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Why I’m a Fan of the New York Islanders: Pride goeth... after the fall

Sit back and let an old man tell you about the old days... of the 1980’s.

Islanders home crest

Welcome to the refreshed Lighthouse Hockey! To celebrate the new look and feel of our sports communities, we’re sharing stories of how and why we became fans of our favorite teams. If you’d like to share your story, head over to the FanPosts to write your own post. Each FanPost will be entered into a drawing to win a $500 Fanatics gift card [contest rules]. We’re collecting all of the stories here and featuring the best ones across our network as well. Come Fan With Us!

My dad is a fan of sports, but not necessarily any team in particular. Today - 81, retired and mostly biding his time between golf and gardening - he’ll watch basically any game on TV between any two teams. Islanders, Rangers, Devils, Mets, Yankees, any NFL game, two random second tier teams playing soccer on RAI Italia, stuff on tape delay, bowling. He doesn’t care. Just as long as it’s not some warmed-over police procedural (in either English or Italian) that my mom is watching.

So when he took me to Islanders games as a kid, it wasn’t because he was some orange-and-blue bleeding, face-painting fanatic in a Billy Smith jersey. We went because it was the 80’s, we lived on Long Island and going to Islanders games is just what people on Long Island did back then. Like going to Jones Beach or the Sunrise Mall or Carvel or that deathtrap on Route 110, Adventureland.

I consider myself a Post Dynasty Islanders fan since I was alive but very young for the run of four straight Stanley Cups the team went on between 1980 and 1983, plus another appearance in the final in ‘84. My all time favorite player to this day is Pat LaFontaine, who was the big star of that time for the Islanders, along with notables like Patrick Flatley and Kelly Hrudey.

Even though those teams weren’t as good as the dynasty teams were (and, in fairness, how could anybody be?), there was still always a buzz about the Islanders at that time, and the team was a regular talking point for the locals (or, in my case, at school). You weren’t, “That Hockey Guy” at your job or in your class because everyone was at least a casual fan.

By that point, about 20 years into their existence, the Islanders and their players were deeply woven into the community*. The pride in them was palpable. Conversations about the team were just normal occurrences, as were sightings and connections all over the place. Your mechanic also worked on Clark Gillies’ car, or you saw Bryan Trottier at a restaurant or your neighbor’s girlfriend babysat some player’s kids or Bob Nystrom would do a commercial for some local business. Anything was possible because this was Long Island’s Team, which also happened to be one of the greatest teams ever assembled in any sport ever. It was a thrill seeing a (probable) Hall of Famer out in the wild.

The Islanders were covered daily by multiple reporters and columnists in multiple papers. A player on a hot streak was a star, one in a slump was a bum and by their next game, the roles were reversed. That’s not to say everyone agreed on every subject (the only consensus Islanders fans have ever come to is that there is no consensus), but chances were that they had an opinion.

But things are different now. The okay-but-not-championship-quality Post Dynasty teams gave way to some truly brutal rosters by the mid-1990’s (with one notable exception). Thanks to a succession of bad or actual criminal owners, questionable management decisions by two doofy general managers, an antiquated, crumbling arena used as a political football by a long line of inept local politicians and a ton of losses and missed playoffs, the Islanders eventually receded into the background.

Slowly, regular media coverage dried up (leaving the team with one, lone travelling beatwriter), and exhausting stories about the never-ending but unsuccessful push for a new Nassau Coliseum became the dominant storyline for the team each and every season. The arena issues continue even now, two seasons after the necessary but messy move to Barclays Center, which turned off some longtime fans who weren’t interested in travelling to see the same mediocre team that used to play just a few minutes away.

Whatever successes the Islanders had since the Dynasty were short-lived and failed to fully reignite that fire that once burned across an entire community.

Following the Islanders today isn’t the same natural event that it was when I got into them. If someone wants an NHL team to root for (to the extent that they care about hockey at all, which is also hardly a given), they can choose between the always-struggling Islanders, the high-profile, 100-point team that’s just a short train ride into Manhattan**, one of the seven teams in constant rotation on the league’s flagship basic cable partner or literally any team from Vladivostok to Vancouver and back with just the click of a mouse.

Over time, Islanders fandom moved underground to various, untamed corners of the internet. For those of us that were “That Hockey Guy” in any given situation, sites like Lighthouse Hockey were like a beacon in the darkness. People actually talking about the Islanders? The current Islanders? Because they want to, not because they’re humoring you or being polite? Crazy.

Then again, it’s possible that I’m mis-remembering feelings from 30 years ago. Obviously, despite all of my emo whining, the Islanders have managed to pick up new fans even during their darkest days. I moved out of my parents’ house in Nassau County in 2001, joining my best friend in a brand new but oddly-designed place in Brooklyn (Hey, just like the Islanders!). But even at the time I left, those old glory days were long over.

I live in New Jersey now, and my wife and daughter have casually co-opted the Islanders because, sadly for them, I actually am an orange-and-blue bleeding (but not face-painting) fanatic in a Pat LaFontaine jersey. All because I grew up in the right place at the right time and I can still remember that pride that used to permeate through an entire island.

Believe me. I realize the rich irony of a guy with “@cultureoflosing” as his Twitter handle complaining about lost pride in his favorite sports franchise. It’s a very complicated issue. But sometime in the near future, I’d like for that pseudonym to be a humbling reminder of a long ago fallow era that I don’t have to re-live every season.

*-That tradition continues to today’s Islanders, who all make multiple appearances at schools, hospitals and events all year long around their adopted home. It’s been an old joke among fans for years: For all the trouble the Islanders have had getting guys to play for them, once they get here, they never want to leave. Even from the team’s early days, it’s consistently been the place were players have returned to live after their careers are over. I mean, the Matt Martin Hockey Academy is still based out of Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow, a year after he signed with the Maple Leafs.

**-Long Islanders have always been able to choose the Rangers, which is why that rivalry has remained so furious for so long. Families, friendships, houses, businesses, relationships - all divided along these intense, immovable lines. You always knew where the other person stood and you knew they wouldn’t budge an inch because it would be a sign of weakness.

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