I have really enjoyed reading these and finally got around to writing my own. This is loosely based on something I wrote about ten years ago.
The Chemistry Was Just Right
One of my prized childhood possessions was an old record titled “The Chemistry was Just Right.” Produced by Chemical Bank, it told the story of the New York Islanders’ rise from expansion cellar-dwellers to Stanley Cup Champions in the span of a little under eight years. Born in 1977, I have few personal memories of the glory years and so the record and other items – including the Drive for Five keychain given to season ticket holders, a beloved “I’m From Islanders Country” sweatshirt, and the “Islander’s Empire” foam swords from some mid-1980s playoff run – were my physical links to the Dynasty teams as I started attending games regularly in 1986.
My family boasts of no great athletes. While my brother and I played hockey of some form throughout our childhood and early adulthood (and I still chase pucks on ice and asphalt throughout Brooklyn), we were destined to be fans first. My brother and father became regulars at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, just fifteen minutes from our home, in 1975. Introduced to the game by a family friend, they fell in love with it, and were ensconced in Row J, Section 212 on that night in 1980 when Bobby Nystrom fired the shot heard round the Island.
I was only three at the time, but would soon memorize the play-by-play of that goal from listening endless times to my favorite record: “Henning comes up over his own blueline, the pass up ice to Tonelli. Tonelli on the off wing. The shot to Nystrom. He shoots, he scores! The Islanders win the Stanley Cup! The Islanders win the Stanley Cup! On the overtime goal by Bobby Nystrom.” My dad and brother enjoyed three more Stanley Cups and I slowly became a fan myself as I played pickup hockey in our driveway with my brother and inherited his clothes, a not-insignificant portion of which were adorned with the Islanders’ logo.
My First Games
The first game I attended was with my brother and my Cub Scout troop. We sat in the nosebleeds and spent more time talking than watching the game. The most exciting part of the experience probably was seeing our scouting troop’s name up on the scoreboard. But when my older brother headed off to college in 1986, I started attending games next to my father in Section 212.
For the next ten years, until I left home myself in 1995, the Nassau Coliseum felt like my living room. We knew the ushers by name, we bought our popcorn from the same woman every time (somehow, she just made it better than anyone else), we became friends with the season ticket holders around us and the crew of men my father talked with during intermissions near the bar in the Coliseum concourse, and as we watched games together once or twice a week, my Dad and I had a chance to catch up and bond as father and son.
When I started attending games regularly the Islanders were at the start of a slow decline. I watched as Pat LaFontaine remained one of the few bright lights in the late eighties and early nineties. I saw the Coliseum slowly decay around me. And I wondered whether things would ever get better. For a single season they did. 1993. I was now in high school. Pat LaFontaine had been traded away and I wore the jersey of my new favorite player, Pierre Turgeon. The Islanders made it into the playoffs and I had a chance to watch the best hockey I have ever seen in person.
Unfortunately, while my Dad and brother have vivid memories of players skating Stanley Cups around the Coliseum ice, I instead remember seeing Turgeon, right in front of our seats, slammed from the back into the boards just as I jumped up to celebrate his latest goal. As he lay on the ice beneath he who shall not be named, the Islanders’ prospects in the next round – against the two-time Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins – seemed dim.
Of course, we all know how that second round series went. During the next seven games I caught a glimpse of the excitement my brother and Dad had grown accustom to throughout the early 1980s. The series breathed new life into the worn rafters and faded seats alongside Hempstead Turnpike. A packed Coliseum shook from the noise of a frenzied crowd. I was convinced that – for those home games – I was part of the most enthusiastic crowd in hockey. Ray Ferraros’ clutch goals. Glenn Healey’s incredible saves. And Darius Kasparaitis’ bone-jarring hits. They are all etched in my memory.
But no game as clearly as game six, when down three games to two the Isles defeated the Pens and sent the series back to Pittsburgh. I remember Kasparaitis laying both Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr flat on their backs during the same shift. And then, somehow without getting called for a penalty, Kasparaitis shoving Lemieux into the Islanders’ net and pushing him back down as he tried to get up. Ah, playoff hockey in the mid-1990s. I remember great goals (seven of them!) including, to seal the game, an empty netter by Uwe Krupp that went the length of the ice. But most of all, I remember what may forever remain the greatest memory I have of watching hockey live, my Dad–normally fairly reserved during games—joining the crowd for the wave and jumping out of his seat to hug me as Krupp iced the game in the final seconds.
Times spent watching and talking hockey with my Dad remain among my fondest memories of him. He passed away fairly suddenly in 2007. As we shuttled between his house on Long Island and the hospital during his final few weeks, my brother and I spent our down time watching an unexpected push for the playoffs, culminating in a poke-check and a shootout victory. Victories on the ice are small consolations in light of what really matters in life. Yet looking back on my earliest and most enduring memories as an Islanders’ fan, I realize the role these shared moments played in nurturing the bonds between father and son and between two brothers.