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July 18, 2018

Through The Eyes of The Faithful

Nick Leddy, with a full head of steam, is streaking down the right wing as the Islanders start to enter desperation mode.

Down 1 goal in game 6 of the first round with the New York Islanders up in the series 3-2 against the Florida Panthers. Leddy approaches the net and throws the puck out in front as he’s about to wrap around. There is a crazy, suspenseful battle going on in front of the net as Nikolay Kulemin picks up the loose puck and directs a backhand rebound towards a sprawling Roberto Luongo, who makes an incredible save…… Or so we thought. With Luongo sprawled out on his belly, John Tavares comes striding in, almost as if he couldn’t believe what he saw, the puck just sitting next to Luongo uncovered with a wide open net and no defenders in sight. John Tavares ties the game at 1 with 53.2 seconds left and the Islanders avoid a plane trip to Sunrise Florida for a bit longer as we are heading into overtime, and, eventually, a second overtime.

With nearly 30 minutes of OT hockey played between the Panthers trying to keep their playoff hopes alive and the Islanders trying to win their first playoff series in nearly 23 years, it all finally comes to an end. John Tavares, the man drafted number 1 overall in the 2009 NHL draft to be the franchise player, has finally become the franchise’s hero. At the 9:19 mark of double overtime, John Tavares snaps a shot off Luongo’s pads, picks up his own rebound which bounces right back to him as if the hockey gods were telling him “this is your team, this is your moment,” wraps around the net and shovels in a backhander. The crowd went absolutely berserk. There was family hugging family, friends hugging friends, boyfriends hugging girlfriends, and hell, even strangers hugging as if they’ve been best friends for years. The curse has been lifted, we finally won a playoff series for the first time in 23 years when it looked like at times it would never happen again. You have to understand, for the younger generation of this fan base, that was the biggest moment in our hockey lives since the Shawn Bates penalty shot in game 4 of the 2002 quarterfinals….. and we ended up losing the series. Safe to say we didn’t have a lot to cheer for. But that all changed.

We have finally found The Guy. The one that was going to turn this franchise around. The one that was going to go down as an Islander legend. The one that was going to open up our new arena in Belmont and who would eventually have his blue and orange 91 hanging from the rafters. Well, on July 1st, 2018, everything Islanders fans were feeling on that beautiful April Sunday night made a complete 180.

As you all know by now, John Tavares has picked up and moved north to fulfill a childhood dream of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs (man that is even extremely difficult for me to type). Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Tavares is a traitor. I’m not here to call Tavares a snake, burn his jersey, or curse him out (if you asked me a couple of weeks ago I would be saying differently). I’m just simply here to explain why Islanders fans are as upset as they are from the point of view of an Islander fan.

You might not want to know our point of view, or just frankly don’t care because you won “the prize” of free agency (which is 100% understandable). You might even call me a baby and tell me to suck it up or grow up. All of that is fine, but I just feel like it is important to at least see the other’s point of view. Whether you care or not is completely up to you.

Why are we so mad, salty, butthurt, or whatever adjective you want to throw in here, about Tavares leaving?

Simple, it’s because he put us fans and the organization through a roller coaster ride for the last 2 years. Now before you all start yelling at me with “They missed the playoffs the last two years and he never got any supporting cast and they only made the playoffs 3 times in his 9 year career with the Islanders!” Let me be very clear here: There is not a single Islanders fan, including myself, that is mad at the fact that Tavares left for a potentially better chance at winning. Not one.

In fact, Islanders  fans all season long were saying that he was going to leave and that we wouldn’t blame him if he left an organization that has given him zero help in his nine years on Long Island. Trust me when I say this; Garth Snow, Charles Wang, and to some extent, John Ledecky ultimately get most of the heat for what went down on July 1st.

But it was how Tavares handled it that has such a sour taste in most Islanders fans mouths. It for sure left a bad taste in my mouth.

Like I mentioned before, it all started 2 years at a Blue Jays game when Tavares did a Sportsnet radio hit with host Andrew Walker. Walker asked Tavares about the possibility of him joining the Maple Leafs when his contract ended with the Islanders. You can look up the interview for yourselves, but the extent of Tavares’ answer stated

I would not count on that. I think I’ve shown my commitment, my appreciation and my desire to play on Long Island. Being from Toronto, people are always going to make that connection and it is what it is. That’s nothing I can control.

A couple of weeks later, he told Islanders beat writer, Arthur Staple, the same sentiments about his love for the Islanders. Those were extremely refreshing to hear. Hearing a player of that caliber, a franchise player, reassuring everyone that he loves playing for a franchise that gets so much heat. That constantly gets that bashing of No one wants to play for the Islanders, No one wants to live on Long Island and Who wants to be a part of that circus? Hearing something like that coming from Tavares was exactly what the fan base needed. We were set, we were on top of the world thinking that we had our franchise player locked up for the remainder of his prime years. The same franchise player that lifted the curse of the first round.

Fast forward to the 2017-2018 season, better known as Tavares’ contract year, the tone still hasn’t changed, despite missing the playoffs the past 2 seasons. Throughout his contract season John Tavares always made the same reassurance. In June of 2017, John Tavares was on WFAN (a NY Sports radio station) stating that he wants to stay on the Islanders. In July of that same year, Tavares told Arthur Staple that he hopes to stay on Long Island (he actually said IN Long Island, but I hate when people say that). In August, he told TSN that “I’ve enjoyed my time as an Islander and I want that experience to continue.”

Now you might be thinking “Yeah, well, the Islanders were awful last season. He probably just changed his mind as the season played out.” Now I would have definitely thought the same thing too had Tavares not said the complete opposite throughout the season. Leading up to the NHL trade deadline, Tavares’ words have not changed. In fact, he was even more reassuring to the fan base than he was 2

years ago. Stating over and over again that he wants to remain a New York Islander, how much he loves playing on Long Island, and how much he’s enjoyed his time. He went as far as to say that he’s never thought about playing for anyone else except for the Islanders and on top of that, asked General Manager, Garth Snow, not to trade him at the deadline?! I remember thinking, “There is not a chance that he’s leaving us.”

But as the days went on and the June 30th deadline for the Islanders to qualify for an 8th year (the most likely way Tavares was going to come back) had arrived, things started to look worrisome, feelings started to change amongst the fan base, myself included. Hour after hour we are being told that all 6 teams that Tavares has met with (Islanders, Sharks, Maple Leafs, Bruins, Lightning, Stars) are all still in it. Ok, now what? He has to make a decision soon right? He has to at the very least let the organization know one way or the other before the 12:00 deadline right? But the time kept going, the hours kept passing and now it’s the final hour. 11:00 PM, June 30th and all six teams still reportedly in the mix for Tavares’ services. Even though the Islanders were technically still in it, it was becoming a popular consensus amongst the fans that Tavares will not be coming back. We all pretty much knew earlier in the day that he wasn’t coming back, but all we wanted was for the report to come out. The tweet that reads, BREAKING: John Tavares will not be re-signing with the New York Islanders. Nope. Nothing. None of that happened. Fans went to sleep and woke up the next morning with more reports that all six teams were still in the mix. Not. A. Chance. It wasn’t until about 11:00 AM on July 1st, free agency day, where news broke out that the Islanders were no longer in the running and shortly after that, that Tavares will be signing with the Maple Leafs…… And to make it worse, for less money.

Not a single word before the deadline from the face of the franchise. The hero, the savior, all those things us fans thought about him no longer than 2 years ago, have all disappeared. All of those memories he gave us these past 9 years was no more. And for the younger generation of this fan base, the ones born after the dynasty years, John Tavares was the greatest thing that happened to us in our Islander lives. Now he is just, gone. An organization that has had their fair share of players like LaFontaine, Tonelli, Neiderreiter and Vanek that went off and not to mention the number of players over the years that had the Islanders on their no trade list or just didn’t want to come here (most recently Erik Karlsson). None of that compares to what happened a couple of weeks ago, simply for the fact that he just ran out the clock.

Don’t even get me started about the picture he tweeted not 10 minutes after signs with the Maple Leafs. It’s hard for fans to believe that he hasn’t been thinking about playing for the Leafs for a while now. He could have at the very least played the whole situation down the middle. He didn’t have to say all of those things if he was having thoughts about joining the Maple Leafs. Because, from how everything played out, it’s extremely difficult for us to believe that he hadn’t had those thoughts for some time.

I don’t think fans will ever forgive him for it, to be honest. They might get over it, but they won’t forgive. I didn’t think I would be able to forgive either… Not until he wrote the Players Tribune Article. That might have eased the pain for some fans as it did for me. It was definitely nice closure for the fan base. If you haven’t checked it out, I highly recommend it.

For me, it changed my whole point of view of the situation. Maybe he really did need all that time. Maybe he really was torn between going back home with a young team that has already established success with an actual starting caliber goalie, and the team that drafted him as an 18 year

old kid with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft. Maybe bringing in Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz did sway Tavares into staying when most thought he was long gone before the hirings. That article was everything we needed to hear at the time. It came a little later than what all of us fans would have liked, but beggars can’t be choosers and I appreciate it nonetheless.

All-in-all, I don’t know if John Tavares will ever come across this, quite frankly I don’t really care if he never does. I still want to say thank you for all of the great memories. Thank you for all of the great times these past 9 years, no matter the bad, and I mean bad records. I’m sorry we couldn’t help you out more and I wish you success in your next chapter with the Toronto Maple Leafs. I can’t say I wish you win a cup and I can’t say I won’t be booing you whenever you’re in town. But that’s just the nature of the game and I wish you success nevertheless.

As for the Islanders, and I am in no way saying they are cup contenders this year or will even make the playoffs, but I think they are in great hands with Mathew Barzal aka That kid who won the calder. The pieces are in place with Barzal, Leddy and up and coming star potential Ryan Pulock, along with a potential steal of a draft in the past draft with Oliver Wahlstrom, Noah Dobson, and Bode Wilde. The future is looking really bright and the Islanders could be a team to reckoned with for years to come. But any Islanders fan can tell you that we’ve all heard that before.

Follow Brian Serviss on Twitter.

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