Over the next few months, Halftime writer Joe Pollicino will re-examine some of the favorite teams, players, and moments from his halcyon days of fanhood.
30th out of 30. That’s where all the publications and experts had the New York Islanders pegged to finish entering the 2006-07 season. And if they could have placed them any lower, they would have. This was the culmination of another tumultuous offseason for a franchise that had, over the past 15 years, cemented itself as one of the league’s laughingstocks; a far fall from grace for a team that boasted one of the NHL’s longest runs of dominance in the 1980s by winning four consecutive Stanley Cups.
Although I have never played ice hockey, and can count on my two hands the times I have been ice skating, I had fallen in love with the Islanders ever since the February afternoon in 2001 when my dad first took me for the short ride on the Meadowbrook Parkway to the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum for my first hockey game. While all Long Islanders share a strong affinity for our respective teams from the city, the Islanders are uniquely our own, as the only professional sports team that plays its home games in our suburban haven.
Despite the unshakable bond between the Rangers and their loyal fans, fan loyalty has been tested on multiple occasions with long streaks of on-ice futility and questionable personnel decisions. One of these multiple nadirs came in the summer of 2006. After missing the playoffs in the revamped and revitalized NHL following the 2004-05 lockout, it was time for owner Charles Wang to shake things up. After re-assigning inept GM Mike Milbury and firing Head Coach Steve Stirling earlier during the season, Wang hired Neil Smith to be the new GM and then-NHL refugee Ted Nolan to be the new head coach in an effort to hopefully breathe new life into a franchise still mired in irrelevance. But the hiring of Smith, especially, gained relevance, as well as the derision of the sports world, as Wang fired him just 41 days after he was hired. This decision garnered even more ridicule, when Wang decided to replace Smith with Garth Snow, the Islanders’ backup goalie at the time, who retired to assume a position of which he had no prior experience.
As a front office neophyte, Snow showed his inexperience from the outset, as one of his first, and now most infamous, transactions involved signing goalie Rick DiPietro to a mind-boggling 15-year, $67.5 million contract extension, which at the time was the longest contract ever signed in NHL history. So, to put it generously, expectations were not at their highest when the Isles started their traditional season-opening October road-trip with a roster inundated with over-the-hill veterans such as Alexei Yashin, Brendan Witt, Miroslav Satan, Viktor Kozlov, Mike Sillinger, and Tom Poti.
Although the Islanders got off to a strong start to their season, the off-season events appeared to be the straw that broke the collective back of the afflicted fanbase. The low expectations for the team didn’t help either, as sparse crowds were ubiquitous for the team’s home games from October to December. Even the traditionally sold-out Saturday night home games failed to garner much of an audience, as the team would be lucky to have an attendance figure with five digits in it.
But while most of the Island was tuning out, I was tuning in more vigorously than ever before. Any Islanders game on television was a momentous occasion for me. With the Mets knocked out of the postseason and the Knicks destined for another cellar-dwelling season under the incompetence of Isiah Thomas, the Islanders filled my daily sports void. I would immerse myself into the games, so much so that I would startle my mom at least three times a night with my shouts of excitement or exasperation whenever the Islanders scored or allowed a goal. My engrossment in their games and the ear-appeasing broadcasts of announcer Howie Rose and analyst Billy Jaffe enhanced my knowledge of hockey as well, from being able to appreciate a good forecheck to understanding the differing strategies on a penalty-kill. My obsession quickly gained traction with my brother too, as he started joining me to watch games as well. The first two Islanders-Rangers game of the season in early December come to mind, especially, as my brother and I basked at home in the glory of watching the Islanders embarrass their most fierce rival twice at Madison Square Garden.
And while these two wins made some in New York start to notice the Islanders as a contender, it was almost impossible for my parents not to notice the infatuation my brother and I had developed with the team. So on Christmas morning in one of their innumerable acts of kindness that make them the best mom and dad in the world, my parents gave us, what is still to this day, the best Christmas present I’ve ever received: Islanders season tickets.
Our first game with those section 315 tickets couldn’t have been better. The next day, December 26, the Islanders played their first game of the season at the Coliseum against the Rangers, the paramount game of the regular season for the Isles up to that point, with their first sellout of the year expected. I was supremely excited for my first ever Islanders-Ranger game at the Coliseum, a sports experience unlike any other. Because the Rangers routinely sell out their home games, many Rangers fans who live on the Island will buy tickets for their games at the Coliseum, as they’re more reasonably priced and accessible. As a result, you have fans of both teams interspersed throughout the arena to form an unmatched environment that is extremely partisan, raucous, and above all, passionate. In a dominating performance, the Isles shut out the Blueshirts 2-0 for their third win in three games against the Rangers up to that point, as the final minutes of the game Islanders fans cheered in unison, “You can’t beat us!” over and over again much to the displeasure of the disheartened Rangers fans.
And with that, my journey with the Islanders officially began.
Photo: CBS Local New York