The date is May 6, 1993. I'm seven years old, riding shotgun in my father's Chevy Lumina as he drives down East 12th Street in Sheepshead Bay, the south Brooklyn neighborhood in which I live. He rolls down the window and lights a cigarette before merging onto the Belt Parkway East, towards Long Island, swirls of smoke hovering in the air, absorbing into the maroon seat cushions.
We are on the way to Nassau Coliseum to attend what will be my first hockey game: Game 3 of the New York Islanders' second round playoff series against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
While driving, my dad tells me stories about the dynasty years. He tells me about how GM Bill Torrey assembled the greatest hockey team ever, starting with his hiring of Al Arbour as head coach. He tells me about Trottier's two-way play and Potvin's hip checks; about Bossy's 50-in-50; about the trade for Butch Goring, and about his old dog, a Great Dane he named Butchie.
He tells me what Nassau Coliseum was like on May 24, 1980, when Tonelli found Nystrom in overtime and the team lifted its first Stanley Cup.
I listen intently, yet wholly incapable of truly understanding what those Islanders teams accomplished in winning four consecutive Stanley Cups. Having been following hockey for only a few months, I simply lack the proper perspective through which to view this feat.
The "other shoe" has yet to drop for this franchise. We haven't yet been swept by the Rangers, who haven't yet broken their drought. Mad Mike Milbury's decade-long reign of terror hasn't yet begun. I don't yet know who John Spano is or what fishsticks are. Our backup goalie hasn't yet signed the starting goalie to a 15-year contract, because our backup goalie hasn't yet been hired as the GM. None of this has happened. Yet.
One day, I will truly come to appreciate what this franchise accomplished in the early 1980's. That day is not today.
Today, right now, I am on the way to my first hockey game, and based on what I know about the past (dynasty) and the present (playoff run), in my mind, the Islanders = Greatness. That's just how it is, how it has been, and so surely that's how it will continue to be. Amen.
As we hop onto the Southern State Parkway, my mind wanders into the darkness. There's a monster that's been giving me nightmares over the last week, and I'm worried about a potential run-in tonight. That's because this monster was last seen in the place we are going to right now.
The monster's name is Dale Hunter.
It was in last week's Game 6 against Washington when Hunter viciously assaulted my favorite player, Pierre Turgeon, from behind, after Turgeon's breakaway goal had effectively ended Washington's season. The moment traumatized me such that I will forever equate the very notion of "evil" with Dale Hunter's face.
And my father is now telling me that Dale Hunter hasn't left the Coliseum since the incident, that he's actually waiting for me in the parking lot. He knows this because Al Arbour - with whom he spoke on the phone earlier - told him. I believe him because I am, by virtue of my tender age and limited life experience, an idiot.
So as we take Exit 22N to the Meadowbrook State Parkway, I start to accept my fate. If Dale Hunter murders me tonight, at least I will die beside my father, at an Islanders game.
"Just kidding," he says. I may yet live to see eight after all.
After taking the winding, circular road off Exit M4 onto Hempstead Turnpike, I lay my eyes on Nassau Coliseum for the very first time. She's a magnificent beast, beautiful in every imaginable way. My home white Islanders jersey hangs down to my knees as we walk towards the entrance, smells of barbecue in the air, Let's-Go-Islanders chants breaking out from every direction. I've never seen this many people before. They are everywhere, these Islanders fans, and they are loud. As we enter the Coliseum, my heart is going BUH-boom...BUH-boom...BUH-boom.
Our seats are right next to the visiting Penguins bench. I'm captivated by the immense size and speed of these players. As the opening faceoff is dropped, the crowd is abuzz, the atmosphere positively exhilarating.
It dies down after two quick rebound goals give Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead in the first. The second goal was scored by no. 68 in black, who's got a magnificent mullet spilling out the back of his Jofa helmet.
When the red-hot Ray Ferraro finally puts the Islanders on the board with a PP goal, the crowd comes back alive. The goal celebration is a thing unto itself, an immense moment that will resonate with me long after tonight. I've never experienced anything even remotely similar to the thunderous sound of sixteen thousand-plus lunatics roaring in unison. I want that to happen again, and I want it to happen right now.
But right now, there are ten minutes left in the game, the Isles still down 2-1. The Penguin through the glass to my immediate right has barely left this spot at the end of his bench, clearly injured in some way. He keeps talking to a trainer while pointing to his back, which has a big, yellow #66 on it.
I watch as he returns from a quick shift and angrily breaks his stick against the boards. As he heads back to his spot, he looks at me, and I at him. I notice the "C" on his chest when he faces me and reaches up with his stick, passing it to me over the glass partition separating us. I grab onto it, unsure as to whether I've entered a dream state.
He grabs a new stick and when he takes his next shift with under a minute to go, uses it to pass the puck up to a teammate, who scores into an empty net. I have no idea what that's about. Maybe Glenn Healy went to go take a shit at an inopportune time; we'll likely never know.
The Islanders lose, 3-1 but the night is so special, I don't even care. Walking up the stairs, my father notices the stick given to me is nearly snapped in half. "What are you gonna do with a broken hockey stick?" he asks me. I have no answer for my old man. I am seven years old and have no idea this stick was given to me by one of the greatest to ever play the game, Mario Lemieux. My father holds his hand out and I give him the stick, which he drops into a garbage can as we make the first of what will be several hundred exits from the Nassau Coliseum.
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