This was the game I was most looking forward to and inspired the idea for this series. I was determined to take in a game at Nassau Coliseum this season with the three people in my family most directly affected (and in one case, responsible for) my Islanders fandom.
As soon as the schedule was released, I looked for a game that made the most sense for me, my wife, our daughter and my dad. The Saturday matinee against St. Louis worked perfectly, giving us plenty of time to get out to Long Island from New Jersey, take in the game, and get both my oldster dad and toddler daughter in bed at an almost normal hour.
I wish I could say the experience was a smashing success for all, but it wasn't. Not even close. In fact, this post is approximately 40% hockey thanks to lackluster performance by the home team. But as bad as the game was, it served as a good reminder of what people do when they truly care about you.
The game against the Blues was my wife's second Islanders game. They have been outscored 13-5 in those contests (the previous one was a 7-1 loss to Buffalo in 2008). As I mentioned in the last episode, she had never heard of the Islanders when we started dating, but now accepts them as a big part of my life and has come to casually cheer for them herself. Somehow, the team keeps coming up during her job as a teacher, and she and her students engage in some friendly trash talking.
(Side Note: In central New Jersey, most of the kids in her classes are Rangers fans. Of course. Poor Devils.)
She's never shied away from going to games and in fact has offered to go to more, only to have me back off because of time or distance. Despite not caring an ounce for what happens, she supports my fandom because it's a part of me and I'd be a different person without it (possibly one with less anxiety, but nevertheless).
I try not to give out love or dating advice because I realize that I just got incredibly lucky. But being with my wife did teach me a valuable lesson - that people that love you won't try to change you, and deserve the same treatment from you.
I've never once felt any pressure to stop playing video games or watching (and eventually writing about) the Islanders. Just as I have never pressured her to stop going out with her family or trying out for a new job or taking that extra class. We truly are a team, with roles shifting and one person picking up the slack when another has to focus elsewhere. We do have differences, mainly in superficial stuff like movie choices and the accepted cleanliness level of a car (seriously, she and my in-laws use our car as a garbage can). But that's all window dressing in the big picture.
The game against the Blues came and went with little significant excitement for her, although it was more entertaining than that blowout against the Sabres. And at least she didn't get locked out of the arena this time (it's a long story). After each of the Blues' six goals, she looked at me, frowned and mouthed "Sorry." She asked if I wanted to switch back to the seat I was in during the first period when the Islanders took their three goal lead in the hopes of reversing their fortune. The score didn't really matter to her, but she knew the Islanders tail-chasing was pissing me off. I appreciated her compassion, but there wasn't much I could do. That's the deal I made as a fan.
She came to game because she knows that the Islanders, the Coliseum and seeing them this season was of massive importance to me. And that, at some point, something of massive importance to her will arrive and I'll be there sitting right next to her.
My dad's not a big details guy. When I told him that Martin Brodeur was starting the second period in net for the Blues, he looked at me like he didn't hear me. "Marty Brodeur, with the Devils? He's in there right now," I said.
"Oh shoot," he said. "I thoughta he retire. I watch the Devil games, but I don't see him no more."
(You have to hear him say that in his Southern Italian accent to get the full effect).
I explained how Brodeur waited for a new contract that ended up coming from St. Louis. He had no idea. Once again, my dad and I had a moment to share together within the context of sport. And like a few others, it was a big deal without being a big deal.
My dad is one of my favorite people on Earth, but we really don't have much in common. He grew up in war-torn Italy during World War II. He's seen horrors I couldn't image even in a movie. He emigrated to America, met my mom who came from an identical background, started a family and moved to the suburbs. That's not a unique story, but it masks just how difficult and taxing the process was.
I, on the other hand, was the beneficiary of their hard work. Growing up on Long Island in the 80's might as well been a different planet than Italy in the 40's. My life was TV and comic books and video games and Carvel any time. His was backbreaking labor, paying bills and leaving his entire life across the ocean to create a new one here.
So sports was one of the few things that we could talk about together. In addition to the Islanders, we watched the Giants blow out the Broncos in one Super Bowl, sweat out Scott Norwood's missed field goal in another and saw Mookie Wilson hit a slow rolling single between Bill Buckner's feet as it happened.
It has been over 20 years since my dad had been to an Islanders game. It turns out, the only person he's ever gone to a game with is me, first as a kid and then this one. I never knew this. The circle of friends he and my mom had were more into bowling (which they did for my entire childhood) and hunting and playing cards. The Islanders of the 70's and 80's were extremely popular locally and everyone talked about them, he said. But until he had a son and some tickets became available, he never really felt the pull to go.
I also found out where he really got those tickets. It wasn't from his boss, as I had thought, but from landscapers, mostly from Long Island, that he met on the job. My dad worked for 30 years for a stone company out of the Bronx, delivering park benches, giant flower pots, concrete chess tables, statues and other works all over the East Coast. When delivering to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, he met some of the guys in charge of taking care of the flowers inside the lobby. They get to talking, they find out he lives on Long Island and maybe he'd like some tickets to a hockey game for him and his son.
We didn't go to a lot of games together, maybe three or four at the most. I don't remember the date or the score of our first game and keeping the ticket stubs wasn't something either of us thought to do. We probably went to more wrestling matches at the Coliseum than hockey games over the next few years.
Looking back, I think his unfamiliarity with hockey was a plus. We both didn't know much about the sport, but learned and found it enjoyable together. It wasn't about rules or stats so much as just taking it in and briefly celebrating a win or lamenting a loss. This is how he watches games now. Islanders, Rangers, Devils, Yankees, Mets or random hockey or football games or soccer matches on RAI Italia - he doesn't care who's on, just as long as the game is a good one.
His reaction to my invitation to the Islanders-Blues game was equally as nonchalant. What to me was a meaningful moment of recapturing my youth was to him a way to get out of the house between lunch and dinner on a lone Saturday in December. He sat as he always does during games; silently watching the action and either nodding or shrugging at goals depending on the situation.
Now, after all that working and years after he had to abandon bowling because of age, he's finally found a sport he can play again. He and my mom do the snowbird thing and spend their winters in Florida. He's on the golf course behind their condo every day, playing with whichever group needs an extra (my mother couldn't be dragged to a golf course with a team of horses).
Before the age of 65, my dad had never picked up a golf club in his life. Now, he's got three holes in ones to his credit and certificates to honor them. But don't ask him how he did them because he has no idea. It's not about details with him.
Four-year olds are fickle creatures. One minute, they're all-in on an adventure. The next minute, they grab a hold of your leg and want you both to not move for an indeterminate amount of time.
On the morning of her first Islanders game, my daughter was gung-ho and excited to see a big time hockey game for real. By the time we made the 90-minute trip to Long Island, she didn't want to leave my parents' house and cried all the way to the Coliseum. Once we sat down, she watched warm-ups like a hawk and asked a lot of questions. Then the game started and she covered her ears and curled up in a ball for the first period. She asked to go home the entire time, except for the moments when she was concerned about the whereabouts of Sparky the Dragon. Just before we left, we took pictures and she smiled like she was on Cloud 9.
So my mood alternated with her's. In the morning, I felt like we had a chance to make a real father-daughter connection for life. By about 2:30 pm, I felt like the world's most deplorable dad for making his kid sit through a show she wanted no part of.
But after a few days of reflection, I don't think I have anything to worry about. I got a chance to show her a place that's very important to daddy. And I told her about the retired numbers - the best of the best - and how my dad took me there when I was little and those guys in the rafters were still playing. She saw that grown up players have to practice just like everyone else. She heard the muffled sounds of a live game, the seat-shaking screams of a goal by the home team (and resulting "Yes!" chants) and the exasperated groans of a big lead getting washed away. At least she saw something new in a place she hadn't been before. And we went together as a family.
Today, a week after the Islanders game, we took in a live performance of Max & Ruby, a pair of bunny characters she likes from TV, books, etc. For an hour and 20 minutes, she was completely focused on the singing and dancing on stage. She loved it and missed the bunnies after we left. I told her we'd keep an eye out for more shows and maybe we'll get a chance to meet Max and Ruby one day soon.
I enjoyed watching her enjoy the show, even if it wasn't my idea of riveting entertainment. That was worth the price of admission alone.
Maybe she won't remember all the sights, sounds and smells she took in at that Islanders game. But just as I get to watch her formulate her personality and likes and dislikes as they happen, I think she deserves a chance to see some things that helped create mine. If she wants to join me in liking hockey and the Islanders, that's great. If she doesn't, that's great, too.