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Zigmund Palffy Appreciation: You had to be there

Before streaming video, before lockouts were routine, before the Isles found stable ownership ... there was Ziggy Palffy, the best show in town.

You had to be there.
You had to be there.

Zigmund Palffy's retirement makes me sad, not because he'll be off my hockey radar, which he pretty much was already, but because it reminds me of the passage of time in sports.

I realize that his Islanders career - which took place during the Internet's toddler years, just outside the days of NHL Center Ice and YouTube - will really only exist in the memories of those who watched him live and in person. And considering how awful Palffy's Islanders teams were and how dire attendance was at those games, we're talking about a pretty small group of people.

The running joke with the current Islanders is that it's John Tavares and The Pips. This is only true if you choose to not pay attention (or you're a writer for ESPN). The reality is that using either fancy stats or unfancy stats, the current Islanders roster has a few layers of talent. Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner and Frans Nielsen are easily cast as Batman, The Flash and Green Lantern to Tavares' Superman.

This was not the case for Palffy, who year after year gave the Islanders top-line talent with bottom-line teammates. Palffy was the one thing Islanders fans could count on back then. Most of the rosters he played on could generously be described as having "guys with a little pop." Or, to put it another way, "guys who would score once in a blue moon."

The lone exception was the result of one of Mike Milbury's rare good moves - trading lightweight Marty MacInnis to Calgary for playmaker Robert Reichel and pairing the Czech with the Slovakian Palffy. With Bryan Smolinski on the left side, the Islanders actually had a legit first line for a year or so. But the other lines were filled with castoffs and grinders, the defense was a disaster and the goaltending unreliable. Eventually Reichel was Milburied to Phoenix for "power forward prospect" Brad Isbister and the Islanders sunk even lower thanks to bad management and worse ownership.

New fans jumping on the Islanders bandwagon now won't know about Ziggy Palffy and they won't care. Palffy's era will always be a deep black hole in Islanders history, sitting sullenly after the Dynasty heyday and the post-Dynasty hurrahs but before the Peca/Yashin/Osgood mini-rivival and the Tavares-initiated rebuild. No matter where the current incarnation of the team goes, it's already better than where Palffy's teams landed.

But those of us that watched him won't ever forget: The way your eyes followed him as soon as he stepped on the ice. Three straight 40-goal seasons. The time he kissed Travis Green after scoring a goal. The mullet. His picture on the cover of The Hockey News proclaiming, "No Man Is An Island ... Except Ziggy Palffy." His holdout and return to the Islanders on the day the new Coliseum jumbotron was unveiled. The near trade to the Rangers, the eventual trade to the Kings and the cheapskate owners that made that necessary. The preternatural knack he had for being in the right place at the right time and just never missing, even while playing into his 40s in Slovakia.

In April of 1999, a friend and I drove to Pittsburgh to see the Islanders and Penguins play at the Igloo. The Islanders won 7-2, their 24th and final victory of that playoff-free season. Naturally, Palffy had a hat trick and two assists in that game. By the start of the next season, he would be an ex-Islander, traded for a draft pick and cadre of prospects that looked barely old enough to shave let alone replace a folk hero.

I don't remember if there were rumors at the time that Palffy was potentially playing his last game as an Islander. Even if there were, I probably would have ignored them because I didn't want to think of the Islanders without Ziggy. Once he was gone, and with the next two seasons basically flushed down the toilet before they even started, things got very dark for a while. You wondered if the Islanders would ever see a player like Palffy again or if he would ultimately end up as the last good player who would call Nassau Coliseum home.

Fortunately, we can safely say that he wasn't. Knowing the Islanders will remain in New York with Tavares and Friends means I can look back on that terrible time with a hint of fondness and remember Palffy being Ziggy On The Spot every damn game.

I hope the Islanders eventually honor Palffy by adding his name to the team's Hall of Fame banner. (A lot of the above can also be said for the banner's last honoree and Palffy teammate, defenseman Kenny Jonsson.) That way, his name won't totally disappear from the record.

So sometime in the far future, some kid can ask his dad or his brother or the person next to him, "Who's Zigmund Palffy?" And the legend of Ziggy can at least live on by word of mouth as the ultimate "You Had to Be There" player.