The Nassau Coliseum will be buzzing on Thursday night, and not necessarily because the Islanders and Maple Leafs will face off in an important Eastern Conference battle. It's because former Islanders captain John Tavares is returning home.
At least, it was Tavares' home for the first nine seasons of his career before making his free-agent decision to sign with the Maple Leafs on a seven-year, $77 million deal this offseason. He was once Islanders fans' pride and joy, but now, he will touch the ice as an enemy.
Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello told WFAN on Tuesday that "I hope that he gets the right reception and is complimented by the crowd for whaty he did while he was here." But Tavares knows that his welcome will be the exact opposite from the fan base that still hasn't gotten over him leaving.
"I don't expect it to be a very welcoming return," Tavares told reporters before tonight's game. "Just going to try to play the best that I can."
As you can see from the video, Islanders fans will definitely let Tavares hear the boos. But at least his former teammates won't be joining in, as Tavares said a few players have reached out to offer their support.
"As I've said, it was probably the hardest decision I've ever had to make in my life," Tavares said. "To have their understanding is obviously very appreciative."
Not to the delight of Islanders fans is that fact that Tavares hasn't skipped a beat this season. His transition has gone smoothly as he leads the Maple Leafs in goals (36), and also has 32 assists on the year for 68 points.
However, the Islanders haven't spiraled out of control from the departure, either. New York is currently leading the Metropolitan Division with 79 points from a 36-19-7 record. The Maple Leafs are third in the Atlantic Division with 82 points at 39-20-4.
(Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)
So Tavares will be battling both a hungry Islanders team looking to continue their playoff push, and the rabid fanbase that will be traveling from all over just to voice their displeasure. Emotions will be swirling, but being the savvy veteran he is, Tavares knows he just needs to lace his skates up and play hockey.
"Of course there's a lot of emotions that go through you, but at the same time, I can control what I can control," Tavares said. "...At the end of the day, it is what it is."
But, even though the welcome won't be what he may have hoped for, Tavares is still extremely thankful for his time on Long Island and leading the Islanders throughout his career.
"It meant the world to me. I always said from my time here it's a great place to play hockey," he said. "I took a lot of pride being an Islander, being a captain. Those nine years I will never forget."