Every generation or two in most every sports fan’s life, there comes along a team for which time, circumstance, and place meets together and forms an ethos that is bigger than the team or even the sport itself.
Think the 2004 Boston Red Sox “Idiots” and the 1979 “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates in baseball. Or the 2007 New York Giants in football or the 1985 Villanova Wildcats in college hoops. Then there was the grand-daddy of all: The 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team.
They all had that “it” factor, a two-letter word that spoke to the universal appeal of a mighty underdog story. The “it” factor that attracted fans who otherwise might not give a fig about your team. The “it” factor that turns arenas and parks into deafening pandemonium. The “it” factor that causes fathers to pass the lore of what it was like to experience those long-shot runs to future generations.
We might have a new entry on this list.
The 2013 New York Islanders.
Anyone who’s been lucky enough to watch Games 3 and 4 of their playoff series with the classic overdog Pittsburgh Penguins knows they are witnessing something special. The decibel level of the Nassau Memorial Coliseum has been approaching that of a space shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral. The pent-up frustration of a moribund franchise’s fan base has been released. It’s threatening to blow the roof into outer space and the Penguins into the realm where Goliath licked his wounds from David’s slingshot.
To attain the heights of classic underdog status, a team must spring from the depths of either obscurity or possibly near-hopelessness. The Isles are doing both. To say this franchise and its fans have suffered is like saying politicians have agendas. It’s accurate enough, but unless you’re around it, you have no idea of the magnitude.
The last twenty years of the Islanders history has been as sympathy-inducing as its first twenty were glorious. Ever since the days of Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Bobby Nystrom, Pat LaFontaine and Pierre Turgeon, the franchise has found innovative ways to embarrass and drive away its fans.
The last Islander playoff victory was 1993. In the interim, the team has been sold to crooked businessmen and seen scads of future All-Stars, like Zdeno Chara and Roberto Luongo, traded away for pennies on the dollar. They employed Mike Milbury. They’ve been rudderless and gone through head coaches like George Steinbrenner at his vein-popping best. They drafted a goalie as fragile as a Faberge Egg first overall and later signed him to a 15-year contract. Neil Smith ran away from the dysfunction after a week on the job. Ryan Smyth cried at the prospect of playing for the blue and orange. They endured the Gorton’s Fisherman logo.
Isles fans are as loyal as they come, but no one can take infinite abuse unless they have Stockholm Syndrome (guilty, myself, I suppose) and so the Old Barn slowly emptied. The team was a prime candidate for relocation to Winnepeg or Kansas City. Evgeni Nabokov and Lubomir Visnovsky balked at coming to Long Island. They have only one full-time beat writer and their flagship radio station is run by the college kids at Hofstra. In terms of laughingstocks in modern sports history, perhaps only the Los Angeles Clippers of the 80s and 90s and the Pittsburgh Pirates post-Barry Bonds could compete. Bottom seemed to have arrived when Smith was replaced as General Manager by the inexperienced and recently-retired backup goalie, Garth Snow.
But then a funny thing happened. The backup goalie, it turned out, had a plan. He stuck with it. He drafted a fledgling superstar in John Tavares. He went to the NHL’s WalMart – the waiver wire –and mixed in some cheap but talented castoffs. He stocked the farm system and sacrificed a few seasons for a better tomorrow. The jetsam and roster filler has been replaced with a team of fast and scrappy young role players. He created a huddled, family atmosphere that Nabokov and Visnovsky now embrace. Snow’s rebuild led to more losing initially, but there came a point where the Sisyphus franchise was no longer pushing a puck up a frozen hill.
Finally, a healthy dividend has accrued and you’re seeing it right now on the ice. Coach Jack Capuano and his charges have forced the Penguins to the brink with a style of play that could best be described as the hockey equivalent of Nolan Richardson’s Arkansas Razorback teams from the mid-nineties:
60 minutes of hell.
It’s a style contrasting with the Penguins’ skillful, but entitled, method of play. Few teams in any sport have as much talent, both homegrown and imported, as Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are each former league MVPs in the primes of their careers. Kris Letang may soon have his name etched on a Norris Trophy. Future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla arrived before the trading deadline and the rest of the roster, bottom six and all, is packed with above-average players. Any team that has such an embarrassment of riches as the Penguins will be hated outside the city in which it plays.
The only conceivable way a lesser team can compete is by having enough passion and will to negate their talent. The Pens are a team that prefers finesse to dirty work and it's showing. With each thundering hit Colin McDonald and Matt Martin deliver, every time Casey Cizikas beats out a Penguin to the puck on the forecheck and every time Travis Hamonic inhabits the subcutaneous regions of Malkin’s body, the Islanders are winning new fans around the country.
And why wouldn’t they? This country has been mired in hard economic times for six years now. As Americans have been forced by circumstance to live on tighter budgets and to toil longer hours in buildings that haven’t seen a fresh coat of paint in years, what sports team better embodies the working man than the New York Islanders? We’ve been through the wringer and so have they and maybe we’re both climbing out. The Penguins, to the collective fan across America, are the corporation that’s consolidated its wealth in that time.
Game 6 is in the Old Barn, a veritable hovel to the hipsters and those who spend their time on their cell phones in luxury boxes completing business deals. There are no frills. It’s just a humble, reasonably-priced pad where you can have a beer and make some noise - maybe grill some chow in the lot and have a cigarette.
It’s middle-class America in a nutshell, with a hard-working team to match.
If the New York Islanders beat the Pittsburgh Penguins they will no longer belong solely to Long Island.
They will be America’s Hockey Team.