I've said a few times that I don't remember a lot of details about my first Islanders game at Nassau Coliseum. One detail I do remember is Pat LaFontaine.
He was the hot player back then, and I clearly recall fans wearing his jersey and talking about him in the stands and amping up their excitement whenever he carried the puck. I have no idea if he scored in that game, or even if the Islanders won, but anyone getting that much attention - and with that cool a last name - had to be special.
Nobody could guess what would happen in the next few years: LaFontaine carrying some talent-deficient teams on his back, his holdout and trade to Buffalo, his concussions, his trade to the (ugh) Rangers and retirement after one final head injury. But he was a star then and only grew more famous over the seasons. To this day, he is my favorite hockey player of all time (and the sneakiest automatic player in the EA Sports NHL video game series).
So it's fitting that he be present at what could possibly be my last Islanders game at Nassau Coliseum, barring any charity playoff tickets. As part of the many, many cameo appearances of great Islanders throughout this season, LaFontaine took one final turn at center ice after burying the hatchet with management over the failed "front office by committee" gambit.
This being the NHL, there have been roughly four million changes to the game since LaFontaine's Islanders years. These days, LaFontaine is a man of many hats - founder of the Companions in Courage charity foundation, NHL big shot, speaker on the dangers of head injuries, dad of a young hockey player and beloved former player and U.S. Olympian. Thinking it over as the game went on, almost nothing about this evening mirrored my first games.
March of Time
The Islanders opponents, the Minnesota Wild, didn't exist back then. I don't think I ever saw the old North Stars play at the Coliseum and this was my first time seeing the Wild live. My single enjoyable Minnesota Wild memory involved some playful trash talk with an Avalanche fan friend back when Minnesota upset Colorado in the 2003 playoffs. I spent this game hoping to not see goals by former Islanders Thomas Vanek, Nino Niederreiter and pseudo-Islander Jared Spurgeon. (Thankfully, I didn't.)
There were no Ice Girls back then, either, so I wouldn't have unexpectedly run into two of them on the way to my seats, as Keith, Mike and I did before this game. Even if I did find myself in the same space with them when I was younger, I probably would have tried to crawl under the nearest seat.
The Islanders didn't have a mascot when LaFontaine played for them. At one point tonight, a giant fuzzy head with antlers emerged from the stairs right below me. It was Sparky, the Islanders ubiquitous and strangely controversial mascot, who had come to take some pictures with some delighted kids in our section. I tried to get a good, close-up picture of the dragon, but he was practically on top of me. I never minded Sparky (or his brand synergistic origins and different-colored arena football doppelganger), but he was never meant for me. I don't need cartoons to get me to enjoy a hockey game. But my daughter loves her stuffed Sparky doll and was very interested in him in the one game we got to earlier this season.
The game ended in a shootout, which LaFontaine never participated in (and geez, would he have been a killer at them). The Islanders lost this particular one, with the winner being scored by Zach Parise, who has some LaFontaine-esque qualities to him. An American, an Olympian, a captain, a fearless offensive player and a guy who gets praised for his attitude and work ethic as much as his point totals. I won't dwell too much on how Parise could have been an Islander, but I do think he would have been a popular one for the same reasons people gravitated to LaFontaine as the Dynasty guys retired or left.
A Different World
Throughout all of those changes, one bigger than the Islanders is what's really causing them to move. Contrary to widespread belief, the Islanders aren't leaving Nassau County because the Coliseum is old or small or smelly. Professional sports and the way we enjoy them has changed. A modest standalone arena, not owned by its main tenant, accessible only by car, with severely limited ancillary revenue streams and little to no room for expansion isn't enough any more. The days of piling in the station wagon, seeing a game, a getting home before the 11:00 news are over.
No team can live on that any more, if they ever could. So the Islanders will decamp for a modern building in a denser area and with a fat new revenue stream, hoping to enjoy at least some of the advantages their rivals have for years.
I'm not the same person I was when I first saw Pat LaFontaine play. I'm much older, happier and comfortable with myself than I ever have been. LaFontaine's not the same person he was then, transitioning from athletic competition to other, more important, battles. Hockey isn't the same. Life isn't the same.
Nassau Coliseum is the same, exactly the way it's home county wants it to stay.
It's high time for the Islanders to change.
Thanks to everyone for reading this series and taking this journey with me. I wasn't sure what these games would hold when the season started and what I would even write about. But each time, I found both old memories and new experiences that made my final trips to the Coliseum extra enriching. As always, there are things I wish I had done or thought about at the time, but I'll just add them to my trunk of mental souvenirs. The Islanders record in games I saw live this season was 2-4 and there's no guarantee I see any playoff games. But I'm satisfied that I can walk away from Nassau Coliseum without any unfinished business.