UNIONDALE, NY — Kiernan Hanrahan was wearing a New York Islanders jersey to a New York Islanders home game, and yet it felt like he was walking into enemy territory.
“We were a little concerned coming in,” he admitted, standing in the concourse at Nassau Coliseum.
That’s because Hanrahan was the rare Islanders fan — heck, maybe even the only one — that dared to wear his John Tavares jersey without any desecration or defacement to Thursday night’s game, Tavares’ first on Long Island as member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. No overwriting the name plate to spell “TRAITOR” or any of the other creative editing thousands of bitter Islanders fans had done that night. He wore his No. 91 John Tavares jersey with the captain’s ‘C’ on it, and wore it proudly.
“We’re here to support him. He’s a huge fan,” he said, motioning to his young son Doran, who was even more valorous in wearing a Tavares Maple Leafs jersey to the game.
Tavares left the Islanders for the Maple Leafs last summer, an Ontario native headed back home on a seven-year contract. “It was rough to see him go,” said Hanrahan. “But my sons play travel hockey. I imagine if it was my son, from Long Island … his dream would be to play for the Islanders. You want to go home. You can’t argue with that.”
Well, you apparently can argue with that if you’re the vast majority of Islanders fans that savaged Tavares before, during and after the game.
The fans who took it personally when Tavares professed a dedication to the Islanders and a desire to re-sign with them, only to change his mind for the chance to play for his favorite team as a child — tweeting, infamously, a photo from his youth in which he slept under Maple Leafs bed sheets.
The fans who have, through the decades, felt the indignity of having their team dismissed as second-rate or disparaged as a feckless franchise 36 years removed from their last bout of relevance; and, thus, the fans who saw Tavares deciding that the Maple Leafs provided him with a better chance to win as another example of that indignity, manifesting in feelings of betrayal and abandonment.
Hence, Thursday night’s 6-1 rout of the Maple Leafs was like a carnival of catharsis for fans who share a complex bond of inferiority. Tavares was the catalyst for that emotional release, and it was absolutely savage.
The first trolling of Tavares was in the location of the game itself. He had always had an affinity for the Coliseum, where he played in his formative NHL years before the Islanders moved to Brooklyn. This game was originally scheduled for Barclays Center, but was shifted to Nassau.
Before the game, the parking lot of the old barn was filled with fans expressing their displeasure with Tavares. Jerseys had nameplates made of electrical tape that read “LIAR” and “JUDAS” and “PAJAMA BOY,” a reference to that childhood bed photo. [In reality, Tavares was never photographed in Maple Leafs pajamas. But no one actually said “Play it again, Sam” in “Casablanca,” either. We just accept it as a pop culture given.]
There were signs and towels calling him a traitor. There were rubber snakes, which have become a symbol of his alleged treachery. There were Tavares jerseys laid in the road in the parking lot so cars could run them over; if a car managed to miss it, a fan would politely stop the vehicle, ask it to back up and try again. Some Islanders fans turned their Tavares gear into ash, burning jerseys and shirts in fires inside of small metal drums.
Inside the arena, Tavares was taunted like few players in NHL history could claim to have been taunted by their former fans. It started even before the players were warming up, with fans chanting “We don’t need you” — the Islanders, post-Tavares, are in first place in the Metropolitan Division.
When he came out with the Leafs to warm up, he was booed loudly, and showered with a chant of an anatomical nature. (They also crossed the line in tossing a rubber snake and a jersey at Tavares.)
“Warmups were great. It was a fun atmosphere and we thought it was hilarious,” said Toronto defenseman Justin Holl, who got a smile out of Tavares as the fans taunted him. “I was joking with him. I said, ‘at least they forgot [about you].'”
They hadn’t forgotten about him, and neither had the Islanders. At the 10-minute mark of the first period, the team played a 60-second video tribute to Tavares on the jumbotron. It was completely drowned out by 60 seconds of fan jeers and mocking chants, which reached a crescendo when a card that read “Thank you, John” appeared on the screen.
Despite the reaction, Tavares skated away from his bench and applauded the fans.
“They always made it tough on the opponents. When I played here, they always made it tough on people coming in. So the tribute was nice from the organization. And I gave a token of my appreciation for my nine years here, for everyone that supported me,” he said.
As the score increased, so did the vitriol and creativity of the Islanders fans’ mockery. Here’s a chronological look at their anti-Tavares chants that night:
“We don’t need you.”
“You’re a liar.”
“That’s our captain.” [Which was chanted after Anders Lee, current Islanders captain, scored their second goal, the eventual game-winner.]
“Barzy’s better.” [A reference to Islanders star Mathew Barzal, now the face of the franchise.]
“You can’t beat us.”
“Who’s your daddy?”
“It’s your bedtime.” [A reference to that childhood photo of Tavares under Leafs bedsheets.]
“Where’s your jammies?” [See above.]
“Thanks for leaving.”
I asked Patrick Marleau of the Maple Leafs if he felt bad for Tavares.
“He played here nine years. He obviously made an impression on the fan base. That’s one way to think. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t do anything,” said Marleau. “Knowing John, and knowing all the hard work he puts into everything, day in and day out, you can’t take that away from him.”
That spin was echoed by Leafs coach Mike Babcock.
“You must be a real special player and a real special person for them to honor you like that. They only boo you if they know who you were,” he said.
To an Islanders fan at Nassau on Thursday night, that’s the point: They thought they knew Tavares. They thought the player their team drafted first overall in 2009, who had 621 points in 669 games as an Islander, who professed his dedication to the franchise at every turn — most notably, through the last trade deadline before his free agency — would remain with the team, rather than leave for Toronto.
“No one’s walked in my shoes. I know that,” said Tavares after the game. “I was always trying to be open and honest. No one has to like my decision, but I just tried to explain what it is and …”
Suddenly, an Islanders fan in the section near the interview area offered a loud, jarring parting shot:
“JOHN, YOU SUCK.”
Tavares continued his thought, unaffected:
“So it is what it is. I’m just trying to play hockey. I made my decision. I move forward.”
Perhaps everyone can do the same after this rancorous evening at the Coliseum.