OSHAWA, Ont. — The New York Islanders had their morning skate at the Tribute Communities Centre in Oshawa on Friday morning. That’s because they have a game here Friday night against the Buffalo Sabres.
You probably didn’t know that. In some alternate timeline, it would have been one of the biggest stories and one of the most talked about pre-season games of the night. It still might be, there’s just one person missing.
It was a bit of a running gag that the Oshawa Generals had basically become the New York Islanders’ junior farm team. Their alumni include Josh Bailey, Cal Clutterbuck, Michael Dal Colle, Mitchell Vande Sompel … and, of course, John Tavares.
The prospect of Tavares, former Generals great and ex-Islanders captain, returning to his junior hockey home was meant to be a big draw for the game. Obviously, that’s no longer the case. Tavares signed with the Leafs this past summer.
I first saw this contest advertised at an alumni game between Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens in Oshawa this past winter. Tavares and Clutterbuck were on the marketing material, which made sense. Even then, I thought, “But what happens if Tavares leaves?”
Sometimes when you build something on shaky ground, it falls down. As long as pen hadn’t connected with paper, Tavares not re-signing with the Islanders was a possibility. Sure enough, he didn’t. Tavares’s former Islanders and Generals teammate Calvin de Haan left in free agency as well, going to the Carolina Hurricanes.
It’s a tough draw. The Generals have a road game Friday night against the Sudbury Wolves. The Leafs have a pre-season game in downtown Toronto against Detroit and, ironically, John Tavares will be in the lineup. The other issue is that tickets for the Isles-Sabres tilt are listed at $64.99 to $110 on the Tribute Communities Centre website.
I’ve even heard the Leafs inquired about hosting their own pre-season game in Oshawa, but because this one had already been booked, it was not possible this year.
But as I sat there at the morning skate, I was reminded how cool it is to have an NHL game, even a pre-season one, in a junior hockey town. Ticket holders for Friday night’s game were allowed to attend the Islanders morning skate and about two dozen showed up. Sure, it’s a weekday and kids are at school, but the kids in attendance got a chance to experience something so cool and rare right where they live.
Mathew Barzal took a break from a drill to get into a staring contest with a young fan sitting at the glass. A few minutes later, he tossed that kid a puck. Another child showed up in a Nick Leddy jersey, and after the skate, Leddy even gave him his stick. For any Leafs fans, Leo Komarov and Matt Martin were in attendance, as well. Lots of players, including head coach Barry Trotz, stopped to talk to fans and sign autographs.
Barry Trotz spoke at length about his summer and day with the Stanley Cup following his victory with the Washington Capitals this past June.
Look, I know this game is an easy target for a few jokes. Heck, I made fun of the game on Twitter over nine months ago. Maybe I’m just a sucker for this stuff because it’s happening in my backyard, but regardless of whether or not John Tavares is in attendance, I think any time NHL teams visit a non-NHL city to play a game, it’s a fun time. For the most part, the players understand this is a cool and rare experience and will go out of their way to make it special for fans.
No, Tavares will not be there. But Barzal will be. Bailey, Clutterbuck and Jordan Eberle will be. For the Sabres, Rasmus Dahlin, Jeff Skinner and Casey Mittelstadt will be playing, as well.
The puck drops in Oshawa at 7 p.m. ET.