Category Archives: hockey

Hockey playoffs: Hairy

Among playoff hockey’s manly charms is its barbarism. And, more than that, barber-ism. Herewith, a consideration of the traditional “playoff beard.”

It long ago became ritual that, as the Stanley Cup tournament stretched into May, the rugged souls still playing look increasingly like a bunch of lumberjacks in the wild. That’s competitive success displayed on the players’ faces.

Beard scholars—there is such a thing; they are called pogonologists—theorize several roots for the playoff beard, which has spread (though patchily) to other sports: The solidarity component of teammates—one for all and all for one—going into battle together with a unified look. The notion that players’ full attention is on games and practices, with no time for such trivialities as grooming. The Samson thing, that being hirsute equals supernatural strength. The idea that, as employees doing the indispensable work for their companies, players have the unique privilege of disregarding dress codes.

Also, there is the sports version of an old wives’ tale. New York Islanders Hall of Famer Clark Gillies, sometimes credited with being the Father of the Playoff Beard, figured there is nothing more mysterious about it than being “like every other superstition. You win, you don’t change anything.”

Just as a bonus, he noted, the playoff beard means that “a lot less cuts and bruises show.”

The anecdotal evidence is that Gillies and his Islanders mates of the late 1970s—on the verge of winning four consecutive Stanley Cup titles—initiated the custom of not shaving until either being eliminated from post-season action or hoisting the Cup in triumph.

At the time, a scruffy five- or six-day razor avoidance was not yet in fashion. Men were either clean-shaven or, less often, committed to a Grizzly Adams look. So, while there is a danger in beard overanalysis—revolutionaries and iconoclasts like Trotsky and Che Guevara had beards, but so did Freud, Abe Lincoln and Hemingway—hockey players subscribe to the exhibition of facial hair as a pride in competitive prosperity.

That explains such lampoons as the “Maple Leafs Playoff Beard” meme, a depiction of a player without a hint of whiskers, just to make it clear that the Toronto Maple Leafs were absent from 10 of the past 12 playoff seasons and were dispatched in the first round this year.

Not to split hairs, but there are cases of wildly accomplished hockey stars who have succeeded in winning championships without a corresponding abundance in the beard department.

For reasons of youth or, with such fellows as Pittsburgh’s two-time Cup champion Sidney Crosby, there are examples of what 12-year NHL veteran Brad Boyes once described this way:

“A couple of guys, for whatever reason—well, you know when your uncle says, ‘You eat this and it’ll put hair on your chest.’ I guess they didn’t eat those things.” Boyes, by the way, acknowledged that his playoff beards were “just OK,” and barely cultivated in three brief trips to the post season.

Anyway, a personal P.S.: When I had a beard, which was entirely unrelated to the hockey playoffs, I nevertheless razored it away minutes after the Islanders won the 1980 Stanley Cup. Because, while watching the Cup’s final game on television, I was feeding my infant daughter her bottle of milk, and she somehow developed a reflex of reaching up and grasping my whiskers. And pulling. When her meal was finished, so was my beard.

NHL’s Olympic disappearing act

By banning their players from next year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, NHL owners basically are going to spite their noses right off of their faces. They will not participate on international sport’s biggest stage, bypassing the added bonus of furthering the league’s desire to spread the NHL gospel to Asia, because—commissioner Gary Bettman somehow reasoned—the Olympics will cause the NHL to “disappear” for more than two weeks.

In fact, the Olympics has been a boon to NHL visibility since the league first signed onto the Winter Games 19 years ago, even in the face of shameful conduct by U.S. players at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. (More on that in a minute.)

The 2010 Olympic gold-medal final was the most-watched hockey game in North American television history—the NHL’s primary turf—seen by 27.6 million Americans and 22 million Canadians. Compare that to the measly 7.9 million who tuned in for Game Seven of the previous season’s Stanley Cup final on U.S. TV, or even the all-time largest Stanley Cup single-game TV audience of 13-plus million in 1972.

Prior to the 2010 Games, the highest rated hockey game featuring NHL players also was at the Olympics, in the 2002 gold-medal final. Donnie Kwak, writing for The Ringer web site, sensibly argued last week that “even the worst Olympic hockey game is more compelling than a regular-season NHL matchup in February.”

Especially, I contend, because the skating and puck-handling skills of he NHL’s best are magnified by Olympic rules that do not tolerate the NHL’s counterproductive acceptance of fighting. No other major professional sport puts up with—in fact, markets—such side-shows.

Yet Bettman brings an odd logic to that as well, accepting fighting as a pre-existing condition in his league. “It’s been there from the start,” he has said, “and what is done at other levels isn’t necessarily what’s appropriate at the professional level.”

Bettman has concluded that fighting “is part of the game” because NHL hockey is “intense and emotional.” A similarly timid reluctance to enforce good behavior is what gave the NHL a figurative black eye in its 1998 Olympic debut, when some (still unidentified) members of the U.S. team destroyed $3,000 worth of property in their rooms at the Nagano Games athletes’ village, then made matters worse by dismissing the incident as “blown out of proportion.”

Supposedly there were only three troublemakers who caused that damage, spitting in the face of overwhelming Japanese courtesy to the world’s visiting athletes, yet all 23 members of the team banded together to steadfastly refuse cooperation in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s subsequent investigation. The excuse was “team solidarity”—not ratting on the perpetrators of embarrassment to them and the entire U.S. Olympic delegation.

Not until a month later, under pressure from the U.S. Hockey Federation and the NHL Players Association, did the 1988 U.S. team captain, Chris Chelios, at last write a letter of apology to the Japanese people and the Olympic organizers, with a check of $3,000 included.

Somehow, Chelios and 13 of the disgraced Nagano veterans were allowed to represent the United States again at the 2002 Winter Games, possibly because a repeat of the Yanks’ roguish actions wouldn’t cause a similar international incident for Salt Lake City’s hosts. “We kept [the 1998 culprits] to ourselves for a reason,” Chelios claimed, without giving a reason. “People who needed to know what happened, they knew what happened.” He included Bettman among those people.

So the NHL establishment simply moved on with a boys-will-be-boys shrug, just as Bettman and league owners justify occasional, though persistent, goonery on the ice. But if a tradition of fisticuffs is OK in NHL games, what’s the common-sense argument by Bettman and the league owners that player injury is a major reason for skipping the 2018 Olympics?

With NHL rosters becoming more and more geographically diversified—more than one quarter of active NHL players come from outside North America—there is overwhelming sentiment among players to participate in the South Korea Games. Russians, Finns, Swedes, Czechs not only like the idea of wearing their national colors but also understand that their past presence in the Olympics has cultivated new fans for the NHL.

Even the American players, unlike those few ingrates in Nagano, have come to appreciate that the global exposure and competitive buzz of the Olympics far outpace the mucking in the corners of NHL rinks in mid-February. Without them in South Korea, the TV-ratings winners will be figure skating and snowboarding. And the NHL indeed will disappear for a couple of weeks.

 

Low down hockey

The generally accepted belief is that John Brophy, who died last week at 83, was the personification of hockey’s roughhousing minor-league culture. And that the Brophy experience was faithfully depicted in the zany 1977 movie Slap Shot by modeling its aging career bush-leaguer Reggie Dunlop (played by Paul Newman) on Brophy.

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No argument here. Especially since I had gotten a pretty good picture of the unfashionable, hardscrabble, traveling-circus low-minor leagues during a week-long, 1,500-mile bus trip with the Long Island Ducks in 1971. Our poor man’s magic carpet was a rickety old conveyance, retrofitted with bunks in the rear half. The players existed on fast-food stops, beer, Tums and cheap motels.

It happens that the irascible Brophy spent 18 years in that setting, half of that time with the Ducks, though he had just been traded—at 37—to the Eastern Hockey League’s Jersey franchise before I was assigned by Newsday to chronicle the team’s slog to EHL outposts in Charlotte, Greensboro and Johnstown, Pa.

That was the season before the NHL’s expansion Islanders materialized, so that East of Manhattan’s Rangers, the Ducks were the only professional (sort of) hockey outfit. They took their name from one of the Island’s oldest and most prominent industries; though now gone mostly bust, the production of Long Island ducks was an abundant blessing to restaurant chefs for decades.

What better fit those teams—and their rag-tag, underdog league—is the image of actual ducks, however calm they appear above the surface, working furiously underwater, out of sight.

My ’71 adventure, right from the start, took on the feel of a John Steinbeck short story, with a theme of fate and oppression, of downtrodden protagonists. It began in the parking lot of the Ducks’ home arena, a long-since demolished old barn, dark and drafty, in Commack, N.Y., on an early November Sunday morning at 10:30. (An hour late, because the bus wouldn’t start.)

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The bus had been painted by a 16-year-old Ducks fan in the team colors or red, white and black, suggestive of a carnival wagon to Lorne Rombough, a 23-year-old Ducks forward, who recommended, “It should have pipes with music and balloons coming out of the top.”

Once in Charlotte, the team was departing its motel for practice, with players hanging out of the windows, when the back door of the bus swung open, scattering hockey sticks and other equipment in the road. Ducks publicist John O’Reilly, who also served as radio play-by-play man, was reminded of a TV sitcom about blundering U.S. soldiers in the Wild West. “We look like F Troop,” he said.

Rombough, whose half-season with the Greensboro team the year before theoretically qualified him to give bus driver Bill Smith directions to the two Carolina arenas, twice got the Ducks lost. On both occasions, there was a call from within the bus to team captain Butch Morris, a ninth-year league veteran: “Yeh, Butch. Get up here by the driver. We’re lost.”

Morris came to the rescue, while Rombough’s more accurate contributions were related to the spectator behavior the Ducks could expect. When he and his former Greensboro mates played at Charlotte, Rombough said, “The players on both teams used to stand back and watch the fans fight.”

During a game in Commack two weeks earlier, Charlotte’s Mike Rouleau had bashed Ducks goalie Guy DeNoncourt over the head with his stick, knocking out DeNoncourt and sidelining Rouleau with a three-game suspension. According to Morris, “Once Rouleau was suspended, he was just sitting in the stands throwing hockey pucks at the players.” And days after the incident, O’Reilly received a Halloween card signed by a Charlotte fan: “We are anxiously awaiting your arrival with chairs in hand.”

Still, the Ducks, in a league embodied by the fiery, bombastic Brophy, soldiered on. “You can’t make a career of this league,” said Morris, who was 28 at the time and said he was able to keep playing because he made more money as a steel worker in the off season (just as Brophy had sustained himself).

“Sometimes you get really low, after a couple of losses or a bad road trip,” Morris said. “But you snap out of it. Everybody in this league plays because he likes it. Because, let’s face it, the league doesn’t have much to offer. It’s a chance to move up. But how many players move up?

“It’s more of a hobby, really. If I were traded away from Long Island, where my other job is, I probably would quit hockey. I don’t’ know for sure, but I’d have to think seriously….”

Among the more introspective of those Ducks was Cornell (Corky) DeGraauw, a 20-year-old Dutch-born forward who had settled in the Toronto area and, just graduated from the Canadian Junior League, was married with an 18-month-old daughter.

“I can put up with this because I want to play hockey,” DeGraauw said one morning over breakfast. “I think most of the guys are disappointed to be here. They have been kept from higher leagues and they think they should be playing somewhere better than this.”

Nevertheless, DeGraauw decided, “On the bottom of the contract, it says, ‘P.S. The owner may void this with 48 hours’ notice.’ Let’s see. We have lost two straight games and that figures out to just about 48 hours. I’m glad to be here.”

DeGraauw’s quirky take on the travel situation was that “flying is OK, because it’s nice to look down at the ground that you’ve always seen before on maps, and see that there really isn’t a big red line which separates Canada and the U.S. But the bus…well, I like the card games, anyway.”

On the bus, beyond the handful of card players, team comedian Jean-Marie Nicol amused himself by tying the shoestrings of napping teammates to the seat chair legs, or threatening to sing when coach Ed Stankiewicz sought relief from general racket by turning off the radio. Michel Letourneau, a diminutive 20-year-old French Canadian who did not speak English, spent the entire trip quietly observing his surroundings, wide-eyed. “The guy is from the North Pole, where all the bears are white,” DeGraauw teased Letourneau, who in fact hailed from a small Quebec town at roughly the same latitude as Minnesota’s northern border.

Some veterans chose to pass the time by giving free haircuts to rookies, an act of hazing not exactly welcomed by the haze-ees. In the Charlotte game, Rombough lost a tooth and forward Bill Morris (no relation to Butch) needed three stitches near his right eye. Defenseman Phil Persia, proud of his prowess at fisticuffs, badly bruised a knee.

There were regional difficulties, too, for all those Canadian lads crossing the Mason-Dixon Line (on-sides?) for the first time. DeNoncourt, attempting to order a Coca Cola, was presented with a Mountain Dew. DeGraauw insisted he “knew better than to order Today’s Special.” Dan Tremblay, a 20-year-old from Manitoba, declared the mild weather unfit. “It has to be 10 below to play hockey,” he said.

Butch Morris, meanwhile, not only attended to on-ice duties, dealing with hockey’s curious version of Roberts Rules or Order—the eye-for-and-eye, punch-and-counterpunch aggressiveness—but also was something of a shepherd to teammates. When there was poor service at a restaurant along the interstate, Morris assumed the role of waiter, serving coffee to fellow players. When team trainer Bill Lumley fell ill at the end of the trip, Morris was the fellow who added the duty of skate-sharpener.

He was no John Brophy, the white-haired menace whose 3,840 career penalty minutes were 3,663 more than Morris’ total. “The best thing that ever happened to that guy,” Morris said of Brophy, “was that he was prematurely gray.” Morris’ rather crooked smile and slightly scarred face hardly were unique in the EHL, nothing nearly as dramatic as Brophy’s scraps with players, opposing fans and security guards.

But maybe I should have taken better notes on that trip, which was a metaphor for the sport’s penalty box if there ever was one, and thought in terms of a movie script. Sin Bin?

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The Islanders are gone, and so is Al Arbour

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ice hockey in Vegas: Sin bins in Sin City?

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Should the NHL, in considering an expansion team for Las Vegas, be haunted by the jock establishment’s traditional fear and loathing of the potential fix? Or might the really unwise aspect of setting up shop in the nation’s gaming capital be its correlation to Timbuktu—a far-away desert outpost noticeably lacking in ice hockey culture?

There is growing evidence that major sports leagues at last are accepting the reality that betting on their events not only is here to stay, but is a growing industry. And that, rather than believing they can protect the “integrity” of their games by distancing themselves from that fact, they will be better off advocating legalized gambling, to assure transparency and control.

That is: Adopting the Las Vegas model. Last November, new NBA commissioner Adam Silver took that leap with an editorial in the New York Times, voicing his belief that “sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated.”

Silver’s remarks came seven years after NBA referee Tim Donaghy was found to have bet on games he officiated, causing preliminary talk of an NBA franchise for Vegas to be muted. At the time, veteran sports journalist Frank Deford was arguing on National Public Radio that an NBA team would be ideal for Las Vegas—“a 24-hour town meets the 24-second clock”—because Vegas’ above-board operation is “the very vaccination against sports fixing.” Vegas, he noted, “goes on the alert and advises the authorities” whenever some evil genius attempts to fudge the system.

About the time Silver made his (shocking!) proposal came the early rumblings of Las Vegas’ interest in an NHL team. Naturally, Sin City-related wisecracks immediately surfaced, including Jimmy Fallon’s “pro-con” shtick on the Tonight Show.

“Pro: Buying a souvenir jersey. Con: Because you lost your shirt at the casino.”

“Pro: Watching a bunch of men with missing teeth trying to score. Con: Then leaving the strip club to catch a hockey game.”

Tee-ha, giggle-snort.

This week, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, during his league’s board of governments meeting (in Las Vegas, by the way) confirmed that Vegas was among the cities whose bids for an expansion team will be entertained. Espn.com wasted no time in posting some sly suggestions for possible what-happens-in-Vegas-themed nicknames and logos: The Bones (with a skull between hockey sticks and dice); The Flamingos; The Outlaws; The Rat Pack; The Dealers; Sin….

…And “The Las Vegas Nordiques.” Because, it was pointed out, “Once we all realize what a stupid idea hockey in Vegas is, the NHL can move the team to Quebec City in five years—after attendance has dropped to 3,000 a game—without having to change its name.”

A recent analysis by the FiveThirtyEight web site likewise questioned the wisdom of the NHL’s venturing into south Nevada, given that the league’s seven Canadian-based franchises are home to roughly as many hockey fans as the 23 U.S. teams. FiveThirtyEight’s research found that the “six current NHL markets with the fewest number of hockey fans” are warm-weather Nashville, Miami, Raleigh, Phoenix and Tampa, as well as Columbus; that Vegas’ estimated number of NHL fans is roughly a third the number in Tampa (and less than a fifth the total in Quebec City); and quoted Forbes in reporting that those franchises lost a collective $51 million in the 2013-14 season.

Vegas’ minor-league hockey team, which drew fewer spectators than its mid-level ECHL average of 4,500 per game, was disbanded this year, a symbolic sending of the city to hockey’s sin bin, even as an NHL-regulation arena is being built near the gaudy, touristy Strip. The chances of tuning a fan base into game-attending routines appear further hindered by the city’s irregular working hours and Vegas enterprises that operate without windows or clocks.

In sizing up its odds, then, NHL pooh-bahs might want to think about the location-location-location mantra of the real estate business. And recall how Canadian Jack Kent Cooke was talked into placing an NHL expansion team in Los Angeles in 1967 because, he was told, there were some 300,000 Canadian expats living in the region—only to be faced with lousy attendance.

“Now I know why they left Canada,” Cooke said. “They hate hockey.”

Climate change toward frozen ponds in Vegas doesn’t sound like a good bet, either.

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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.

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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.

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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?)

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

 

1980 U.S. Olympic hockey “miracle:” Skip the moral implications

Sports always is an Us-against-Them exercise, and you choose your side. Identify with your tribe. So, when the underdog U.S. ice hockey team shocked the mighty Soviets on the way to winning a thoroughly unlikely Olympic gold medal in 1980, it was natural enough for American spectators to go a little haywire.

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At the time, the Soviets were the established international hockey heavyweights and, on an implied level, were the athletic extension of a government considered the world’s most dangerous nuclear-age bully. Plus, we Yanks were hungry for some form of self-assurance, in a funk of insecurity over the Iran hostage crisis and were outraged morally by the USSR invasion of Afghanistan two months earlier.

(Twenty-one years later, U.S. policy makers invaded Afghanistan, but that’s another story.)

The Cold War still was raging, and the Olympics—theoretically above politics but so often a proxy conflict without bullets—was handy for some sabre rattling and nationalistic bluster.

So the meaning of that big game in Lake Placid was immediately inflated—perverted, really—as an expression of our homeland’s superiority. Herb Brooks, the U.S. coach, called his team’s 4-3 victory evidence that our way of life was better than the Soviets’. U.S. editorials declared that the hockey triumph “lifted the spirits of Americans everywhere.” The whole thing was schmaltzified—splendid hockey gone to hokey—and eventually Disneyfied in the 2004 movie “Miracle.”

Now, 35 years on, the so-called U.S. “Miracle on Ice” again is being celebrated—as it should be, though in a purely hockey sense. It was fabulous theatre on the big stage, intense competition at its finest. But, better than that is the release this week of a long-overdue documentary, “Red Army,” that gives an in-depth look at the other side, humanizing the Soviet players who were so long seen as merely malevolent Communist robots.

A New York Times review of “Red Army” cited its treatment of the “complicated nature of patriotism and the absurdity of treating sports as a chest-thumping global battle of wills.” Thoughtful people right after the 1980 game lamented the war mentality attached to that hockey summit, and how flimsy it was to hang one’s hat on the result of a sporting event.

ABC-TV’s Jim McKay, widely respected for his work amid the Olympics’ brotherhood-of-man idealism, nevertheless veered into jingoism when he signed off at the close of those Games, sounding near tears over the U.S. hockey victory. “What an Olympics!” McKay gushed. “What a country! Let’s say it here: We are a great people!”

Except: What if our hockey lads hadn’t won the Big Door Prize? And what about the fact that, overall, the East Germans (23) and Soviets (22) both accumulated more medals in those Games than the Americans (12)? Were we therefore a lesser form of humans?

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Olympic success, by and large, is a function of a nation’s population, the size of its talent pool in specific sports, its financial wherewithal.

Plus, there was this: Because of the USSR military incursion into Afghanistan shortly before the Lake Placid Opening Ceremonies, President Jimmy Carter—who twice telephoned Herb Brooks with congratulations and called the hockey players “American heroes”—had ordered a U.S. boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow, scheduled that summer.

A U.S. Summer Olympian, volleyball player Debbie Green, was among those outraged by the political hypocrisy. “The athletes in the Winter Games,” she said, “get all the praise for their work, and now just because our Games are in Moscow, we’re accused of being un-American” for wanting to compete.

Let’s say it here: That 1980 U.S. hockey upset was a delightful surprise, a tribute to Brooks’ coaching skills and the grit of his collection of amateur players—outperforming what basically was a masterly professional team. But it was no test of national strength, no proof that God is on our side. And it hardly convinced the Kremlin to pull troops out of Afghanistan. (That took nine more years.)

OK, then. The game was Us-against-Them. But the result was not a manifestation of Good-vs.-Evil.

 

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

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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.