Does this image soil your view of the 2011-12 season?
This past weekend I attended, and survived*, a visit to Las Vegas for a conference of bloggers and developers from SB Nation, the network that hosts Lighthouse Hockey. It was a great chance for me to meet the people who make this site possible from the technical/visionary end, to learn about new toys and whistles that are coming, and to meet a bunch of writers I really respect -- and would even read, if only I followed sports beyond hockey and soccer.
But about that last point: It was also a good chance to get a broad sampling of what intense sports fans -- fans of those other sports -- think about the New York Islanders. Because it's hockey, many of them don't think about them at all. But the generalist fans often expressed sympathy or pity for me, though frequently for nonspecific reasons. A sentiment I heard** more than once: Any variation of "Isn't it depressing to be an Islanders fan right now?"
Regular readers know my answer to that question would be a resounding "not at all." In fact, this site would never have begun if I didn't feel relief from, and belief in, the patient-and-steady direction the team has taken after years in the Milburian abyss.
Nonetheless, those nonspecific reasons I heard from non-hockey-mad fans were telling -- and weren't influenced by tools whining in pious hypocrisy about the nerve of Isles fans enjoying a 9-3 victory last year with a healthy dose of old-time hockey.
Rather, their thoughts taught me:
1) From a general perception standpoint, this team still suffers from the folly of Milbury (and all the ownership issues around his tenure). Like the L.A. Clippers, to the generalist the Islanders still have a reputation of, basically, being bad but tossing away their prospects. This isn't surprising, I guess, but wow is that a wound that takes years to heal. (Winning, obviously, is the quickest medicine.)
2) The team also suffers from the Coliseum issue in general and this summer's referendum defeat in particular. This second points surprised me, because I had the impression the quality of the building and the politics around replacing it were only known to hardcore hockey fans. (The venue isn't even used for NBA, so I thought this would be somewhat off the radar.)
But fans who don't watch much hockey and have never been to an Islanders game know the building has an awful reputation. Likewise, people knew about the referendum defeat -- I guess because it was a slow sports news month and the stories that came out after Aug. 1 painted the team as having an imminent relocation, even though it's still signed to the current building for four more years.
(Related to that last point: My non-hockey watching Kansas City buddy emailed me out of the blue last week to ask about a report he heard that the Islanders were K.C.-bound. This guy has missed the last several rounds of tenuous K.C. rumors but it finally hit his radar this summer with the referendum.)
How Do You Answer the 'Depression' Question?
Again, regular readers probably know I love following hockey to a pathological degree (many of us do, obviously). I patiently enjoy the direction this roster and prospect pipeline is going and, frankly, I watch sports to enjoy it, not to feel miserable. Not to stew over what-ifs. If Milbury's still here, I'm probably gone, because I was at my wit's end by 2005 between the lockout and Milbury's survival. Being on vacation and reading on the ticker "Neil Smith has been fired after 40 days as GM" tested my endurance as well. But this has been a team worth following in the interim because it's finally avoided the short-sighted moves of the past.
Besides the hockey ops strategy, there's the arena, which has been an issue hanging over the team since Bill Torrey was GM. While the decades-long issue and the imbecilic politics that have held it back deflate me greatly, I know that "out of my control" issue won't keep me from enjoying this season and the seasons that follow. In a word, Aug. 1 had no bearing on Oct. 8. (I know many people believe there would be some "big roster move" to goose the referendum effort, or to reward fans if it passed, or conversely a big retrenchment upon its failure. But I can't believe this season's roster was to be influenced in any significant way by a political issue that still has many chapters.)
So when someone asks me, "Isn't it kind of depressing to be a fan right now?" I tell them no, there are actually several exciting young players emerging or on the way -- and the team is signing them smartly rather than turning them away in the press, in arbitration or via pennies-on-the-dollar trades.
As for the arena issue, well it haunts me for sure, but it doesn't affect my enjoyment of the now. Oct. 8 and 40 other games (hopefully more) were going to be played at Nassau Coliseum no matter what happened Aug. 1. The next three seasons were going to intrigue me regardless. If we get to 2015 without resolution, and the worst fears emerge, then I'll be quite depressed in those days. But I'll deal with that low if and when it arrives.
I'm curious though: What do you tell casual or non-hockey sports fans when they ask you about the Islanders? It's okay if you say, "I'm depressed and scared to death." I'm just curious how you portray your fandom to Joe In-Law, the diehard football fan from South Carolina who politely asks about the health of your favorite hockey team.
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*It's possible I missed my Sunday morning flight and spent three hours in Omaha as punishment. It's also possible the check-in attendants acted like they see this all the time on Sunday mornings in Vegas, so really, why should I feel particularly stupid?
Seriously, Vegas [edit: or more precisely The Strip and environs] is one of the most foul, fascinating, mesmerizing, soul-questioning gatherings of humanity I can possibly imagine. No, strike that: I couldn't imagine it on my own, as the whole place plays like something that shouldn't exist (and honestly, when I see it from the air, popping up in the middle of the desert, I feel equal parts marvel and suspicion about our species). Like seeing Bourbon Street on a Mardi Gras night, it's quite educational to see, but probably unhealthy to see more than once.
** No one I met this weekend was in a more depressed fandom state than NBA writers, who all seem to believe they will lose games this year and possibly a full season to the lockout. They were also possibly the biggest partiers in the group, although I do not have advanced data on this question.