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Fastest Man Alive: Michael Grabner and the hilariousness of hockey

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A special memory of a special game and a special player.

The Uber Gremlin
The Uber Gremlin
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

I don't remember ever laughing out loud at a hockey game before. Like, real laughing. Not a chuckle at an absurdly soft goal or a inconceivably boneheaded decision. I mean just losing it like the game was a movie or a TV show that hit whatever sweet spot triggers big, huge belly laughs.

It was February, 13, 2011 and the Islanders had just beaten the Sabres 7-6 on an overtime breakaway goal by Michael Grabner, his third of the game and second career hat trick. The preceding 12 goals were just as bonkers as the final one and the entire game was a ridiculous display of circus shots, scrambling goalies, crazy angles and stupid bounces that was one of the funniest things I had watched on TV in that or any other year.

It's still funny today:

The Islanders had been left for dead that season following a dreadful November. Coach Scott Gordon had been fired, captain Mark Streit was out for the season and Kyle Okposo had just gotten back from injury after missing three months. But the win against Buffalo was in the middle of a resurgence and improbable push for the playoffs that was being led by and electric rookie from Austria.

After a slow first month, Grabner took off and looked like he was playing on a different level than the rest of the league. You can joke about a player using a real-life NHL '94 speedburst, but people that didn't watch Grabner that year really have no idea what that phrase is all about. He was like Quicksilver years before X-Men: Days of Future Past was adapted to film. It made no sense. He made no sense. But it was awesome to watch.

They didn't make the playoffs that year, but I remembered that game against the Sabres at the end of the season. I felt the Islanders were finally - finally - moving in the right direction and a guy like Grabner, plucked from the waiver wire from the Panthers in training camp, was going to be the kind of special supplemental player that they needed to surround John Tavares with.

Grabner played with a breakneck pace that I loved. He had found chemistry with Okposo and Frans Nielsen (dubbed the FNGO line right at this very blog), and seemed to get clear breakaways at least twice a game. He attended the All Star Game that year and won the Fastest Skater competition. He was a finalist for the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year, leading all rookies with 34 goals.

It wasn't just his game that was fun. Grabner's sense of humor showed through his revelatory Twitter account, where he talked about his love of tattoos, Sons of Anarchy, his then-newborn son and taking Tavares' money in poker. His nickname, "The Gremlin" was made into shirts with his Twitter handle, @grabs40, on the back. So along with a potable weapon on the ice, the team also had a marketable player to go along with Tavares.

Sadly, that player hasn't been seen for some time. And now Grabner is an ex-Islander, having been traded to Toronto for a package of five prospects.

During that crazy rookie season, Grabner looked superhuman. But like any athlete, he isn't. The groin issues popped up in his second year. A shoulder injury the next. Concussions and sports hernias next. More and more games lost to injury. The blazing speed became slightly less blazing and the goal numbers dried up.

But the promise, the possibility of seeing rookie year Grabner again kept me rooting for him. I wanted to see it again because that Grabner had brought me - literally - to tears of joy and highs I hadn't ever really felt while watching hockey.

It's ironic that one of the other factors credited with straightening the Islanders out in 2011 was new head coach Jack Capuano, who had taken off the shackles imposed by Scott Gordon and allowed his young team to freely explore their offensive potential.

Now, four years later, Capuano is being cited as one of, if not the chief reason, that Grabner is gone. His curious handling of Grabner (decreased ice time, unstable linemates, taking him off the penalty kill despite obvious defensive talent, benchings at weird times) has driven this fanbase nuts for years. To us, Grabner was a unique and powerful superweapon that just needed to be unleashed upon the league, not stapled to the bench or getting less PT than more limited players like Matt Martin or Casey Cizikas.

I don't know enough about the Capuano-Grabner relationship to assume they were at odds, and I'm too tired to make up wild Slash Fic about how I think they did or didn't get along. There have been rumblings that Capuano's "passengers" criticisms have been aimed at Grabner over the years. If they have, Capuano's definition of a "passenger" is very different than mine.

It could have been the injuries, or the up-and-coming players or the coach. Whatever it was, Grabner's time in blue-and-orange is at an end.

I will never forget laughing my ass off through that 2011 game against Buffalo. I saw Michael Grabner play hockey in ways I had never seen before. I hope and expect to see him do more of those things in the future. I'll be a fan of his wherever he goes in his career.

But I can't shake the feeling that I missed out on some more laughs while he was still in an Islanders uniform.