Thursday, February 12, 2015

Grace Period

The New York Islanders are chugging along on their resurrection season, which is giving diehard fans a growing soapbox from which to cheer from.  Truth be told, the team has had pretty mediocre results since the All-Star break, winning only half (4 of 8) their games.

One of the reasons I enjoy hockey and the Islanders so much is because I have a healthy rivalry with my Rangers-fan younger brother and cousin, whom we are very close with.  My older brother is also an Isles fan like me, so the four of us are constantly ribbing one another whenever possible.  Throw in a group of longtime friends who have also chosen sides, and it's a shock we all end up alive at the end of each season.

During this recent stretch of ordinary hockey, an email floated into my inbox which questioned the validity of goaltender Jaroslav Halak's play and surmised that he won't be able to get the team deep into the playoffs.  I thought, "He's questioning an all-star?!?"

Of course, I replied with a request for evidence to somehow back up this dubious claim.  When he did, he made me realize something.  Halak actually has been rather average.

In order to save face, I made sure to mention how often the Islander goalie has made the necessary save during a close game.  The truth is, the team simply doesn't give up all that many shots per game (they're second in the NHL).  If Halak stops 90% of them, all the Isles have to do is score 3 goals.  Which they also happen to do quite often (they're fourth in the NHL).  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out this formula.

So even though I had to acquiesce to the Ranger fan, I didn't sulk about it.  Sulking is something Islanders fans have mastered over the last 20 years.  Most "debates" with rival fans weren't really debates insomuch as they were excuses to fire up the pity train.

That sort of stuff was in the past.  This year, there was no need for a sheepish retreat.  In fact, I felt it necessary to mention - repeatedly - how the Islanders are doing just fine with their average goaltending.  Fine enough to be four points ahead of the Rangers and (still) leading the division.  I didn't hesitate to pull the "and it's not like the Rangers can beat their average goalie anyway" card.

Of course, this felt great.  For many years, I'd listen as fans of good teams would quickly distill every argument down to a simple, "They just win" proclamation.  And during all those years, I grew to really, really hate that sentiment.  It was a main ingredient to the fuel of that pity train.  Instead of trying to debate the merits of the team and hear the inevitable reply, we'd become accustomed to just slumping back and giving in before even starting.

"I know, I know.  They do some 'good things', but yes...they still lose all the time."

A long-running joke of mine is that I'm a fan of the Isles and New York Mets because I want to teach my kids that winning isn't everything.  There's a small truth to it.  I've had to answer the age-old question, "Why are you a fan of a losing team?" more times than I care to remember, but I have a twisted sense of pride when I do.  Being this loyal is hard and not many fans would last this long.  It's a pointless battle of attrition, but it's a battle I haven't lost yet nonetheless.

Because of this I tend to hold a bit more contempt for those fans at the other end of the spectrum.  Bandwagoners are a part of any successful team's fanbase and not all are obnoxious.  Of course, the more sustained the success, the more prevalent those unpleasant fans become.  The older I've become, the more weary I've grown of these people.

Except with that email back to my brother and cousin, I turned into one.

Surely I can have some time to bask in the (admittedly very recent) success of the Islanders without becoming "that guy".  I remember watching the 1996 Yankees win the World Series and while I hated every second of it personally, it was hard not to be happy for my friends and family who'd sat through as many bad seasons over the previous 15 years as I had.  They were as surprised as they were elated.  But surprise success quickly lead to consistent success and, well...we all know where some of the fanbase has gone from there.

I can say for sure I'll never really turn into "that guy" no matter how much success the Islanders achieve.  I'm not wired that way and luckily neither are most fans.  But all fans are proud of their team.  Even losing ones.  It's one of the components of being a fan that invests their time and emotion into following the team.  Unlike optimism and confidence - which have been completely missing from my selection of feelings - pride has always been there.  Except now the source of pride is the complete opposite.  Such a quick shift takes some getting used to, but it also warrants taking advantage of.  We've got a grace period to work with.  It may not last very long.  A first-round playoff exit would put an end to all of it pretty quickly.  But right now, as the team sits atop the division, I think most other fans would afford us a few obnoxious retorts.  A few dismissive waves of the hand while countering with a simple statement:

"They just win."

1 comment:

  1. I like it when you include some personal stuff in there with family members and friends. Makes the piece into like a storytelling. And hey, before the hard cap it's not like both Isle's and Rangers fans were living the life of feeling good about your team. So, we know... I mean, we used to cheer for Jed Ortmyer. ORTMYER!

    It's a bit of what i do with the Panthers. They play well. Yeah, but they lose. I mean, this year they are actually playing well and a bad month of January has kept them from surpassing the Bruins, me thinks, but years prior? These young guys look good. They are very good at forechecking!

    I think the Isle's are strong and i understand what you said before that they need to win the first round, but patience is also virtue and you don't want to get too greedy with winning and being atop the standings and having higher expectations. Let's face it, the Isle's where they are at right now? Never would have thought about it. These are major steps and consistency is key....BIG KEY.

    This team needs to bring in that culture that gives the sense that making the playoffs is the norm. Finally that seems to be a reality and a joyous one at that to see the Rangers and Isle's becoming playoff residents for some years to come, or so we hope....

    But, forget about what the regular season says because most times in the playoffs players change. Some players become heroes, others become surprises, some disappoint but still give a great effort.

    Halak could be a playoff star. Who knows? But what we do know is that he can make that happen. We have seen his ability to make eye popping saves that win games, and those have happened multiple times in a game. So, we'll see what happens.