to surpass his previous bests for both goals and points. He’s an integral part of a young team that should contend for a Stanley Cup throughout the length of his contract.
The Islanders are also having a resurgent season under Lamoriello and new head coach Barry Trotz, surprisingly leading the Metropolitan Division alongside Washington. But the team’s success hasn’t quelled the anger of a fanbase that was stunned by his decision to leave after nine seasons.
If you’re without a rooting interest, you can understand why Tavares chose Toronto over the Islanders, Sharks, Lightning, Bruins and Stars. It gave him the chance to join Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly before any of those players had reached the peak of their careers.
"I think, in the end, people can talk about whatever they want, but he came to Toronto because of the players that were here," Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said last month. "I don’t think [there’s really] any other reason. The organization, I think, is sound and we’ll continue to try and improve, but the ability to play with those players for a long stretch was the key."
Each of those players had a hand in recruiting Tavares and will try to help Thursday go as smoothly as possible.
"As teammates it’s our job to make sure that we support him and most of all play well and hopefully get a win," said Rielly.
"It’s definitely one we’ve all had circled on our calendars," added Matthews. "Make sure we get that two points for him."
Lucic noted that he got "Luuu’d" rather booed in his return to TD Garden. His Los Angeles Kings also skated away with a satisfying 9-2 victory that included a goal and two assists from him.
Like many hockey fans, he’s interested to see how things turn out for Tavares against the Islanders.
"I think it’ll be extra special the fact that they’re playing out of Nassau Coliseum instead of down in Brooklyn," said Lucic. "I know the fans will be riled up and geared up for that one."