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Tavares hears Islanders fans loud and clear in return with Maple Leafs

Center relentlessly booed, jeered during first visit since leaving as free agent

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- John Tavares remembers New York Islanders fans at Nassau Coliseum making it hard on opposing players.

Just not like this. 

The Toronto Maple Leafs center returned to the old building on Hempstead Turnpike on Thursday for his first game as a visitor against New York, nearly eight months after he left as an unrestricted free agent to sign a seven-year, $77 million contract with his hometown team.

 

[RELATED: Islanders score six, surge past Maple Leafs in Tavares returnTavares honored by Islanders, jeered by fans]

 

Tavares said prior to the game that he expected to get booed because he knows how scorned the passionate Islanders fans felt. He knows they don't like that he repeated his desire to stay on Long Island throughout last season only to bolt for Toronto on July 1.

He could not have expected it to be as rough and relentless as it was Thursday, starting before he even came onto the ice for warmups and continuing long after the final buzzer sounded on New York's 6-1 win.

This was nothing short of a barrage of disdain from the sellout crowd of 13,917, and it created an energy and playoff-like atmosphere that the Islanders clearly used to their advantage.

They scored six unanswered goals after allowing the first one at 13:33 of the first period.

Video: TOR@NYI: Tavares takes the ice at Nassau Coliseum

"Obviously they have their feelings and that's out of my control," Tavares said.

Tavares heard the fans chanting "We don't want you" countless times, including after each of the Islanders' goals. He heard them calling him names. He saw the homemade signs they held up to the glass that detailed their displeasure. He heard the obscenities and the boos throughout a video tribute that was played midway through the first period.

Tavares said he watched the entire video and thanked the Islanders for putting it together. When the video was over, he came off the bench to applaud the fans as they continued to rain boos down on him.

"I just tried to show my acknowledgement for the support I had for nine years here," he said.

Video: TOR@NYI: Islanders honor Tavares with video tribute

Support was not a two-way street on this night.

The fans continued to ride him in the second period when they chanted "You're a liar." They came up with more original chants in the third, including "Where's your jammies?" That was a reference to the childhood picture of Tavares sleeping in his Maple Leafs bed sheets he tweeted moments after signing with Toronto.

Heck, they were even screaming at him when they couldn't see him, like when he was speaking to the media after the game in front of the Maple Leafs backdrop that was a few feet away from the tunnel the Toronto players used to get to the ice. 

"You know, you must be a real special player and a real special person for them to honor you like that, because they only boo you if you were important," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "For most of us, they don't even know who we were. So what an honor that is."

Video: Discussing Tavares' return to Nassau Coliseum

That's one way to spin it, and there is likely some truth to it, but for Islanders fans - including some who started tailgating in the parking lots nine hours before the game, and some who taped over the "TAVARES" nameplate on their No. 91 Islanders jerseys, with one fan replacing the last name with "TRAITOR" -- Thursday was probably a cathartic experience.

They hated Tavares' decision to leave them and turned to social media to express their feelings. The sting clearly hasn't gone away, and this was their first chance to let him know how they feel in person. 

"Our fans are passionate fans," New York captain Anders Lee said. "You can't blame them for anything."

Tavares hasn't, at least not publicly, since signing with the Maple Leafs. He has instead tried to explain why he left, why the pull to play for Toronto took him away, why it was what he called the most difficult decision he's ever had to make.

"No one has walked in my shoes," Tavares said. "I know that. I just tried to be open and honest. Obviously no one has to like my decision, but I just tried to explain what it is and how I got to that point. It is what it is. I made my decision. I've moved forward."

Maybe moving past this experience will bring some closure to the whole thing. Or maybe this was just the start of how Tavares will be treated every time he returns to play the Islanders, whether it's here, at Barclays Center in Brooklyn or, eventually, at what they are planning to be their new arena near Belmont Park, about 15 miles west of the Coliseum.

"I'm just trying to play hockey," Tavares said. "For everyone else, I can't speak for them."

Clearly he doesn't have to.

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