Friday, January 9, 2009

A history lesson

I caught a bit of the MSG program "Greatest Days" the other night, the one about the Islanders' first Stanley Cup championship.

It featured interviews with John Tonelli and Bob Nystrom as well as a couple of middle-aged fans talking about what that day was like, a group that included Uniondale native Gary "Baba Booey" Dell'Abbate of The Howard Stern Show, who said he had to monitor the game on a dingy TV set at the gas station where he worked.

The day the Isles beat the Flyers on Nystrom's overtime goal -- thanks to a perfect pass by Tonelli, thank you very much -- was the day of my brother's First Holy Communion. So the house was filled with relatives, including all of my cousins, many of whom are girls.

Viewing conditions were, as a result, not ideal. While my brother, my father and I would have liked nothing more than to watch the game in peace, there was dinner to be had, and coffee and cake, and "Don't you want to play with your cousins?"

Most of my cousins had as much interest in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals as I had in Strawberry Shortcake (the cartoon, not the dessert). My mother determined that I, the mature one at age 11, should be a good host and play with them a game of Monopoly. The fact that the Flyers had, at this point, tied the score and sent the game into overtime mattered little.

So we set up the game board on the living room floor and I positioned myself so I had a clear view of the TV in the den, but once the OT started a crowd began to gather, hindering my view of the set. I did my best to crane my neck between dice rolls and reading "Community Chest" cards to keep up with the action.

When Tonelli found Nystrom, I was in the middle of a turn and my view of the TV was blocked. I ran to the set, celebrating, and watched every replay in an attempt to make up for having missed seeing the goal live.

My other memory from that day is of my brother and I shooting on our street hockey goal in front of our house wearing our Islanders home whites, and of cars driving by honking their horns as we raised our sticks in triumph.

It was certainly one of my greatest days as a sports fan.

Now, the Islanders have been criticized for leaning too heavily on (if not living in) the past, and I've felt that way myself. But while the state of the team has been depressing of late, I'm happy that I, as a fan, have those memories to look back on, and that the team does, in fact, have a tradition to be proud of.

Imagine being a Detroit Lions fan today. The Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908. Fans in Buffalo and San Diego have never seen a world championship in any major sport. The Maple Leafs haven't won since 1967.

I'm going to be 40 soon, and I've never seen the Jets win a Super Bowl. But for half a decade, my favorite hockey team won four straight titles and 19 consecutive playoff series, an embarrassment of riches for any fan.

Sure, things are bad now. But there is hope. The Bruins were a laughingstock a couple of seasons ago, and now they're the beast of the East. And the Chicago Blackhawks were more or less left for dead, but with a new owner running the show and some outstanding young talent, the Hawks are one of the hottest properties around.

The Islanders are a young team that has lost more than 260 man-games to injury in their coach's first season behind the bench. They play in an awful arena and get the shaft by the cable network that broadcasts their games.

But people do care. The fans care. Charles Wang, I believe, cares about the Islanders succeeding on the ice and in the New York market for reasons that extend beyond his real estate interests.

The Bruins and Blackhawks have shown how quickly the tide can turn with the right management, the right talent and some luck. The Islanders are batting zero in the luck department lately, but there is some talent here and a high draft pick is a lock. We'll see whether the management can make it all happen.

My point, if I have one, is that Islanders fans have to be pretty thick-skinned these days, but they've been to the mountaintop before and have to have faith that they'll be back there again.

And look at it this way -- at least we're not fans in Seattle.


Vince said...

I resemble that last remark. I'd like to ask you where the first American team to win the Stanley Cup was from. Go ahead and look it up. I'll wait.

That's right. The Seattle Metropolitans of aught-seventeen, baby. And it's been downhill ever since.

crazyjoedavola said...

Our brothers had their first communion together. I was hiding in my parents bedroom watching it on a 12" b&w. I was safely hidden from a house full of relatives until Nystrom scored. The resulting scream gave away my position, and I spent the rest of the day at the kitchen table. WORTH EVERY SECOND!

The Isles have finally acknowledged that they have to build through the draft and develop. Now maybe there is hope

Gaspo said...

Of course, the original Mets. Who could forget them?

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