I took a non-traditional route to being the die-hard Islanders fan that I am today. I was born on Long Island, but I've lived in Manhattan for 10 years now, and I didn't become a real fan of hockey until I was 15. That is probably due to having been born in the Fisherman Era. My parents did have season tickets, and they both were, and still are, huge fans of the team. They are such big fans that in 1993, they named one of our first cats, Darius, after Darius Kasparaitis. In 1996, a few months before I was born, they bought a teddy bear wearing a vintage navy Islanders sweater, and that 20-year old teddy bear is still in my room today. When I was little, my parents took me to games, but I don't really remember them. By the time I was six, my mom wasn't watching hockey anymore (I think it was too painful for her to watch the team be mismanaged), so I wasn't raised going to Islanders games all the time. I was also going through the "cooties" phase at school, so I started hanging out with only girls, and hockey seemed to be only for boys. I still knew who the Islanders were, though, and that they were my team (also, that the Rangers sucked). We had, and still have, a newspaper clipping on our refrigerator that announces, in bold letters, "BEWARE OF DARIUS." I laugh whenever I look at it because it reminds me of our cat, Darius (he died 11 years ago) and how tough he was, just like his namesake.
By the time I started watching hockey for real, I was 15, and my mom and I had moved from Long Island to Manhattan several years previously. I still remember the moment the passion for hockey was awakened inside me. It was May 2012, and I was doing homework in my room. All of a sudden, I heard a scream come from the living room. I ran outside, thinking my mom was hurt, but she was elated; the Devils had just beaten the Rangers in OT, sending them to the Stanley Cup Final. I had never heard my mom scream like that in my life, nor had I ever seen her be so passionate about anything before. It wasn't even the Islanders playing; she was happy because the Rangers were eliminated from the playoffs. Right then and there, I was inextricably hooked; I wanted to feel the passion that my mom felt for the game of hockey.
In my mind, there are two key ingredients that make us as Islanders fans different and better than any other fanbase in the NHL, or any other professional sports league, for that matter. The first is that we celebrate in epic fashion when our team triumphs, and we take their losses hard and personally, but win or lose, we stick with our team through it all. I don't think any other fanbase would stick with their team the way Islanders fans did throughout the mid-late 90s and 00s. The second is that my fellow Islanders fans and the team are like a second family. While we as fans might disagree with players' techniques and rip into them when they screw up, we don't do it because we hate them, it's the opposite; we love and care about our team, and we want them to succeed so much that our passion overrides our self-control. The message boards on Lighthouse Hockey and Isles Twitter are perfect examples of that.
Hockey, Passion, Playoffs Return in 2013
Anyway, back to my personal story with the Islanders. The hockey season didn't start again until January 2013, thanks to the lockout, so I browsed the Internet in the interim, learning the ins and outs of the game. When the season started, I peppered both of my parents with endless questions about penalties, icings, and what makes a play offside; they were both at their wit's end within a few weeks. That spring, the Islanders went to the playoffs for the first time since 2007, and I went to Games 3 and 6. I received my first Islanders jersey right before Game 3; it was an outrageously oversized Tavares jersey, but I loved it all the same. When we arrived, fans were barbecuing and mingling outside the Marriott. After my mom and I had lunch at Champion's, we walked to the Coliseum.
During that walk, I felt like I was among old friends. While I had left Long Island behind, Long Island hadn't left me completely; the Islanders kept us connected. When we went inside the arena, the Old Barn was electric; fans were going crazy, chanting almost an hour before the game started, so much that the floor vibrated. In both Games 3 and 6, the Isles lost in OT (both during a penalty kill thanks to Brian Strait, I believe), and both times, I felt the loss in my bones, crushing my insides. That doesn't mean there weren't good moments during that series, though. Everyone in the Barn went crazy whenever the Isles scored a goal, and the two I remember most vividly were courtesy of Kyle Okposo and Casey Cizikas. I remember chanting, "Fleuuuury," in an attempt to psych Marc-Andre Fleury out, and feeling an absolute rush whenever he made a mistake, because in a small way, I was helping my team win. It was during the Isles-Pittsburgh series that I really began to appreciate and understand what being an Islanders fan meant: being passionate about the game of hockey and our team.
A Matt Martin Wave at MSG
The Islanders did not go to the playoffs in the 2013-14 season, but I still followed the team closely as ever. I went to one or two games at the Old Barn and to every game they played at Madison Square Garden, where my mom and I were generally the only people watching the Islanders during warm-ups. I'll never forget when Matt Martin waved at me during a warm-up in January; I think he was happy that there were Islanders fans, even just two, supporting them in enemy territory. I felt, and still feel, a kinship with him, and he won a fan for life that evening.
Despite still being afraid to wear my jersey to MSG, scared of the Rangers trolls, Matty appreciated me being there, and I appreciated his gesture. My fear of wearing an Islanders jersey to MSG eroded during the 2014-15 season. There was a feeling of change surrounding the team; the Islanders were moving to the Barclays Center the following year, and the roster was visibly different. The Isles had traded for Jaroslav Halak, an actually capable goalie (sorry, Nabby) and my favorite player, Anders Lee, made his debut.
By the time January 2015 rolled around, I had received a new jersey for Christmas (#27, of course), and when the Islanders played at MSG on the 13th, I wore it when I attended the game. There were a few mutters of "Fish sticks" from petty Rangers fans, but more often, I got to high-five fellow Islanders fans, some of whom complimented me on my jersey.
That game was different than the previous games at MSG; I was no longer a lone Islanders fan in a sea of Rangers fans, but a part of a group of Islanders fans invading enemy territory together. The other reason it was different was that the Islanders actually won; to be precise, we trounced the Rangers.
I still remember every single goal, especially the one Frans Nielsen scored on a breakaway during a penalty kill. I was looking down, afraid to watch because the Rangers were in the Isles zone on their power play, but then, everyone got out of their seats and craned their necks the other way. I got up just in time to see Frans skate towards Henrik Lundqvist and score. I started screaming out of pure joy while disappointed Rangers fans slumped into their seats.
That night, the Islanders shut out the Rangers on MSG ice, and by the end of the game, the only people remaining in the arena were Islanders fans, Rangers fans having fled during the 3rd period; we cheered as our team skated off the ice. I remember gleefully walking from 7th Avenue to Park Avenue South to get to the 6 train after the game, not caring about the cold, because all was well; the Islanders were on top of the world, and so was I.
Things got darker during the playoffs in April. I was at Game 4 of the Isles-Washington series with my dad, and we were sitting by Jaro's net when Lubomir Visnovsky went into the corner to retrieve a puck, and Tom Wilson careened into him. I don't know how I knew, but right then and there, I had the gut-wrenching feeling that Viz's hockey career was over. I watched in horror as Hickey confronted Wilson, and Viz was led off the ice.
Later, I watched the television in searing anger as Wilson made an excuse for his inexcusable hit, as Brooks Laich said it was a "good penalty" to take, implying that severely injuring another team's player is not only fine, but to be encouraged, and as the league refused to suspend or fine Wilson. In each instance, I felt personally wronged, and my heart broke for Viz. He had been so happy after Game 3, and to see his career end the way it did was truly awful. Many Islanders players and fans still hate Wilson today, and so do I; when an opposing player hurts one of our players the way Wilson did, I hate them with every fiber of my being. That's in an Islanders fan's nature; we are protective of our own.
Riding the Train to Brooklyn
The 2015-16 season was the first year the Islanders were at the Barclays Center. I know this is not a popular opinion throughout the fanbase, but I was excited to see the Islanders move to Brooklyn. I'll admit that there were selfish reasons that factored into my opinion (my team was only a subway ride away), but I also felt, and still feel, that Brooklyn gives the Islanders a unique marketing opportunity that they've never had before.
As a major market sports team, the media gives the Islanders more press, which in turn gives John Tavares more opportunities to shine and be appreciated and adored like he never would be if the Islanders remained a small-market team. I went to the season opener versus the Blackhawks, and to multiple other games in the regular season, soaking up the experience that I never had before of regularly watching the Islanders play live.
Before games, my mom and I ride the 4/5 train or the Q train. After games, the 4/5 train often does not run in Brooklyn, so we either take the 2/3 and transfer, or take the Q. Regardless of the number or letter of the train we take, there are many Islanders fans decked out in jerseys and other gear. Before then, I had no idea that there were so many other Islanders fans living in the city, but after the 2014-15 season, it was as if the taboo surrounding the Islanders dissipated.
For me, the best train rides are after games the Islanders have won; all the fans buzz with happiness, and we talk to each other, rehashing the game. When the Islanders lose, we sit or stand on the train in depressed silence. One time after a loss, a man got on the train at Nevins Street, saw the Islanders jerseys, and said, "How was the game?" Most of us gave him a look, and one or two said, "We lost," in a glum and slightly irritated tone. The man said nothing else.
'We Did It! We Did It!'
That spring, the Islanders went to the playoffs again, this time playing the Florida Panthers in the first round. I turned 19 on the same day as Game 3; I spent the evening at the Barc, watching in glum disappointment as the Isles gave up three goals, which quickly decreased to two, and then in sheer delight as Ryan Pulock and Thomas Hickey saved the day and helped the Islanders win Game 3.
Before the game, my parents asked me if I was sure I wanted to spend my birthday at a hockey game. I responded that there was no place I'd rather be than with the Islanders and my fellow fans. That was when I truly understood the second unique part of being an Islanders fan; the fanbase and the team are like a second family. There is no other moment that sums that up more than Game 6 of the first round.
During double OT, I was practically falling asleep in my seat, exhausted. I had gotten up out of my seat along with everyone else whenever the Islanders came by us and Luongo's net, but nothing ever happened. So I sat in my seat as everyone else got up again, thinking it was going to amount to nothing. But then everyone started going crazy, jumping up and down and screaming. Without seeing what had happened, I jolted out of my seat and started screaming too, because I knew what must have happened; the Islanders won their first playoff series in 23 years.
Everyone in the arena was screaming their heads off, partly in relief of having the long curse broken, and partly in sheer happiness of seeing our team have hope again.
I hugged my mom tightly, and I shouted, "We did it! We did it!" and the people in front of us and next to us reached over for a high-five. The players were just as excited, and my heart swelled in pride as they skated down the handshake line. As I half walked, half skipped out of the arena, I was jubilant. One of the ushers high-fived me as we exited the arena; then, we walked into the train station to get on the 2 train. As we sat on the train, Islanders fans chattering all around us, I realized that this was not all that different from tailgating at the Old Barn. Sure, no one was barbecuing on the train, and we weren't outside, but Islanders fans were still mingling together; it's what I like to call traingating.
I know that the Islanders' future in Brooklyn is tenuous at best, and that the Islanders might go back to Long Island, which many fans say is their "true" home, but in my opinion, it doesn't matter where the team is playing. As the famous saying goes, "Home is not a place, but a feeling," and I've felt it at both the Old Barn and the Barc. The building doesn't factor into the Islanders' identity as a franchise; it is we, the fans, who define it. We make whatever venue the Islanders play in our home, because the fans are the team's home and heart.
I will follow the Islanders wherever they play next, or if they stay in Brooklyn, because being an Islanders fan is a part of my identity that cannot be erased, and I know that my fellow Islanders fans feel the same. That is the best part about being an Islanders fan: we are loyal to our team through the highs and the lows, and together, we are a family.