Monday, April 20, 2015


I held off on posting anything specific on Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum for a number of reasons.  First, there have been almost infinite pieces written since the beginning of the year.  Some were exceptional reads while others highlighted personal memories.  Between all that was written, I felt there wasn't much to add.  Second, I had always planned to go to a playoff game this year and wanted to wait until after that experience to post something.  Since the playoffs weren't a guarantee until the last week of the season and getting tickets to said playoff game was even less of a guarantee, it took until the weekend of Game 3 for me to even consider if I wanted to write my next post about just the game and team or about the Coliseum.

Turns out, the game made the decision for me.

Not because of how exciting it was, even though it was the most exciting game I've ever been to.  Not because of how loud it was, even though it was the loudest game I've ever been to.

It was everything else.

My long-time friend and I worked on getting tickets to Game 3 early last week.  John, who I've known since high school, has been going to games with me forever.  We were able to cheaply sit five rows back from the glass in the dark days of the late 90's when I can hardly remember anyone else down there with us.  We were at Game 6 in 2002 against the Maple Leafs, losing our minds as Eric Cairns destroyed Shane Corson at center ice and Shawn Bates (Shawn Bates!) fought Public Enemy #1 Darcy Tucker.  It was, up until yesterday, the most memorable sporting event I'd ever been to.

Not long after that game we'd both find wives, get married and relocate to upstate New York.  The number of games we attended shrunk considerably, a product of both the distance and the play of the team.  The plan was hatched to attend the last home opener at the Coliseum so that could be our final game at the old barn just in case that whole playoff thing didn't come to fruition.  Happily the Islanders did make the playoffs, giving us one last opportunity to make the trip down to Long Island and tailgate.

The day began with what could've easily been the high point of the whole thing.  John and I decided to just drive down with coffee in hand and not get breakfast before leaving.  The thought of a three-hour drive at 6am on an empty stomach wasn't all that thrilling, but we wanted time to relax before the game started.  It was never said outright, but I think subconsciously we knew it was best to wait for an old fashioned Long Island deli egg sandwich instead of eating the rather pedestrian stuff we have lived with upstate.  Boy, was that the right call.

We got to the Coliseum around 9am and quickly noticed the Coliseum Deli across the street.  We were excited to get our hands on those egg sandwiches and even more excited to order a couple of Manhattans (roast beef, mozzarella & gravy on buttered garlic bread).  However, the excitement over the food quickly shifted to celebrity excitement as we saw a dapper fellow stride into the deli from the rear entrance.

"Hey, is that.." John asked as he nudged my arm with his elbow.  I turned and looked and first noticed the hair.  I don't think I stared all that long, but then again there's always that time between your eyes seeing something recognizable and your brain processing it as reality.  That might've taken an extra second or two.

"That's Matt Martin." I replied finally.

The other patrons in the deli, about six of them, seemed to do the same thing as a hush fell over the group.  The low din of early morning, tired chatter faded as Martin noticed everyone had noticed.  He had his game day suit on, looking dapper and surprisingly svelte.  He silently nodded to a few folks as he walked through to the counter.  He stood in line with the commoners as one guy broke the silence and asked for a picture.  Martin complied and was very nice.  He approached the counter to order an egg omelette and when it came time to pay he was told the prior customer had already paid for his meal.  I felt bad for him - as bad as you can feel for a professional athlete anyway - as he stood there looking around the room with the cash sticking out of his well-worn fist, hoping to find the guy and pay him back.  The generous fan had already gone.  As he waited for his order, ours was delivered and we grabbed the brown bag and headed towards the exit.  We both said "Good luck" and shook his hand as he gave us a smile.  I had to look up, but John was able to look him in the eye.  We walked out and finally let go our inner fanboys, who had been running around like a kid on Christmas inside our heads from the previous 10 minutes.

"It's going to be a good day," I said.

The smiles on our faces got into our parking spot before we did.  The two hour tailgate started with a few furious texts and phone calls to tell friends and family about our Martin encounter.  We devoured our egg sandwiches and cracked open some rare beers as we watched the other fans arrive.  We relived some memories, tried to calm our nerves and people-watched.  It was during this time I realized how sad I actually am about the team leaving this arena.  Once this playoff run ends, there will be no more tailgating.  In my experience it was never just "going to an Islander game."  It was always "tailgating and going to an Islander game."  As I sat in my chair noshing on the first half of that Manhattan hero, it finally sank in.

The game itself was brilliant.  An amazing atmosphere and a dramatic setting that was not far off from the playoff game 13 years ago.  The difference was how tense it all was.  In the game against the Maple Leafs, the Isles took the lead in the second period and then extended it in the third.  There wasn't nearly as much worrying involved.  The fights near the end sent the crowd into bananapants-crazytown mode, but it had a different, more sideshow feel.

This game was close through all 60 minutes and 15 seconds.  My out-of-shape knees got a needed workout with all the standing and sitting.  When the first period ended scoreless, that feeling of dread that goes along with knowing the first goal may win the game weighed heavily on the crowd.  When Kyle Okposo scored that opening tally for the Islanders, the floor shook.  As the game continued, there were very few times when the crowd noise lightened.  Even after the Capitals tied it late in the game, the crowd took a moment to be disappointed but quickly returned to trying to cheer up the home team.  As the intermission between regulation time and overtime ticked away, I thought about the correlation between this series and the one against the Pittsburgh Penguins two years ago.  The Isles had also split the opening two games against a good team, earning home-ice advantage.  That Game 3 also went to overtime, but the Isles didn't win.  The old Isles fan in me popped back into my head to remind me that this is how this story should end.

Then came those 15 seconds.

After all the jumping and hugging and screaming, we were just standing there catching our breath and shocked at how "that thing" (you know...the one that always seems to happen to the Isles) didn't just happen.  It was a cathartic moment.  We also tried to describe the volume level we'd just sat in.  We couldn't.

Which brought my brain around to the Barclays Center again.  I'm not worried about the fans from LI not following the team to Brooklyn, even though some won't.  I'm not worried about the types of new fans the team will earn from the city, who are not better or worse than us suburbanites.  I realized that even if everything is exactly same and the fans in Barclays scream just as loud as we did at the Coliseum, it just won't be better.  The physics don't work.  The Coliseum is a big oval pit with a low roof, exposed rafters and small doorways.  The sound of thousands of people cheering simply has nowhere to go.  It can't be duplicated by other buildings, especially those designed with a more "open" layout.

As we walked outside and back to the car, we just shook our heads in continued disbelief over the outcome.  We popped our chairs back out and cracked open one last beer and unwrapped the last half of our juicy heroes.  We sat in satisfied silence as the other fans poured out and got into their cars, beeping their horns widly to the beat of "Let's Go Is-Lan-Ders!"  It was such a fitting end to it all.

Of course, it's not yet over for the team.  This final playoff run is something I hope goes on for a long time.  The thought of one more game in Nassau has given me another level of investment in this post-season.  I don't want it to be over in this building.  When a game ends, all I want is to see that shitty scoreboard one more time above another opening faceoff.

Sadly, it will end and endings are sad.  This isn't the last Islander game I'll ever attend, but it will be the last of my Islander games.  I'm not trying to be fatalistic about it.  I'm happy they are still playing in an arena I can travel to in a car.  The truth is, I will always be a fan of this franchise.  Had they moved to some other state (or province), I'd still be a fan.  That was not an option.  Growing up, I knew more than a few older Giants and Dodgers fans who still cheered for their teams from another coast.  That would've been me with these Islanders.  To me, it really doesn't matter where they play after the Coliseum.  I will always cheer.  I will always live and die with ever shot.  I will take my kids to games and hope they love hockey (and the team) as much as I do.  I'm looking forward to every bit of that.

For me this isn't one chapter ending and a new one starting.  This is my own personal book running out of pages.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

It Follows

The final week of the New York Islanders' regular season was all things.  There were run-around-your-living-room-high-fiving-the-walls moments of excitement along with slumped-in-your-chair-staring-into-space-wondering-what-happened moments of despair.  Sometimes these things happened within minutes of each other.  The end result for the team was a playoff berth but not with home-ice advantage.  For me the latter was disappointing since it was a goal I'd cheered for since the midway point of the season.

That disappointment was diminished from earlier in the year.  I had recently convinced myself that the extra home game in the opening round wasn't a deciding factor.  I still believe that, but the way in which the Isles lost that advantage speaks to the larger narrative of how I've handled this breakout season as a fan.

As biased as I am, this final week has given me quite the example to cite when I try to explain why being an Islander fan is so exhausting.  I'm sure there are members of every NHL team's fanbase ready to denounce my opinion on this but even in my best objective attempts, I can't find a more stark example of passionate schizophrenia than this season.  The hockey world is well aware of the shoe-drop mentality of Islander fans.  Sure, followers of every team regularly feel like something bad is about to happen.  It's part of the joy/pain of sports.  However, for Isles fans it's not just feeling like something bad is about to happen, it's getting that feeling and then watching the bad thing actually happen.

All good teams go through slumps during the year.  It's usually injuries that cause the disruption, but even with a mostly healthy roster a team will have to endure extended stretches of under-performing.  But it's the timing that gets to Isles fans.  Ask any fan and nearly all of them would agree that such a streak couldn't have happened any other way or at any other time.  It's the Islanders and this is what happens.

Which brings us to that final week.

The Isles had a chance to clinch that elusive playoff spot by earning a point against the already-eliminated Philadelphia Flyers.  Even after all the mediocrity of the last few weeks, all those wins in the first three-quarters of the season had given the Islanders the cushion they deserved to weather the storm.  A road game against the Flyers never breeds confidence in any Islander fan even after a year such as this.  When the Flyers took a 4-1 lead into the third period, most of us had given in to fate.  While a loss wouldn't have dropped the Isles out of the playoff picture, it was another domino in the sequence.  The sky was falling and it was filled with shoes.

Then the Islanders - as they'd done a few times this year - brought us all off the ledge by breaking through with three late goals that tied the game with 30 seconds to go.  Isles fans didn't know what to do with themselves.  I didn't know what to do with myself.  When John Tavares won that faceoff and made a brilliant play to an open Anders Lee in the slot, who then buried the puck behind Flyer goalie Steve Mason, I jumped out of my chair and ran around like squirrel on cocaine.  They only needed one point in the standings to clinch.  They didn't even need to win the game.  They just needed to get to overtime.  That tying goal was yet another "this-isn't-your-same-old-Islanders" moment and it had seemingly come at the perfect time.

Except that there was still enough time left in the game for one more "same-old-Islanders" moment.  The Flyers scored on a last-second prayer of a shot from the blueline that goalie Jaroslav halak flubbed badly.  It's a play that goalies make thousands of times a season and maybe screw up once or twice.  But when it happens to the Islanders, it costs them the clinching of a playoff spot.

This is why we Islanders fans can't let go.  These moments follow the team like a bad hangover.  In the days following the loss, fans watched as the Boston Bruins lost to the Florida Panthers, giving the Isles the playoff spot that eluded them two nights before.  Except fans could only enjoy it so much as the cries of "they backed into the playoffs" echoed along with the cheers.  Even after a great road win against the floundering Pittsburgh Penguins couldn't temper the uneasiness.

Tried as we might, even the final regular season game at Nassau Coliseum couldn't give us the good vibes needed going into the playoffs.  A blown two-goal, third period lead and a loss in a shootout took home-ice advantage away and left the fanbase in a confused state.  Lighthouse Hockey posted a perfect exchange between two of their contributors that summed all of it up perfectly.  The questions linger.  Are they good enough?  Can they play like they did at the start of the year?  Can the goalie be better when needed?

If all these questions sound familiar it's because we Isles fans have been asking them for years.  However, instead of worrying about these things at the start of the year, we now must worry about them as the best team the Isles have had in 20 years starts the playoffs.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.