|The Glory Days|
The memories are as clear as six ounces of Poland Spring water in a Baccarat crystal tumbler and they are the memories of a young boy growing up on Long Island when a professional hockey team was wrapped up in a bow (Roy L.M. Boe) and presented to a generation of new fans.
Tomorrow, the memories might be all that are left of the New York Islanders. The people of Long Island, in mid-summer, will vote on a referendum that might send the Isles packing just like the fishermen of the Northeaster' Alexa.
The Islanders were born in 1972 when I was 13 years old. The timing was just right. By 1975, the Islanders were payoff contenders and one of the most exciting combinations of incredible goal-scoring offense anchored by a corp of all-star level defensemen and a pair of top-notch goalkeepers. I will rattle off the vivid memories from the expansion year of 1972 right up through the glory years of four consecutive Stanley Cup championships. I will do so, right off the top of my head, then, maybe, fact check them later-on to see how clear the ole memory remains.
The Islanders opened up with a game against their expansion rivals, the Atlanta Flames. Eddie Westfall scored the team's first goal but the Islander fell to the deeper and more talented Flames on a night when the Nassau Coliseum seemed so new and special on a Saturday night in October. I was in the building and I remember waiting for autographs after the game. Defenseman Gerry Hart had such a great signature.
I remember New York Islander Booster Club road trips. (Toronto, Wash DC and to The Garden).
I remember Brian "Spinner" Spencer and readers of this blog have read about his downfall.
We watched Home Box Office as the Islanders upset the New York Rangers when J.P. Parise scored an overtime goal only seconds into the very first OT.
I remember the Isles playing the California Golden Seals with defenseman Carol Vadnais wearing his white skates. That particular night, the memory was the PA announcement of the end of the Viet Nam war. The players banged sticks on the boards and ice to celebrate the announcement. We paid $3.25 for upper deck student seats. Regular price and the weekend games were $6.00. Good seats started at $8.00.
I remember trusting team GM Bill Torrey and Coach Al Arbour, knowing they would do the right thing. That was particularly the case when they drafted Denis Potvin, Michel ("Mike") Bossy and Bryan Trottier. Those players, together with #9 Clark Gillies, the goaltending duo of Billy Smith and Glenn "Chico" Resch and an amazing stream of talented, tough, disciplined hockey players became the core of one of the greatest teams in NHL history. Were it not for the equally talented '75 Philly Flyers and '76-'79 Montreal Canadiens, the Islander four year dynasty might have been the Islanders Dynasty of a Decade. The Isles also had to learn the hard way, as so many championship teams do, when they were upset by the 1978 Toronto Maple Leafs, led by Lanny McDonald and the reverse-fortune upset of 1979 when New York Rangers goalkeeper John Davidson stone-walled the heavily favored Isles by miraculously shutting down Bossy.
I remember the night 1980 USA Olympic gold medalist Ken Morrow made his debut. By chance, the Isles were the face team to face USA goalie Jim Craig after the incredible "Miracle on Ice" at Lake Placid. Morrow had a pretty nice run. A gold medal, then four Stanley Cup championships.
I remember my Mom dropping us off at The Coliseum and we would run like the wind to get to the ticket office, worrying her mightily, I might add, as cars zipped through the wide-open parking lots of Mitchell Field. Sometimes we walked to Borrelli's for pizza after the games.
I remember playoff games and driving from our own games in Miller Place, LI to Uniondale in a rush to make it in time. One of those games, Gillies and tough-guy Terry O'Reilly of the Boston Bruins squared-off for what many think was the greatest series of fights in recent NHL history.
I remember Bobby Nystrom and Garry Howatt, Lorne Henning and Butch Goring. I thought Stefan Pearson was an anchor, much like Morrow. John Tonelli, like Goring, was a key ingredient added by Torrey at just the right time. Tonelli wore #27 and I liked that very much.
Billy Smith and Chico were invincible but I felt for Gerry Desjardans, Billy Harris and a roster full of expansion cast-aways that laid the groundwork, if not the blueprint for victory.
The memories go on and on. The 'state of the art' scoreboard that was a matrix of lite-brites that actually looked like an Islanders logo when programmed. It had mini-animations and kept score but didn't track shots on goal. It was Pac-Man when Pac-Man was a video game, not a convicted felon.
Now, they might vote to save some $58 dollars a household and leave the Isles in their 39-year old tomb of a building that was new when Dr. J and Brian Taylor were winning ABA titles. Referendum day on a Monday in August? Not exactly the best time to get out the vote. We'll all wait and see how it goes. After all, the entire nation might be broke while the Islanders are merely broken.
Newsday, Long Island's mainstream daily newspaper, wrote this in its opinion-editorial section:
Nassau County is too populous, too prosperous and too proud to become a place with no significant entertainment venue and no big-time sports team. And it's too tentatively perched between paths of progress and decline to let a crumbling Coliseum and the flight of the New York Islanders pull it into the pit.
But the county and its taxpayers can't be the victims of a contract that leaves them with too much liability.
Monday's referendum on whether the county should borrow $400 million to build a new arena, an indoor track facility and potentially a minor-league baseball park, on the land where the 39-year-old Nassau Coliseum sits, should be approved by voters. Following that, the agreements between the county and Islanders owner Charles Wang must be tightened to bind the man and the team to the deal and tightly cap the county's contribution. The taxpayers can and should be decisively shielded from a disastrous downside by the county legislature. If this cannot be done, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the fiscal monitor of the county, should scuttle the deal. But right now the process should continue to play out.
The most sensible way to evaluate the proposal by County Executive Edward Mangano is to accept that it's going to be paid for by a dedicated property tax increase that will cost the average household $58 a year for 30 years. The deal will garner cash for the county, but how much?
See this 2009 column by The New York Times columnist George Vescey, a Long Islander himself:
Hockey’s Islanders Feeling Cast Away
In the first warm weather of spring, it’s time to think about heading toward Jones Beach. But first, like a regular Indiana Jones, I make a detour past the empty tomb of the ancient empire — Raiders of the Lost Cup.
Flashback: Arriving for a Stanley Cup finals game with the May sun in my eyes, circa 1980-84.
Mike Bossy stealing a pass from Harold Snepsts and killing the Canucks in overtime.
Anders Kallur, wearing only an athletic supporter, displaying the Cup to his relatives from Sweden.
Laughter and pride and success.
No doubt, fans in other places have their memories. Chicago fans remember Jordan and Pippen. San Francisco fans remember Montana and Rice. Pittsburgh fans remember that slim young Bonds chap. On Long Island, we remember Butch Goring’s funky old helmet.
It is hard to watch the late stages of the N.H.L. playoffs these May nights because the Red Wings are the Islanders of this generation, and the Penguins remind me of the young Islanders of the late ’70s, with their best years ahead of them, maybe.
It is hard to drive past the mundane Nassau Coliseum, plopped down in a parking lot, sensing that it really may be time for the Islanders to vanish.
“Wherever the people are as green as the money, friend,” Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man” said when asked where he was heading.
It is never a good sign when the owner of a sports franchise expresses buyer’s remorse, but that is what Charles Wang is doing these days.
“If I had the chance, I wouldn’t do it again,” Wang recently said on WFAN about his ownership of the Islanders — claiming a $300 million loss, and counting.
The franchise of Smitty and Nystrom is in grave jeopardy because of the world economy, of course, but the Islanders seem to be an especially risky business. Wang, one of the founders of Computer Associates, now a developer, has painted the Islanders into a corner. The team stinks — worst record in the league this season — and the Coliseum is a dump.
Any self-respecting member of the Sports Franchise Owners Union knows enough to hustle the locals for a snazzy new palace, or at least some sweet little extras. The Yankees got Mayor Bloomberg to plow down children’s parkland. The Mets got some “infrastructure” out of the Big Apple for their new playpen in Queens.
But Wang has a better idea. He does not merely want a new arena on Nassau County land. He has blatantly tied any new arena into an agreement for him to build something called the Lighthouse— theoretically, $3.7 billion worth of housing and stores and hotels, in a county that historically does not do planning.
This unlikely Shangri-La is caught up in the normal double-dip politics of Nassau County. The Republican supervisor of the town of Hempstead, Kate Murray, did not show up for a planned meeting with Wang and Democratic county leaders recently, but she had time to hire her 83-year-old father for a $40-an-hour part-time job in the town attorney’s office. With priorities like that, it is hard to imagine keeping the Islanders.
Wang sounds beaten down — or devious — about the yawning lack of corporate support for a hockey team on Long Island. Fact is, the Islanders have never been a cushy operation. They won four Stanley Cups in a row because brilliant hockey minds scouted players from Sweden to Alberta, and Al Arbour goaded them to their potential.
For the Stanley Cup finals, management disinfected unused party rooms at the Coliseum and hung out tattered bunting. And it was glorious, because of the product on the ice.
Talk about flashbacks. The Islanders have scheduled an exhibition in Kansas City, Mo., on Sept. 22. That rings my bell with memories of the Brooklyn Dodgers playing seven regular-season games in Jersey City in 1956 and 1957. Walter O’Malley was warning us he was moving west — and he did. The Islanders have a lease in Nassau through 2015, but you never know.
The N.H.L. is having other major tremors in its tectonic plates. The Sun Belt strategy did not really work for American television networks. The Phoenix franchise is bankrupt, and a man wants to move it to Hamilton, Ontario, halfway between Toronto and Buffalo — hockey country.
My belief is that the N.H.L. needs Canadian enthusiasm and expertise more than it has acknowledged. It needs franchises where kids skate on ponds, where fans gossip about junior hockey, where people can take mass transit to urban arenas to watch a beloved sport: Hamilton. Quebec City. Winnipeg. Saskatoon. The true north strong and free.
It just may be that hockey has come and gone on Long Island. The Devils have inspired leadership and play in downtown Newark — an easy train ride from most of Long Island. The Rangers,despite being run by the Dolans, are a money machine in the center of the universe. The Islanders? Well, we have our memories. Bob Bourne’s 1983 hipper-dipper move right through the Ranger defense. It is late spring again on Long Island. Time to think about the beach.