My enduring memory of Islanders-Rangers games at Nassau Coliseum, the last regular season one ever to be played tonight, is from a game that meant nothing. In it, a mediocre, overhyped goalie, jersey-less and enraged, rained ferocious fists upon a mediocre, underhyped goalie in no danger of fighting back.
That mental picture says a lot about the rivalry and the fans that drive it.
The 1997-98 season was a bad one for New York hockey. The Rangers would lose their captain, fire their coach and miss the playoffs. The Islanders were in the middle of their most fallow and hopeless period, but at least they had some excuses: no ownership, no money, a mad man at the helm. The Rangers, on the other hand, kept trying to throw money at their problems and just kept making matters worse.
On April 4, 1998, the Islanders led 3-0 when Islanders coach/GM Mike Milbury called a timeout, angering 900-year old Rangers coach John Muckler, who felt Milbury was showing him up. Milbury denied this, but when you're the league's preeminent shit-stirrer, you don't get the benefit of the doubt. Muckler decided to enact some Hammurabi Code action at the next face-off and sent out a goon squad including crooked-nosed coke machines PJ Stock and Darren Langdon. Milbury did not reciprocate for some reason, putting his top scoring line of Trevor Linden, Mariusz Czerkawski and Zigmund Palffy out to take the draw.
All hell broke loose. Linden handled himself the best he could like the tough veteran he was, while Czerkawski seemed caught completely unawares and didn't fare well. Palffy and his man held each other's collars and danced because they're not stupid. A young but still very, very tall Zdeno Chara hooked up with someone.
Dan Cloutier was one of a string of goalies the Rangers employed between Mike Richter and Henrik Lundqvist that were woefully unequipped to carry a team no matter how much their beat writers said they could. Tommy Salo was so vanilla that his own coach didn't like him, but he deserved better than to have to drag around some of the worst rosters in the NHL at the time.
And so they came together near the Islanders blueline, Salo coming to the aid of a distressed Czerkawski and Cloutier comically flying across the ice like he was charging at a mugger. Salo never landed a punch. Cloutier beat on him mercilessly, his jersey doffed, his hair flying and with 16,000-plus people yelling at him to either keep going or knock it off.
Cloutier, feeling the like King of the World for beating up on a well-intentioned Swede, then challenged the entire Islanders bench to come at him. Poor Salo never even got to finish his shutout (Wade Flaherty did).
Islanders-Rangers games at Nassau Coliseum are a harsh reminder that the Islanders will always and forever be New York's second favorite hockey team. It has always been this way and will always be this way long after the Ol' Barn is just a parking lot. The stakes mean nothing. The crowd is, at best, an even 50-50 split and the stands are packed with swaths of red and blue, worn by folks who have no hesitation of going to another team's arena to root on the visitors.
These are the people who should be the most upset about the Islanders moving to Brooklyn; Long Island-based Rangers fans who bank on the four or five games a year in which they don't have to pay New York City prices to see New York City's hockey team. They used to get tickets from an Islanders fan friend or neighbor (who has nor the time or the energy to put up a fight), throw on a rival jersey, see a game surrounded by plenty of back-up and never leave Nassau County, which is the prime directive of most suburbanites. But they are now no longer the chosen, golden children. You want to see your team, get on a train and bring your wallet.
Unlike some of my friends, I am terrified of an Islanders-Rangers playoff series. Many have said it would be "epic." It would - for the winner. They'll weave tales of it for years like a bedtime story told to good children. For the losers, a playoff series will mean bitter, traumatic disappointment that they may never recover from. No thank you.
The concept of "bragging rights" between these two teams is preposterous anyway. The most vocal Rangers fans are constantly bragging about their team, regardless of where it is in the standings. The Glory of 1994 has not faded one iota in 21 years. And almost all Islanders fans are unwavering, unshakable, inconsolable pessimists, having been conditioned for generations to expect the other shoe to drop any minute and someone to come take their toys away.
What makes this rivalry so intense even in the most trivial games is that those two camps, as well as the million other shades in between them, are often found in one family or one block or one office or one group of friends. Fans of visiting teams come to Nassau Coliseum all the time. They watch the game and go home, never to be seen again.
But with the Islanders and Rangers, the enemy is your brother, your mother, your best friend, your boss, your mailman, your grocery store cashier. They're everywhere. And they don't forget.
Sometimes they roar for a Dan Cloutier and sometimes they weep for a Tommy Salo.