Get ready for the boo birds.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs travel to New York Thursday to square off against the Islanders, it will mark the return of John Tavares to Nassau Coliseum, and it’s sure to be one of the most surreal experiences of the 28-year-old’s life. Once the beloved face of the franchise, the captain and so-called savior of the Islanders, Tavares has been vilified, becoming persona non grata on Long Island overnight after making the off-season decision to sign a seven-year, $77-million contract with his hometown team, the Maple Leafs.
In time, it might be possible that wounds will heal and that Tavares will be welcomed back with open arms. It might be possible that Tavares is celebrated for what he did for the organization, what he meant to the team during his nine seasons as an Islander and that the No. 91 will eventually hang from the rafters. But right now? Forget it. Tavares is in for a cold reception, one for which he should steel himself, because you can rest assured that what were once cheers will be replaced with jeers and the boos will almost certainly rise to the level of deafening.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Tavares will get swept up in the moment or distracted by his supporters turned detractors. He’s the type of high-scoring star that doesn’t shy away from the big moments. So, in the midst of the best offensive season of his career, there’s a chance that he does his part to silence the crowd — or spur them towards an even greater show of vitriol, depending what kind of mood the Nassau Coliseum crowd is in tomorrow night — by putting a few points on the board and having his name announced by the scorekeeper, loud and proud for all to hear.
That said, tomorrow’s game will surely differ from other big moments in his career. Unlike the big games he’s played in major junior or internationally, it’s not the stage that will bring the emotion or the pressure. Rather, it will be the return and the reaction.
So, how will Tavares fare? There’s no knowing. But maybe we can get some insight from how other returning stars have been treated by an angry fanbase. Here’s how five notable star players — who’ve either left by way of free agency or a trade demand — have made out upon returning to their former homes:
PARISE’S LONG-AWAITED RETURN SPOILED BY DEVILS
As one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams, the Devils had little choice but to keep Zach Parise through the deadline in 2011-12 despite the fact the captain was on an expiring deal and the two sides had been unable to come to an agreement on a new pact. Parise’s presence was impactful, too, particularly during the post-season, when he put up 15 points, including a team-best eight goals, en route to a Stanley Cup final berth.
That final is where Parise’s time in New Jersey ended, though, as he signed a mammoth 13-year, $98-million deal with the Minnesota Wild days into the off-season, departing the Devils and devastating the fanbase in the process.
As one might expect, his return was met with disdain. He was booed mercilessly by the New Jersey faithful, and it was the Devils that got the last laugh. Parise failed to find the scoresheet — he was originally credited with a goal, but the scoring play was later corrected — and New Jersey downed Minnesota 4-3 in overtime.
SENATORS FANS HEATED AT HEATLEY
Heatley’s first couple campaigns in Ottawa were exceptional, with the Senators steamrolling their way to the Stanley Cup final in his second year with the club. But it was all downhill from there. In the 2007-08 season, Ottawa flamed out of the playoffs in four games and after one more season spent with the Senators, Heatley wanted out. He requested a trade, and before the 2009-10 campaign, he was off to the San Jose Sharks.
Similar to Parise’s situation, Senators fans would need to wait a while before they could voice their displeasure. During Heatley’s first season as a Shark, San Jose didn’t travel to Ottawa. In Year Two, though, the Sharks made a trip to visit the Senators in December and Heatley couldn’t touch the puck without drawing the ire of the entire arena. In the end, it was Heatley who got the last laugh. In a 4-0 blanking of the Senators, Heatley assisted on the second goal of the contest, a power play marker by Justin Braun.
GOMEZ GOES TO RIVAL RANGERS
After bursting onto the scene as the Calder Trophy winner in 1999-00, Scott Gomez had become part of the fabric of the Devils. A deft playmaker and skilled two-way center, he was a fan favorite in New Jersey and one of the centerpieces on a pair of Stanley Cup-winning clubs. But after seven seasons with the Devils, and with his contract up, Gomez went out and landed an absolutely monster deal — a seven-year, $51.5-million pact. That Gomez was deciding to leave the Devils was bad enough. But that he had signed such a deal with the New York Rangers made it that much worse.
Given the two rivals were divisional opponents, it didn’t take long for Gomez to make his way back to his old stomping grounds for a tete-a-tete with his former mates. Little more than four months after putting pen to paper with the Rangers, Gomez lined up against the Devils for the first time in his career. He was serenaded by the fans and the boos rained down, but Gomez wasn’t thrown off in the least. He registered two assists, including the primary assist on the Jaromir Jagr’s game-winning goal.
Speaking of which…
JAGR GETS JEERED BY PENGUINS FANS
Admittedly, there has yet to be a single player of Tavares’ calibre to appear on this list. Jagr bests Tavares in the star power category, though, and one of the game’s all-time greats could probably give Tavares a tip or two about how to handle the inevitable boo birds.
It was during the 2000-01 campaign that Jagr made it known that he wanted out of Pittsburgh. At the time, Jagr was fresh off of three consecutive Art Ross Trophies, but the superstar winger wanted out. It was time for a change of scenery, particularly during some dark days for the Penguins organization. Upon the return of Mario Lemieux to the lineup, Jagr stuck around through the remainder of the 2000-01 campaign, but following the season, the Penguins pulled the trigger and sent him to the Washington Capitals.
How did he fare in his first game back in Pittsburgh? It wasn’t much, but Jagr hit the scoresheet with an assist in what would end up a 4-3 defeat for the Capitals. To this day, there are still some Penguins fans sour about Jagr’s departure.
LINDROS SCORES PAIR AGAINST NORDIQUES
Technically, this wasn’t a return. Lindros didn’t play a single game for Quebec. But it’s the way in which he departed that made him Public Enemy No. 1 among Nordiques fans.
After being selected first overall by the organization at the 1991 draft, Lindros infamously refused to play in Quebec. And with no other option, the Nordiques were left to try to find the best deal possible for the would-be future star. The result was a blockbuster deal that sent, among other assets, Peter Forsberg, Ron Hextall, a first-round pick and $15-million to the Nordiques.
While those pieces would eventually help the franchise — after its move to Colorado, mind you — capture a Stanley Cup, it didn’t ease the pain when Lindros strolled into town and gave Nordiques fans a glimpse of what could have been. In his fourth career game, Lindros shrugged off the boos and scored twice against Quebec.