Category Archives: islanders

The Islanders: Stranded off the Island?

The people chanted, “Bring them back! Bring them back! Bring them back!”

The New York Islanders were playing at the Nassau Coliseum last Sunday. (The place now identifies itself with one of those bewildering corporate names, but everybody still calls it the Nassau Coliseum.) The game meant nothing—a pre-season skirmish, a one-time-only tease to the traditional fan base more than two years after the team ran away from its home of 43 years.

But the place was packed and it was rocking, alive with the sing-song “Let’s go, Islanders” pleas that go back decades and the more recent, unrestrained “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” goal celebrations. Hours before the game, the Coliseum’s parking lots had been filled with tailgating customers sporting team jerseys.

“Pretty close to what we had in the playoffs,” said the team’s marquee player, John Tavares, comparing the scene to the 2015 post season. “Through the roof for the warmups. The fans here have a tremendous identity and they don’t want to lose hold of that. And the players recognize that.”

That didn’t stop management from opting for greener pastures—that is, greater potential revenue streams—after the 2014-15 season by packing off to Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center. When Barclays’ developer Bruce Ratner subsequently bid to renovate the Coliseum, he secured the lucrative project by promising six Islander games there per season. Soon enough, that bait was switched and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman repeatedly has declared that the Coliseum is “not an option” in the Islanders’ future.

So what, exactly, was the point of Sunday’s event? To give those old paying loyalists one day of throwback atmosphere? To sell more than 13,900 tickets for an event that typically would have drawn no more than 5,000 or 6,000 on a football Sunday afternoon? To offer a genuine gesture of appreciation to so many abandoned customers?

It would be dangerous to rhapsodize too extravagantly about the Coliseum, opened in early 1972 and forever lacking in frills. It was built with $28 million and, even with its $165 million facelift—the slinky exterior is nice enough and the insides have been cleaned up noticeably—there still aren’t enough bathrooms.

The joint still doesn’t offer what the team wants in terms of modern amenities, more space for the one-percenters to lounge in high-end suites and the kind of luxurious locker room that 21st Century jocks have come to expect. (The New York Giants have a practice site dressing room shaped like an enormous football, pointed at each end and wider in the middle, where 10-yard pass patterns could be executed.)

But Barclays hardly has proven to be a better deal for anyone. The majority of Island residents miss their tailgating ritual at the Coliseum, grumble about the inconvenience of alternative travel by train, hate the obstructed views from hundreds of Barclays seats, mock the arena’s off-center scoreboard. Average attendance last season there was 13,101—well short of Barclays’ 17,732 capacity for hockey and a number able to comfortably fit in the supposedly too-small Coliseum.

The players have been unhappy with Barclays’ below-standard ice surface, and all indications are that new management already intends to leave Barclays more than 20 years shy of the team’s original 25-year lease. The plan is to build a new arena near Belmont Race Track, a mere 15 miles from the Coliseum.

Jilted Coliseum patrons might find some hope in the fact that it took eight years, from the initial proposal to opening day, for Barclays to materialize, so even with a Belmont arena soon approved and in the works, the team could be desperate for a temporary landing spot.

Why not the Coliseum, a building without a bad seat and guaranteed a hard-core spectator following that has been all-in on the identity front? Islander fans, like the original Islanders, are anti-big city elites. And proud to use the Islanders—who had been Long Island’s only big-league professional sports team—as proof that the often nondescript suburban sprawl they call home need not remain constantly in the shadow of the Big Town.

For the ceremonial puck drop at Sunday’s exhibition, it was a nice touch to bring back three members from the Stanley Cup years—Clark Gillies, Bobby Nystrom and, especially, Billy Smith. When the Islanders’ first of four championships, in 1980, was called New York’s first since the Rangers’ 1940 triumph, Smith shot back, “The Stanley Cup is not in New York. It’s on Long Island.”

On Sunday, one of those 13,000-plus Long Island fans left behind a sticker on a bathroom stall at the Coliseum that featured the Islanders’ logo and the appeal, “Bring Them Home.“

The Islanders are gone, and so is Al Arbour


The Islanders’ long good-bye to the only home they knew for 43 years, the sprawling New York suburbs that inspired their nickname, feels complete now. Al Arbour is dead.

The team has left for Brooklyn and Arbour, whose adept coaching turned them from expansion ragamuffins to four-time Stanley Cup champions in the early 1980s, is gone at 82, after suffering recently with dementia.

Somehow, the timing seems appropriate. Arbour’s style and the team’s Nassau Coliseum digs were analogous: Humble efficiency. Without showmanship or ego, Arbour molded the Islanders into the best franchise in major-league sports, with five consecutive trips to the Cup finals and 15 playoff appearances in his 19 years behind the bench. News of his death comes as the old Coliseum, never approaching pretentiousness but without a bad seat in the house and with plenty of passion, has been stripped of all banners claiming its tie to the Islanders, awaiting a downsizing to minor-league status.


Arbour, it has been told many times, came to the Coliseum job hesitantly. In 1973, he had his pick to coach either the Vancouver Canucks or the one-year-old Islanders, who had won only 12 games in their expansion season. He was leaning toward Vancouver until Islanders general manager Bill Torrey convinced him that Long Island did not fit Arbour’s perception of a teeming, dirty New York City with tall buildings, a place where he was reluctant to raise his four children.

By the time he retired from coaching in 1994, Arbour had come to embrace the Island as home, far from his birthplace of Sudbury, Ontario, a town founded on the discovery of nickel, across Lake Huron from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He recalled playing hockey on the frozen creeks of Sudbury as young as 7, often with friends against their fathers, and worked for a time in the underground nickel mines.

His dream was to play either professional hockey or baseball—he was a pitcher—and, at 21, got his first NHL experience with Detroit, though he wasn’t on the roster when the Red Wings won the 1954 Stanley Cup. Arbour’s Cup victories as a player came with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1961 and Toronto Maple Leafs in 1962 and 1964.

With the NHL’s first expansion beyond its Original Six teams, Arbour went to the St. Louis Blues in 1967, served as their first captain, and played in three more Cup finals—all losses—during his four years in St. Louis.

It was during the 1970-71 season that Blues coach Scotty Bowman, on the day of a game, called Arbour—still an active player—into his office and appointed him coach. (Bowman said he had to go on a scouting trip and Arbour, later claiming he “didn’t know what the hell was going on,” watched the Blues come from behind to tie Toronto.) By the time he retired, Arbour’s total of coaching victories—782—was second only to Bowman’s in league history.

Never a star player—a defenseman, Arbour scored 12 goals in 626 games over 14 seasons and made repeated trips to the minor leagues—he was known for his savvy and what he called his “claim to fame,” playing while wearing glasses.


That quirk caused Arbour to be christened “Radar” during his rookie season with Detroit by the team’s general manager, Jack Adams. And the handle came to take on added significance because of Arbour’s obvious hockey vision—an ability, his players attested, to see “everything.”

Convinced that new tactics forever were in demand, he once used three left wingers on a forward line; once put a forward in goal in the final seconds to save time sending off the goalie for an extra skater; once yanked a goalie during a first-period power play for a six-on-four skater advantage (which resulted in a goal).

Beyond mere strategy, Arbour was adept at pushing the right psychological buttons, most famously in the 1975 playoff series against Pittsburgh by inviting any Islander lacking belief they could rebound from an 0-3 deficit to leave practice. The Islanders wound up winning four straight and the series.

He was, of course, provided exceptional young talent by Torrey, six of whom became fellow Hall of Famers with Arbour—Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies, Pat LaFontaine, Denis Potvin, Billy Smith and Bryan Trottier. But Arbour clearly knew how to motivate them, and all their teammates.

“My philosophy,” he said upon coming to the Island, “is that some guys need a pat on the back and some guys need a kick in the pants.”

For Long Island sports fans, forever in the shadow of Big Town before the Islanders came, he was a shot in the arm.

Gentrification and the Islanders’ identity

For 43 years, the Islanders-Rangers story has been a hockey version of the old country mouse-city mouse fable. A practical dwelling of simple tastes and no frills (Nassau Coliseum) for one, big-city opulence and celebrity treatment (Madison Square Garden) for the other. But each eventually content with its own lot and the realization that tastes can differ.


Let’s think about this, on the occasion of what may have been the last Islanders-Rangers game—the 126th, lively as ever, going back to 1972—at the country-mouse residence this week. (The rivals could reconvene there in the playoffs, though they haven’t done so in the post-season since 1994.) Next season, when the Islanders relocate to Brooklyn, within the New York City limits, do they—and perhaps more specifically, their fans—lose their very identity? Do the Islanders merely become Rangers Lite?

Much of any sports team’s connection to its home base is perception. Not a single player on the Islanders’ current roster—made up of Americans, Canadians, Slovaks, a Czech, Austrian, Dane, Russian and Belarussian—hails from Long Island. Nor do any of the Rangers—a collection of lads from the U.S., Canada, Sweden and Norway—come from New York City. For their original meeting lo those many years ago, every Islander and every Ranger had come from north of the border: It was our Canadians against your Canadians.

Another geographical paradox is they are called the “New York Islanders”—rather than the Long Island (Somethings)—because original owner Roy Boe believed the “New York” label was more spectacular. More big league. Also, there was a general feeling in the Islanders’ early days that much of their potential audience would be Rangers’ fans unable to obtain tickets to games at the sold-out Garden.

Soon enough, though, the Islanders were champions. And, with the bandwagon effect, something more emotional and tribe-like than general product loyalty, the Islanders were seen as representatives of the Island—a photo negative of Manhattan—to their large and passionate fan base. Born and raised there; not New York City ex-pats. Working class; not fancy-schmancy Big Town sophisticates.

It was the Islanders’ comparatively rustic setting which convinced Al Arbour (whose very surname suggested leafy, shady surroundings) to sign on as coach and led to a four-year reign as Stanley Cup champions. Arbour had made it clear that he didn’t want to live among skyscrapers and concrete, which had been his idea of a “New York” team.

And it was the Islanders’ 1975 elimination of the Rangers from the Stanley Cup playoffs, only two seasons after they materialized as an expansion team, that provided the Island—a suburban sprawl forever in the entertainment and psychological shadow of Gotham—its first Carnegie Hall, Broadway show parity.

At the time, the “bumpkin” Islanders—as then-general manager Bill Torrey sarcastically described them to Newsday’s Mark Herrmann recently—jealously resented how Madison Avenue and the city media fawned over the Rangers, even as the Islanders were quickly developing into a powerhouse team.


But when the Islanders began their run of championships in 1980 and it was suggested that it was “New York’s” first Stanley Cup since the Rangers’ 1940 title, feisty Islanders goalie Billy Smith declared, “The Stanley Cup is not in New York. It’s on Long Island.” That was a country mouse who came to appreciate his circumstance.

What, then, is the parable of gentrification? With the Islanders running away to Brooklyn, team ownership is saying that it is too good for the humble old Coliseum? (Might it be that fans stayed away from home games the past few years not because of an inferior building but rather an inferior team? They have come back to regularly fill, and dramatically energize, the place this season now that the Islanders at last are contenders again.)

A further insult to Island hockey fans are published reports that the Islanders’ Bridgeport farm team will settle in at the Coliseum. (Subliminal message: The minor leagues are good enough for you rubes.) That news circulates even as the parent club is trying to convince season ticket holders to follow it to the Barclays Center, an arena designed for basketball that can’t match the Coliseum for having no bad seat in the house.

The players—like all professional athletes, their primary association and commitment is to teammates, coaches and staff—acknowledge the “breaking-in period,” as Islanders captain John Tavares put it, regarding the Brooklyn move. It is not his place to question such management decisions, but in his six seasons, Tavares has come to believe that “what makes the [Islanders-Rangers] rivalry so great is that you have two such passionate fan bases. I think people from Long Island are very proud. I’m sure people from the city are the same….”

At this week’s (possibly) final Coliseum match between the country and city teams, message boards repeatedly vowed to Islanders fans, “We Play for You!”

For a few more weeks, anyway. (Will they at least leave the championship banners and plaques behind?)


And then, it sounds like: So long, suckers.


J.P. Parise’s goal: The Islanders’ bar mitvah, the Rangers’ “Big No.”


J.P. Parise is gone too soon at 73, but his goal—11 seconds into overtime on April 11, 1975—lives on as one of the most operatic moments in the history of both the Islanders and Rangers. That night at Madison Square Garden, Parise’s quicksilver strike, ending the three-game, first-round playoff series, not only represented the Islanders’ coming of age—their NHL bar mitzvah after a pair of seasons that only could be described as the Terrible Twos—it also prolonged a Rangers narrative as the sport’s Tantalus. From 1940 on, never quite drinking from the Cup.

As Newsday’s back-up hockey reporter to the esteemed Tim Moriarity, my assignment that night was the losers’ lockerroom, where I found the Rangers—almost to a man—to be fairly eloquent in summing up their emotional crash.

That included the feisty Derek Sanderson’s declaration that “The Atlanta Flames are better than the Islanders. The Islanders won’t win another playoff game.” (Of course, the Islanders won seven more, through the next two series, and soon reeled off four straight championships before the Rangers, 19 years later, at last won their first Cup in 54 years.)

Here’s what Parise had the Rangers mulling that evening:

“It reminds me,” the dashing winger Rod Gilbert said, “of when I was a bachelor, and I would find the most beautiful girl and say, ‘Meet me somewhere,’ and then at the last second, she says, ‘No.’ It’s like that. It’s a big ‘No.’”

Future Hall of Fame defenseman Brad Park, who was a half-step slow in getting to Parise before Parise converted the goal-mouth pass from Jude Druin, called it “a humble feeling to be sitting there with the puck in your net and the other team jumping for joy.”

As the Rangers soaked in their disappointment, the scrappy forward Pete Stemkowski admitted, “I won’t adjust to the season being over until the Stanley Cup playoffs are over. But, maybe the 20 guys in this room can adjust better than the people who aren’t playing—family and friends. We’re under pressure and we just do our best. We can handle it. But the people who live and die with us, they’re the ones really hurt, I think.”

Rangers forward Steve Vickers, whose third-period goal capped a Ranger comeback from 0-3 to 3-3 and forced overtime, called it “the most embarrassing defeat I’ve ever suffered. Losing to the Islanders….it’s going to be a long summer having people asking about it.”

At the time, most of the Rangers lived in Long Beach, close enough to the Islanders’ Nassau Coliseum home to sense a rush to the Islanders’ bandwagon. “The most frustrating thing,” Rangers goalie Ed Giacomin acknowledged, “was when we went into the Coliseum [for the series’ previous game] and seeing all those ‘Choke’ signs the Islander fans had put up. And now, my fans on the Island, they might be Islander fans now.”

Just as pointed at the “Choke” signs were the “1940” chants, which would go on for almost two more decades. To such historic references of failure, Vickers said, “I don’t take the whole thing personally. The Destiny and Fate thing with the Rangers doesn’t faze me at all. I’ve only been here three years, not 40. I had a good year and, anyway, I don’t look back. It’s not my policy.”

Thoroughly reasonable for Vickers to say then. But now, with Parise gone, look back. That goal was a notable moment in New York’s hockey doings.