ELMONT, N.Y. — Robin Lehner said it was difficult to keep his emotions in check when he was honored by the New York Islanders with a video tribute in the first period of the Vegas Golden Knights’ 4-3 shootout win at UBS Arena on Sunday.
“It’s so much more than hockey to me, I can’t explain it,” Lehner said. “It’s the love I have for the guys there, this team, the organization, the fans, [how] they helped me with my life.”
It was Lehner’s first road game against the Islanders since he left as an unrestricted free agent following the 2018-19 season, when he was finalist for the Vezina Trophy, which is awarded to the top goalie in the NHL.
That season, Lehner was a huge part of New York’s resurgence, helping it claim home-ice advantage for the first time since 1988 and sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference First Round.
“It’s been a long time,” Lehner said. “I’ve been anxious to get back because I just wanted to show them my appreciation, give back to them a little bit, what they gave to me.”
As the video tribute was winding down, Lehner pointed to the tattoo of Long Island on his neck, a way of thanking the Islanders and their fans for the way they responded after he came clean on the first day of training camp about going to rehab to help deal with mental health struggles that led to suicidal thoughts and drug and alcohol addictions. His mental health issues led to a diagnosis of bipolar I with manic phases.
After the season, Lehner won the Masterton Trophy as the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
“The first exhibition game that I played here right after I released my story, [I received] a standing ovation that I never had before on any team,” Lehner said. “They’ve shown me love since Day One. People think I’m making a big deal out of it, yeah, I am. It’s my life. I can’t express it.
“For the guys, the organization, (Islanders general manager) Lou (Lamoriello), (coach Barry) Trotz, everyone. (Goalie coach) Piero (Greco), especially. They helped me turn it around. I can’t explain it.”
Lehner shaved his facial hair prior to the game as a way to honor Lamoriello, who has a rule requiring players to be clean-shaven during the regular season, and expressed confidence that the Islanders (8-12-6) will find their way back into the Stanley Cup Playoff race. New York currently trails the Detroit Red Wings by 11 points for the second wild card in the East but has played five fewer games.
“I did it for him, no one else,” Lehner said. “I mean, he’s one of the best GMs in the League, I respect him more than most. What a man he is, the same with Trotz. I know they’re going to turn it around. I know they’re going to come back and they’re going to get to the playoffs. I know that group. They’re going to climb back here.”
It appeared as though Lehner would lose his return on Sunday after he allowed two goals in a 3:21 span late in the third period that gave the Islanders a 3-2 lead. However, Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore scored his second of the game with 48 seconds left to tie it.
Lehner then saved all seven shots he faced in overtime before denying Anthony Beauvillier and Oliver Wahlstrom in the shootout to help Vegas (20-11-0) sweep a four-game road trip.
“It was special,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. “A tough, tough game for him to play, obviously. It’s tough I think for a goalie to play an emotional homecoming game, just because of the position. That position is about (being) calm and cool and collected. The emotions kind of play into a player returning because he’s all energy. For a goalie, it’s almost counterproductive. It’s a tough game for a goalie to play in. I thought he battled for us.”
And although Lehner only played one season for the Islanders, the appreciation from the team and its fans has not wavered.
“There’s love for Robin for what he did here,” Trotz said. “That’s commitment when you see the tattoo on his neck, when you see the island, that’s commitment. That’s a love for a fanbase that shows the love back to him.”