Am I having a breakdown?
It was morning in Mississauga, maybe 10 a.m., when it hit me.
I was in the backyard by the pool with my fiancée, Aryne. The whole morning, I’d been out there, just wandering around, in this cloud of my own thoughts — almost like a nervous kid backstage before a school play, trying to keep track of his lines. Just pacing and thinking, pacing and thinking, for hours. Going over everything … again and again.
And then suddenly I lost it.
I’m not trying to sound dramatic — that’s just actually what happened. I just sort of …. lost it, you know? I collapsed onto the couch that we have out near the pool. And I just started lying there, becoming more and more overwhelmed. Not even thinking, really, but more like … whatever comes after thinking. I was panicked. I felt frozen.
Because it was at that moment, I think, that it finally just hit me. It finally just hit me that I’d taken all the meetings. I’d weighed out all the pros and cons. I’d had all of the conversations with family and friends. It hit me that I’d slept on it … showered on it … eaten on it … flown across the country on it … and now I’d paced around the pool on it more times than I could count. It hit me, in other words, that I had done everything there was to do except make a decision.
But I just couldn’t.
I don’t even mean that I couldn’t decide — because I think at some point that morning, I had decided. Deep down, I think I’d come to realize where I was going to play hockey next season. But there’s deciding … and then there’s making a decision. And it was that very last part that — man. For some reason, I just literally, physically could not do it.
Which is how I wound up on the couch, in our backyard, asking my fiancée if I was having a breakdown.
Fortunately Aryne is amazing, and understanding, and was there to listen and help me trust what my instincts were telling me — and eventually I was able to figure things out. I wasn’t losing it. I wasn’t having a breakdown. I was just in the middle of what was a truly life-changing decision. I was being pulled in two opposite directions, by two powerful forces — both of them incredibly close to my heart.
The first force, you’ve probably heard about. It’s the one bringing me back home: I’ve signed a long-term contract to play for the Leafs. As an Ontario kid, there’s just no two ways about it — this really has been a childhood dream.
But it’s the second force pulling on me that I can’t seem to shake — and it’s the reason why I wanted to write this letter: my real, honest, still-there love for the New York Islanders hockey franchise.
And my not wanting to leave.
If that sounds like a contradiction to you, then, listen — I get it.
But I hope you’ll still hear me out.
Because for as much talk as there’s been lately about how I “grew up” in Toronto … here’s the truth: When I joined the Islanders, in 2009, I was just a 19-year-old kid — and it’s pretty crazy, looking back on it, how much life has happened to me since then. How many ups, and downs, and in-betweens I’ve experienced over these last nine years. So when people ask me where I’m from, you know, of course that’s easy — I tell them Toronto.
But when they ask where I grew up?
To me, that’s a little more complicated.
You have to understand that the Islanders … they didn’t just draft me, and toss me some skates, and that was that. They also protected me. And I don’t mean “protected me” like I was just some asset, either. They really raised me, in a lot of ways. They protected me like I was family — like I was their own kid.
You have to understand that the Islanders … they didn’t just draft me, and toss me some skates, and that was that. They also protected me.
It was the little things, I think.
I remember on my draft night — it’s actually a pretty good story. So I get picked No. 1, and of course there’s the whole deal: walk up there, shake the Commissioner’s hand, shake Garth Snow’s hand, go through the media carwash, the photos, the interviews, you know, all of that. And it’s amazing, it’s a huge rush. But when you go No. 1, it takes a while. And so by the time we finish, they’ve actually gotten all the way to the 18th pick — the Canadiens are now on the clock.
Anyway, my media stuff ends, and my head is just spinning. I’m not even sure where to go next. And what I remember so vividly is this guy from the Islanders p.r. team, Kimber Auerbach — I think he could sort of tell that I’m getting a little lost in the chaos of it all. So he puts his hand out to introduce himself, real calmly, and he’s like, “John? Kimber. Alright, John — we got this. Follow me and you’re good.”
So we make our way through the backstage area, then up around toward the concourse by concessions, on our way to meet some more of the Islanders’ people. And like I said — by now it’s already the 18th pick. Montreal is up. Except … well, there’s only one, small problem with that.
We’re in Montreal.
“With the 18th pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, the Montreal Canadiens select…..”
Kimber’s ears perk up — and suddenly he starts scanning around the concessions area like he’s Jack Bauer or something. He finds this random maintenance closet, then opens it (somehow?), and shoves us both in there.
I’m totally confused. I’m like, “Sorry — what? What’s going on?”
But Kimber doesn’t even say a word. He just gestures silently, like, Wait for it….
And that’s when I realize what’s happening. As soon as the Canadiens make their pick, basically the entire freaking arena pours out into the concourse. It’s seriously like a stampede to the beer lines and the bathrooms. And I’m not even that famous or anything … but still. I’m rocking the Draft hat and an Isles jersey over a suit, you know? So you’re gonna put two and two together pretty easy. I would have gotten mobbed. Anyway, Kimber and I are standing in total silence — and it has to be one of the most surreal moments of my life. On one hand, I’m trapped in this … broom closet in Montreal, trying not to make a sound. But on the other hand, I’m staring down at this official Islanders crest … stitched on my official Islanders sweater … and thinking, Man, wow — this is it. I’m a New York Islander.
So many people in the organization took me under their wing, in so many different ways.
There was Scott Gordon, my first coach with the Isles, who made my transition into an NHL player so much easier than it could have been. There was Jack Capuano, who came in after Scott, and was one of the key guys, really, in helping me take everything to that next level — first as an All-Star caliber player, and later as a leader worthy of wearing that “C.” And then obviously there was Doug Weight, who, you know — it’s crazy how many hats Dougie has worn during my time on Long Island. He was our Captain, my rookie year, and our Head Coach, my final year … and for me, thankfully, I can also add “landlord” to that list. Yep — Doug didn’t just take me under his wing as a young player. He and his wife, Allison, literally took me in, and gave me a place to stay. It was a family away from my family, and a home away from home. I was pretty lucky. (The next time I write something, remind me to tell you the story of how I borrowed one of Dougie’s Range Rovers — and then was almost late to my very first NHL game. Let’s just say it was the first and last time that ever happened.)
If you take away one thing from my time on Long Island, though, honestly — please let it be this: I came across some of the best teammates in the world. I’ve had so many heart-to-heart conversations with Kyle Okposo over the years that had nothing to do with hockey … and I’ve always felt like I could trust him with anything. If I have a daughter one day, I hope she marries someone like him. And then as for the other guys, seriously — if we went through everyone who made an impact on me, as an Islander, I think we’d be here all day. So I’ll just name a few more: Matt Moulson. Frans Nielsen. Cal Clutterbuck. Josh Bailey. Ryan Strome. Colin McDonald. Mark Streit. P.A. Parenteau. Just unbelievable human beings. All of their friendships are irreplaceable. (And it wasn’t just the guys I played with on the ice, either — it was the entire staff, from our coaches to our trainers to everyone behind the scenes, who made my life easier on a daily basis, and allowed me to be the best person and Islander that I could be.)
Then there’s Garth, of course, who drafted me, and, man … you know what: I could really just say I owe Garth everything, and leave it there. But one specific thing that I always think of, when I look back on what Garth did for me during my time here, is the way that he always made sure I got to be one of the boys. He knew I was in a unique situation, with these big-time expectations and this bright spotlight. But Garth just always made sure, you know, even with those things just being a fact of life for me, that I still got to grow up at a normal pace. That I still got to become comfortable in my own skin, and mature in my own way. And that’s just the kind of thing that, honestly — that’s bigger than hockey to me, bigger than this business. Garth … I mean, the guy had a teenage kid’s entire future in his hands, pure and simple. And he took such great care of me.
I’ll never forget it.
I also leave knowing that the future is bright. The new regime has done amazing things in their hockey careers, and they’ll continue to push the team forward. I know firsthand how good Barzy (a.k.a. “The Kid”) is going to be for this franchise, because he’s not only a great player, but he’s a great person as well. And I was fortunate to play with a lot of great linemates, most consistently Josh Bailey and Anders Lee. I know with those guys and the rest of the talent and character in that locker room, good things are on the horizon for this team.
And then the last person I wanted to thank here … well, I guess you could say it’s more like thousands of people. Or honestly maybe it’s more like millions, I’m not even sure — it definitely felt that way, on a lot of nights. But however many there are, they’re by far the biggest reason that I wanted to write this letter.
I’m talking about Islanders fans.
My first couple of seasons in the league, we were really piling up some losses … and if you were just paying attention to the highlights and box scores, I don’t think there was exactly a lot to get excited about. But I guess this is that cliché on how, you know, “that’s why they play the games” — because if you actually went to some of our home games back then, I swear, it was like this whole other story. The fans, man, they’d be going nuts. It didn’t matter if we were 5, 10, 15, 20 points out of the playoff race … didn’t matter if it was November, December, January, February, March, whenever. Our fans would be out there for us, cheering us on, and acting like it was Game 7 of the Cup Final.
And you have to understand: When that sort of thing happened at the Coliseum, it was just … different from how it would happen anywhere else. The way the fans were right on top of you — and I’m talking, like, right on top of you. The way there were hardly any corporate seats, and the entire arena was just basically one big lower bowl. When you get cheered with that level of intimacy, that level of diehard pride — it’s weird, but, I’m telling you: Something really does happen to you as a player. It’s like you’re almost held accountable, you know? I mean — who’s taking the night off, in that environment?
The passion was just contagious.
Our nickname for our fans became “the Faithful” — I’m not sure how it got started, but it just seemed to fit. You had this group of fans who had clearly seen it all … seen the basement, seen the Cup … and had just sort of decided, at some point, that they were in it for the long haul. I’ll never forget the times when I came home from the rink, after a big win, and telling Aryne how it felt like the roof was going to blow off the building. Moments like my first NHL game against Pittsburgh … our playoff series against Pittsburgh … our playoff series against Washington … our countless rivalry games against the Rangers … and of course our playoff series win over Florida. Those are memories that I’ll never let go of.
And what I eventually came to realize, I think, as I spent more and more time with the franchise — was the degree to which its fan base, the Islanders Faithful, really does consider itself to be a family. And I came to realize how truly special that is: I mean, just think about it — you’ve got your fans who were there from the start, in the ‘70s. And then those fans probably raised kids as Isles fans, who came up during the Cup runs, in the ‘80s. And then those kids probably raised their kids as Islanders fans, who came up in the 2000s. And then maybe those kids have even started to raise their kids as Isles fans by now — kids coming up during my own time with the team.
And then pretty soon, I don’t know — it’s like you look up into the stands one night, and suddenly it just … man, it really does hit you: what a community this place is, in every sense of the word. You’ve got grandparents there with their grandchildren … parents there with their kids … young couples there on first dates … old couples there for, like, 40th wedding anniversaries … just this amazing sense of tradition. And then on top of that, everyone there is also somehow all there together, in a way, as part of an even larger tradition — as part of this … I don’t even know … one, big, crazy, perfect, Long Island thing.
And anyway, like I said: I really just wanted to take a second here and say thank you for letting me be a part of it. Because I’ve been lucky enough to have had a lot of really cool experiences so far in my hockey career. But few of them will ever come close to how lucky I am to have gotten to spend all of these years playing for all of those generations of all of you Isles fans.
For all of the Faithful.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I should include this next part.
I won’t be offended if any of you skip it.
But a lot has been made, over the last couple of weeks of this process, about my having grown up a Leafs fan — and I feel like I owe it to you all to at least explain (beyond some tweet, or sound byte, or someone else’s article or whatever) what that means to me.
And the truth is … it means a lot.
The Leafs weren’t just my first hockey love. They were basically my first human memory.
I’ll never forget it: May 3rd, 1993. Leafs vs. Blues, Game 1, second OT. And of course it all comes down to Dougie vs. CuJo. Gilmour — back of the net … Andreychuk in front with Borschevsky … and there is Gilmour, waiting, waiting … around the net, waiting … HE’S OPEN!! GILMOUR — SOLO JOB … AND HE’S WON IT!!
I don’t even think I was three years old yet for that game. But I can still remember — so exactly — where we were when Doug scored: Just my dad and I, sitting together in front of the TV, all nerves, up on the edge of our seats, on our old couch, way way way past my bedtime. And then the two of us, just — god. Erupting as that puck slipped through. I’m sure I didn’t know any of the rules, or even have the slightest clue of what it all meant. (My guess is that my father just said something like, “OK, Johnny — root for the team wearing white here.”) And it was as simple as that: I was a little kid, wanting to stay up late, taking cues from his dad. But, man — that first cue was all I needed. That game was it for me. I was hooked.
My first time in Maple Leaf Gardens, I think I was six years old — so it was probably around the winter of ‘96. And I just remember walking in … and being speechless. Like, truly speechless — you could have knocked me over with a feather. I was in total awe. You’re going through these hallways … seeing all this memorabilia from the ‘50s and ‘60s … all of these banners, and the old team portraits, and the action shots — and then of course the iconic images of those guys lifting the Cup. There’s almost this, like … glow to it, that you can’t really explain. The whole thing felt holy. It was like going to church.
And then you get to the rink, to the ice … to that first little patch of white that catches your eye through the concourse … and man, I’m telling you: it’s over. Or at least it was over for me. That first trip to Maple Leaf Gardens, with my mom and my dad — that was the day when I think I first sort of saw my future. That was the day when I started to put that puzzle together of, like, OK, this is something beyond very cool. This is something beyond just, you know, being a kid from this city, and loving this team, and watching this game. This is … I mean … this is me, now. This is what I want to do with my life. Right here, in this building, like these guys are doing tonight. Just — that was it. You know what I mean?
I’d played hockey before.
But now I was a hockey player.
So then as far as my Boyhood Leafs Dream goes — just to set the record straight:
I absolutely was “Pajama Boy.”
You know, guilty as charged. And I absolutely deserve every bit of ribbing that I got on that one: I had the pajamas, I had the bedsheets, the blankets, the pillow cases. Man, it was just — it was an absurd, obsessed amount of Leafs stuff. And it was the time of my life.
But I also want to be real here.
I know how serious this decision was, and how many people it affected. I was given the privilege of some first-rate meetings, with some first-class organizations, the Leafs and the Islanders chief among them. These are amazing franchises, top to bottom — and it meant a lot to me for them to pitch me as potentially being a part of their futures.
Which is why I want to say this as deliberately and as clearly as possible: In no way had I made up my mind yet, as far as where I was signing, before I took those free-agency meetings.
In no way.
Has it been a boyhood dream of mine to play for the Leafs? I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t. And was realizing that dream a major factor in my ultimately choosing to sign with the Leafs — even over a franchise that, like I said, in many ways raised me? It was a major factor, yes. But it wasn’t my entire decision. And anyone who claims it was … I’ll just say that they must not know me at all.
I was invested, mentally and emotionally, in considering each meeting on its own terms — and I thought long and hard about my options from every angle. I thought about how the Leafs have a strong, young core that’s accomplished a lot in a short amount of time — and about how they’ve been able to establish themselves in this league as a real contender. I also thought about how the franchise looks to be in great hands with Kyle Dubas, Brendan Shanahan and Mike Babcock: great people with an impressive plan for where this team can go — and an exciting vision for how I can be a part of it.
And then the other truth here is … well, the other truth here is kind of boring: I’m 27 years old. I’ve been in the league for almost a full decade. And after talking with my agent, it became clear that I was going to have this opportunity coming up to sign a pretty significant contract. And I don’t mean to be doom-and-gloom, at all … because I love this game to death, and I’ll play it until they tell me I can’t. But that being said: careers are short. You really can’t take anything for granted in hockey. And just looking at things realistically, this will probably be the last time that I ever get to be a free agent in my prime — or, in other words, be a free agent with the leverage to truly make my own decision, as opposed to having that decision made for me.
And so when we talk about childhood dreams, I mean … who doesn’t have those. But I also know that I got to sit with some of this league’s model franchises, and talk hockey with them, and take pitches from their leadership — all while knowing that, in the end, at this huge life-crossroads of mine, I was making the most informed decision possible for me and my family.
Like I said, it meant a lot.
I know how this works, though … and I know that my explanations probably still won’t be good enough for some people.
I know there will still be some people who feel I should have been traded — or asked for a trade at the deadline. (I respectfully disagree. I was Captain of the team, and I took that role seriously. My focus was on staying in the moment, and doing everything I could to help the Islanders win.) I also know there will still be some people who think I strung everyone along, throughout my free agency, just to get attention. (I didn’t … and if you know me, this one’s pretty funny.) And I for sure know there will still be some people who think I signed a wink-wink contract with the Maples Leafs, in secret, on Christmas morning of 1997. (Not true, though for the record I would have if they’d offered.)
And I guess what I just wanted to say is: that’s fine.
I don’t even mind at all. I really, truly do understand it. I get the passion, and I get the emotion, and I get the competitiveness and the obsessiveness and I get … all of that. It’s like I said, you know: I’ve been a fan since before I was three years old. I’ve been there.
But it’s also important to me that I don’t sell anyone short, here. It’s why I wanted to write this letter in the first place: so that all of you Islanders Faithful really do know how much I cherished our time together. Because I was born in Toronto — and that’s never going to change. But I grew up on Long Island — and now that won’t change, either.
I want to apologize, from the bottom of my heart, for things not working out — and for the fact that, under my captaincy, we fell short of our ultimate goal. But I gave it all that I had … and I can’t tell you how grateful I am for how you gave me all that you had in return.
Isles fans … thanks for reading, thanks for caring.
Thanks for everything.