'It's extremely raw...and it's going to be raw for a long, long time.' Tavares heads into a hornet's nest tonight in Nassau

It's a return Islanders fans have been waiting for all season long. John Tavares will sit on the visitor's bench inside Nassau Coliseum on Thursday night, and New York faithful haven't gotten over the sting of his departure, nor will they any time soon.
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Wearing your pajamas at any time of the day in public is apparently a thing these days. All the kids are doing it. But when John Tavares makes his first return to Long Island Thursday night as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, fans of the New York Islanders will not be making a fashion statement. By the thousands they’ll be wearing pajamas and the statement will be one of resentment, bordering on hate.

In any event, things will not be pleasant for Tavares Thursday night. The pajama statement is, of course, a reaction to him signing with the Maple Leafs as an unrestricted free agent July 1, then shortly after tweeting out a picture of himself as a child sleeping in Maple Leaf pajamas, wrapped in Maple Leaf bed sheets on a Maple Leaf pillow case.

“It’s extremely raw and unfortunately, I think it’s going to be raw for a long, long time,” said Gary Harding, the executive vice-president of the New York Islanders Booster Club. (Harding’s wife, Claire, is the president and both will be at the game.) “We’re New Yorkers. Here, people don’t forget.”

No kidding. Trashing Tavares has become something of a cottage industry among Islander fans. Two days ago, a local television station ran a piece where Islander fans called Tavares a “lying traitor” and “ a snake.” Harding doesn’t necessarily endorse that kind of visceral reaction, but he understands the genesis of it. What irks, Islanders fans, he said, is not so much that Tavares left, but that he led them to believe he wanted to stay there, then bolted at the first opportunity.

Here’s the thing about fan passion. It’s what drives sports like the NHL. It’s a big part of the reason it has become a $4 billion-a-year business. It’s the reason why The Hockey News exists. And sometimes fans who feel betrayed lash out at the same people they most recently revered. You can bet that Tavares has heard the remarks, but is trying to put them out of his mind. “I don’t really try to worry about it,” Tavares said after a one-goal, one-assist effort in a 6-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers Wednesday night. “Like I’ve said many times, since Day 1 when I was drafted there, I 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 that. I’ve got enough to worry about in just trying to play my game and help the Maple Leafs.”

The Islander fan base might not be enormous in terms of volume, but there is no questioning its passion. In 2002, I watched fans burn a Canadian flag – not a Maple Leafs flag, a Canadian flag – in the parking lot of the Nassau Coliseum after Darcy Tucker knocked Michael Peca out of what was a nasty, nasty, first-round playoff series. There has been talk of the possibility of ugly behavior, something Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello has tried to quell. Harding said he hopes nothing untoward happens, “but that’s my fear.”

Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said that as an organization, he’s not afraid for Tavares’ safety. The league made the schedule long before July 1, but did the Leafs a favor by making this game the second of a back-to-back. That way, the Leafs will be able to skip the morning skate and Tavares and his teammates will be able to hole themselves up in the hotel until game time. “It’s something Tavares has to put to bed,” Babcock said. “The great thing about fans is they pay their money and they can say whatever they want. Lou is in charge of that organization and it’ll be buttoned-down and there will be none of that. I’m not concerned about that one bit.”

Of course, revenge is best served cold and nothing would be sweeter during this surprising season of redemption than for the Islanders to soundly defeat the Leafs. It would also reinvigorate a team that has struggled for consistency of late. (Of course, Tavares could also send the fandom into a mass depression if he were to score a hat trick there, which would give him 39 goals and a career high.) The Islanders do need this win badly and focusing on revenge might take away from the focus they’ll need to win. But Harding acknowledges it would be nice to send Tavares and the Maple Leafs home demoralized.

“Another thing that really pissed people off was that when he had his press conference July 1, he couldn’t even say Mat Barzal’s name and called him, ‘that kid that won the Calder,’ ” Harding said. “It was a total insult to Islander fans’ intelligence. Especially how (Barzal) outplayed (Tavares) at the end of the season and had better numbers than him and he’s ‘that kid that won the Calder.’ I mean, come on.”

All Barzal did in December when the two teams met for the first time this season was score a natural hat trick in Toronto to lead the Islanders to a 4-0 victory. A repeat would be sweet for the Islander faithful. Babcock himself went back to a place where he spent a long time when he returned to Detroit in 2015 after signing with the Leafs, so he knows a little of what Tavares will face. “It’s way easier to go back when they fire you or when they kick you out of town,” Babcock said. “Then no one holds any kind of hard feelings. That’s life and you make decisions. What I’ve always said in my family, ‘If your knees don’t hit the kitchen table, your opinion probably doesn’t matter.”

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