I’ve been going to Islander games live an in person for 3 decades. Before that I was relegated to watching them on my TV at home, on SportsChannel or on channel 9. Yeah, the Islanders used to play on the same station that ran Benny Hill, Bowling for Dollars, and Morton Downey Jr. I remember watching hockey with my Grandmother one day when a fight broke out on the ice. “Beat the shit out of him!” she cheered. I’m not sure exactly which guy she was rooting for as her comment isn’t exactly specific, but it dawned onto me at that young age that hockey is exciting to kids in single digits and seniors equally. Yes, everything that was old was new again.
That young boy got to watch one of the most dominant teams in hockey history. Witnessing 19 consecutive playoff series to younger fans is like Grandpa talking about the moon landing. Yeah, you read about it in books so you know it happened. But the folks that saw it? They EXPERIENCED it. I’m sure young people would tell me how awesome a Kanye West show is, and I’d smile and nod as to not diminish their enthusiasm, but in all honesty, no it wasn’t.
But back to 19 consecutive playoff series wins. I want to talk about #IslesKoolAid. For the large part, Islander fans under 30 have playoff memories consisting of a Shawn Bates penalty shot, and two players carrying the Islanders to a first round victory over the Florida Panthers. They may recall 1993, but they were 5, so I’m sure it’s not as sharp a memory as a good episode of Blue’s Clues.
But #IslesKoolAid loves to dismiss the glory days. Can you imagine a fan base so embarrassed about who it roots for that they discard their past? Could you imagine the ever arrogant Yankee fans saying “Well, you know, if you consider the dissolution of the Negro Leagues and the westward expansion and the absorption of the Continental League, then the Yankees only have 7 World Series in 45 years.” Oh, only 14% of all of the World Series won between 30 teams? Sorry Boston. You’ve got a ways to go.
My point- can you imagine a Yankee fan ever shitting on Babe Ruth? Yet here are Islander fans shitting on Mike Bossy and Brian Trottier and Clark Gilles and Billy Smith and Denis Potvin and Pat LaFontaine? Because clearly John Tavares is a better player. And who else could they root for since 1994? Bryan Berard? Claude LaPointe?
Here’s a true story. The year was 1990. I was an 18 year old asshole working at the newly opened K Mart in West Babylon, NY. For the opening of the first K Mart on Long Island (which is now out of business over no fault whatsoever of mine) the company went all out, bringing in K Mart celebrity endorsees such as the beautiful even at her age Kate Smith of Charlie’s Angels and the race car driver Mario Andretti (I think. I give a shit about a sport I can do as well as professionals. I once did 130 mph on the Robert Moses. In daytime traffic. Top that, circle driving jerkoffs!)
Anyway, my job that day was to be security to the line that was there to see Pat LaFontaine. Pat was about 25 years old at the time, and would soon screw the Islanders over by demanding a trade based on a broken promise made by then owner John Pickett. The promise was about money, which Islander owners never like spending. I can’t blame them. Neither do the fans.
As I’m standing on line as “security,” I’m noticing that the crowd was mostly female, and mostly between the ages of 15-25. Let me say this- women have an instinct to throw their vagina at anything that can afford them the opportunity to not have to perform a moment of labor north of being in labor, but often south of such. I didn’t feel so useful warding off girls from a professional athlete, so I just took in my environment. And that’s when I noticed something. At 18 years old, I was 100% sure that I could kick Pat LaFontaines ass.
Don’t get me wrong. LaFontaine has taken tons of hits from pro skaters. He’s also taken tons of concussions. But as I stood there in a pair of Bugle Boy slacks and a tie borrowed from my Dad, I kept glancing back at Mr. LaFontaine. And I kept thinking “I could punch the shit out of that guy.” And at some point he must have noticed my frequent glancing, looking away, and thinking about beating his ass.
Understand at 18 I checked in at an unimposing 5’ 10” and 155 pounds. With a horrible moustache. Sure there were things that looked like abs and biceps, but at best there was a wiry yet angry quality that made the fight in the dog bigger than the dog itself. And I was absolutely certain that I could punch the shit out of this professional athlete.
As an aside, that same year I happened into meeting the Iron Sheik of pro wrestling fame. He was “old” and wrestling at a local high school (Copiague represent!) because he was suspended from the then WWF for a drug arrest. As I saw the Sheik in person I never once thought “I’d wreck that guy.” Probably because his lats were 60 feet wide.
As LaFontaine kept making eye contact with his goofy security guard, he looked increasingly uneasy and maybe even concerned. I remember the look on LaFontaine’s face like it happened at lunch today. He looked uncomfortable and awkward. It’s probably because he was thinking a lot about leaving Long Island. Just like when that 7 year old kid asked John Tavares about if he was leaving Long Island.
Maybe he thought I was a Rangers fan. Maybe he thought he could skate without falling down. Whatever he thought, as his time for being paid to be around his fans expired, he never once offered the staff a private moment for autographs. I must have scared him off. Or he was an asshole.
Imagine a die hard Islander fan so disappointed by a player that he didn’t even want to ask said player for an autograph? Also, its not like LaFontaine is an inferior player. Sure, he couldn’t carry the jocks of the top 6 that came before him. And even though inferior to the Trio Grande, he’s still a Hall of Famer. Josh Bailey projects just about the same, because he’s elite. At inseminating.
Now that Kate Smith? Beautiful and charming. She took photos with the staff. And when I say photos, I mean cameras with actual film that need an effort to use. Not a cell phone camera…because no one invented them yet. Not even Joey Motorola.
At this point it’s fair if you ask what the fuck I’m talking about. And there’s a few themes here. Name the top 3 offensively gifted players drafted by the New York Islanders that never won a cup with the franchise. I don’t give a fuck who you thought of. Here’s my list.
- Pat LaFontaine
- Zigmund Palffy
- John Tavares
I put them in order of talent, in my opinion. Also, I feel that Pierre Turgeon- the guy Lafontaine was traded for- is better than all three. But we didn’t draft him, and we traded him for shit, so go live life, Pete.
Now, what do all three of those guys have in common? After leaving, none of them returned as players to the New York Islanders. Dudes drafted in the 1980’s, 1990’s and the 2000’s. Everything old is new again. And here’s the next thing- that’s not the only thing these guys have in common.
These guys were all at their time representatives of promise. Promise that they never delivered on. LaFontaine was the wheelman for the drive for five. Palffy was to usher in the Fisherman jersey era. Tavares was meant to revive the franchise, but just ended up slithering along the lawns of Long Island. They never made an impact. Old, new.
And they all share something else that Islander fans have all experiences at what I feel is an unusual rate. Two things, in fact. Feel free to disagree in the comment section. Here’s the list:
- If you have never scored an NHL goal ever, we got you.
- If we have a one goal lead and there’s 2 minutes on the clock, we’re going to ruin us.
The first one is an anomaly. I’ve never researched it, but I go to a lot of games, watch a lot of games, and had season tickets for years. Islander fans, how many times have you heard “(Opposing team) goal, his first of the season/career/posthumous scored by number…” It’s fucking stunning how often it happens. Every year. I can’t remember a year without multiple someones popping a cherry with us. Awful.
But the other one is more stunning. As previously mentioned, I watch a lot of Islanders hockey. I remember the days that whenever the opponent pulled his goalie, we just tacked another goal on. I was raised to believe that’s how it went.
Then it changed. I’ll say 1995 was a drop dead line. Suddenly, when the opposing team pulled a goalie, not only did we not grab an empty netter, but the other team scored. Especially if it was in the last minute. To be fair, that also happened a lot in tie games 5 on 5, so there’s assuredly a cultural issue.
But the stunning thing is this- the coach doesn’t matter. Good ones like Peter Laviolette, Ted Nolan, Barry Trotz. Bad ones like Steve Stirling, Butch Goring, Mke Milbury. Absolutely horrible ones, like everyone Garth Snow hired because he’s an insecure piece of shit. No matter the coach, we either fail to extend a lead or squander one once the extra attacker rolls onto the ice.
Now, for this season I expected Barry Trotz to fix this. Yes, he inherited just about the same defense that was both worst in the NHL last year as well as having the honor to be among the worst defenses ever assembled. But he has a system. He has goaltender coaches. He’s won a Stanley Cup, making him only the second ever active Islanders coach with a Stanley Cup, and as far as I can tell only the third ever guy to coach the Islanders that won a Stanley Cup in a head coaching capacity. Which sucks considering that they’re 46 years in the making.
As a fan, I am excited at the steps that Trotz has made in fixing this squad, but he hasn’t entirely fixed this issue. As an #IslesRealist, I think Trotz is doing a fine job in fighting a decades long uphill battle. Culturally, the Islanders were used to losing and needed a complete culture change. Actually, that’s an overused phrase. They needed a cultural overhaul just to do things like hit an empty net goal.
I mean, look at all of the losing the team has done in the last decade. They lost a voter referendum for a new arena. They lost their present home arena. They lost a draft pick to a mountainside. They lote Turgeon to a dirty hit and a bad GM. They lost a Hall of Fame goalie to a bad GM. They lost an all time wing to a budget. They lost adorable ice girls for a chunky analyst. They lost a GM to a backup goalie. They lost an all star to pajamas. And worst of all, they recently gifted us with a rolling 12 years to failure.
Despite their present success, this year is about growing pains. The Islanders are above NHL 500. But at the same time they’re evaluating a roster to see what stays and what goes going forward, although what stays is a remnant of the aforementioned 12 years of failure based on bad contracts. But that said, even with a new coach, a new GM, new player signings, this team hasn’t consistently been able to lock down a formidable opponent since before Bill Clinton was president. That’s something that good teams do. We haven’t been a good team since we were coached by Al Arbour, who is not only retired but also is permanently deceased.
Sure, you may be saying “But they’re in first in the Metro!” With 30 games to go. And they were first in 2015 with 13 games to go, yet somehow lost home ice and had a 3 more games longer than the shortest playoffs that you can have. And has this team has grown by leaps and bounds?
This team saw an opponent pull a goalie with 10 minutes to go, and managed an empty net goal in the last seconds of the game. Nine minutes. No goalie. No goals. I watched them do nothing against Minnesota when the Wild left a yawning net to dump into.
So how does this team of coach and GM fix that loser mentality? I have no answers here. I’m already hearing that the few of the games at the smaller and remodeled Nassau Coliseum for the 2018-19 season aren’t sold out. That fans are complaining about ticket prices. And I feel that there’s a correlation.
Let’s go back to 1995. The Islanders owner want to unload the team. Anyone interested in the team wants it solely for the land. Pigs at the trough. Spano. Wang. Maldecky. Most of those owners weren’t filthy rich. One of those owners was so non- filthy that White Castle felt like Peter Luger. So what did these skinflints do? Not spend on the team.
In fact, the preceding era into the early Wang ownership spent so little on the team that the NHL instituted a cap minimum. And Charles Wang’s genius was to find ways around spending for a product.
But every Isles owner- Wang included- expected fans to do what they would not. Spend money on the team. And when I say the team, I mean any roster out there. An owner makes $37 million from TV deals, $5 million from league revenue sharing, $3 million in advertising, and has a ticket gate of $30 million with a payroll of $40 million- below the cap floor but using roster bonuses to circumvent the cap- but when fans don’t spend, THEY’RE the bad guys?
So the origins of blowing late game leads comes from owners not investing in players as they implore the fans to invest in the team. This is a nice way of saying “we’re pocketing your cash and giving you a shit roster. Drink up!” And what came from that Immaculate Ingestion? #IslesKoolAid.
People, this is Trotz’s time. He needs a year- maybe two- to repair over a decade of stepping in elephant shit, which is what happens when Garth misses the bowl. Yes he inherited a team that sees 3 goals are a luxury. But they also have expiring deals coming up, some cap space and can really reshape this team at G, D and F.
And this is Lou Lamoriello’s time. Lou has decisions that are more pressing- the trade deadline- and less pressing- the offseason. He has a lot of current key players walking into unrestricted free agency. He clearly needs more offense, but his offensive prospects aren’t setting the world on fire. And he’s also facing losing 3 of his top 6 forwards, and has one restricted forward on the verge of a big payday, if NHL trends continue. He also has to think about this season being one to reset this team, or to make a splash at the trade deadline. So he has a ton of work on his table.
But Jesus Christ, look what it’s taking to shake off the loser mentality from this organization. Two hall of famers at their respective jobs, a billion dollar arena motivating owners, intervention from the Governor of New York, and 9 minute power plays.
I love the surprise that the Islanders have been this season. I’m not sure where this ends now. But they have to do more. This is good, but it’s not good enough. Because theres a remnant from the loser Islanders era- we’ve seen a glimpse of promise here and there, only to watch it go nowhere. So here’s hoping that unlike all of the other times, everything new isn’t old again.