I can still picture the guy's face. He was a young looking father, a little shorter than me, with dirty blond hair. The kid with him was probably about six or seven at the time, so he's old enough to bring his own son or daughter to games now.
The father looked at me and earnestly asked me a question that was both completely ridiculous and totally justified at the same time.
"Do you think they're going to finish out the season here?"
He was asking about the Islanders and the pervasive rumors that they could be in line for relocation. This was 1998. The Whalers left Hartford that summer for Greensboro, North Carolina (eventually re-relocating to Raleigh). The Nordiques had moved from Quebec to Denver and won a Stanley Cup five minutes later. The former Minnesota North Stars were a few months from bringing the Cup to Texas. And the original Winnipeg Jets were now the Coyotes and playing out of Phoenix (more on the Jets in a little bit).
Not only that, but baseball was openly talking about contracting a couple of teams, specifically the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos for various and nebulous reasons. So change was in the air and if you were lucky, maybe your team just moved south. If you were unlucky, they ceased to exist altogether.
At the time the man posed his question, I was working as an intern for the Islanders. Officially, I was a writer for their free Game Time program and wrote articles based on interviews done with players, coaches, prospects, alumni, etc. But I was also available (and eager) to do whatever the PR staff needed me to do: make copies, hand out stats in the press box, serve popcorn in the media lounge and, as I would be doing that night, distribute game programs at the door to entering fans.
(Side Story 1: During the first half of the 1998-99 season, Ziggy Palffy, the Islanders' best player, was holding out for a new contract. More than once, fans would refuse a free program and demand I tell the owners to stop spending money on magazines and give it to Ziggy. A) like one thing has anything to do with the other and; B) like it was my decision to not sign the Islanders' only offensive weapon to a new contract immediately. Eventually, Palffy signed, played 50 games and was traded to Los Angeles after the season.)
The Islanders owners at the time were the shameless legion of doom known as Steven Gluckstern and brothers Howard and Edward Milstein. Within months of buying the team, the owners were trying to forcefully break their lease with Nassau County by having the Coliseum declared unsafe. They moved the team's offices out of the Coliseum and talked openly about playing games in Hartford or Manhattan. It was all hot air, and it would continue to blow non-stop for almost two years. While the specter of moving haunted the Islanders, there wasn't any concrete information that they were actually going anywhere.
I assured the young father that the Islanders would indeed stay on Long Island for the entire season, although I said so only because I was mostly sure that professional teams generally don't just pull up stakes and move elsewhere in the middle of a season. Privately, I wondered what would happen beyond the upcoming Spring.
A Look Back, While the Arena Smells the Same
I think of this story every time I go to Nassau Coliseum, as I did for the game against the new Winnipeg Jets, themselves a beneficiary of the relocated Atlanta Thrashers, on Tuesday, October 28th. A lot of the hockey world has changed since that other night 14 years ago, but a few things remain the same. To see the Islanders-Jets game, I walked through the same doors I was once stationed at with those boxes of free game programs. The arena still smells the same. The ushers and security guards, some of whom I think may have been there since 1972, are still there today.
Like far too many Islanders games in that previous era, this night's game would result in a loss for the home team. But even there, the circumstances have changed. The Islanders, stacked during the offseason and ready for a successful season, were the favorites to beat the mediocre Jets. The disjointed and dispiriting loss stung not because it was one step closer to another playoff-free season, but because it was a missed chance to stay atop the division by two more points.
It's easy to look back now and say that the Islanders were never in any real danger of moving. With the knowledge hockey fans have today of team finances, television contracts, franchise values, league revenue and other realities that three lockouts have forced us to consider, it seems pretty implausible that the NHL would let an established team in a lucrative market walk away for good.
A Problem Most NHL Fans Never Have to Experience
But at the time, the likelihood of a New York Islanders-Winnipeg Jets game happening in 2014 was very low. One team was already gone and one appeared to have a foot out the door and no shortage of new homes waiting to take it in.
This is a problem that three-quarters of the league never has to worry about. The Montreal Canadiens or New York Rangers will never be in any danger of relocation. Expansion teams get the tag by default, but with enough fan support, they can break away from the pack.
Only teams like the Thrashers (low attendance, ownership instability), the original Jets (small market), Panthers (woefully low attendance), Whalers (small market) and Islanders (low attendance, ownership instability, a shared market) have the "pleasure" of being the playing pieces for every fan's personal game of Risk. Solving the league's problems are easy - just move the unloved teams to the places that want them and watch the money roll in, right?
Not quite. There are still people that care about even the most forgotten teams.
(Side Story 2: Prior to getting my internship with the Islanders, I spent a season as one of the illustrious and historic Stan Fischler intern corps. I was in Stan's home office the night the Edmonton Oilers were nearly sold to Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander before a consortium of local business owners shelled out the dough to save the franchise. Waiting for updates on the Oilers situation also made me ruminate on where the Islanders future games would be played.)
I don't wish that type of existence on any fan. Following a relocation or contraction candidate removes all of the fun and escapism sports is supposed to be about. Wins don't feel all that good and losses feel like you're getting stabbed in the eye with an icepick. Either way, valuable time is ticking off the clock. When your team finds a great player, you preemptively get sad and angry thinking about how and when he's going to walk away and play for someone else. And when your team has a historic, bitter rival, you can lose sleep worrying about your favorite player suiting up for them and getting the love and money your shitty team could never afford.
Winnipeg fans have doubled their pleasure in both losing a team and gaining it back thanks to the economic strains of pro sports. I can't imagine the gamut of emotions fans felt between the time the Jets left and Jets 2: Jet Harder arrived.
This is why I don't see the Islanders' move to Brooklyn as an apocalyptic catastrophe or a reason for sadness. I don't have to read any more "Move them to Kansas City" articles. I don't have to feel that they're a grotesque pimple on the league. I don't have to be afraid that every loss is another nail their coffin or that every win is just a five-minute breather before the next stomach-turning rumor.
And I don't have to answer anxious questions from concerned dads who just want to know if they can still take their kid to a Islanders game next week.