clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Our Own Show: Inside the “Stone Age” technology of the old Nassau Coliseum scoreboard

New, comments

The difference between the letter P and the letter F on the board was one light bulb.

North Stars v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images

(Dan here. Here’s another guest post from reader Harry Klaff, who was the Islanders correspondent for The Hockey News and, as you’ll see, a former team employee with a most interesting job. Thanks again to Harry for the story. Enjoy.)

I’m back to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the old black and white scoreboard that hung at center ice between 1974 and 1985. I was part of the three-man team that did some remarkable things with stone-age technology.

I was the programmer. My job was to input the description of the penalties, starting lineups, out of town scores (with the goal scorers), and anything else that came up during the course of the game.

George Ogle was the full-time operator who worked in the scoreboard room near the roof of the Coliseum. Next time you’re at the Coli (and there WILL be a next time), look above the press box. You’ll see a couple of windows at the very top. That was (and still is) Mission Control for the scoreboard. A third team member, Dom Sodano, was the technician responsible for making sure the board worked properly.

Original Islanders fans will remember that for the first two seasons, the “scoreboard” was a bare bones contraption that was borrowed from Skateland in New Hyde Park. It gave you the score, the time, and the penalties. Nothing else.

The brand-new board was built by Chicago-based Stewart-Warner, who initially made automobile gauges, and later became a big-time military contractor for the Defense Department. They started to dabble in the scoreboard business around 1966, and built a number of boards for stadiums and arenas around the country, including Giants Stadium.

The Nassau Coliseum scoreboard, used from 1974-1985. You can see the Stewart-Warner wordmark in the lower left corner.
Harry Klaff

Our board’s first cousin was the one at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. If our tech was stone-age, then theirs was Jurassic. However, there were some things the Spectrum board could do that we couldn’t, and vice versa.

Until the start of the 1981 season (when I was moved up to the new press box), my position was at ice level, right next to the PA announcer. There was no glass in front of me, and it was like sitting on the bench. There were many times that I came perilously close to being high-sticked or zapped by a speeding puck.

One time, the PA announcer, Paul Gourvitz, did get conked. I had to move over and do the PA until he got stitched up.

My input device was an old-fashioned Teletype machine, probably left over from the Roosevelt Administration (that’s Theodore, not Franklin). Everything had to be typed in line by line. We could either go with 5 lines and bigger type, or 7 lines with smaller type. If you wanted a message to be put up in segments, like one line first, then two lines, then three lines, etc., you had to type the entire thing for each screen.

The teletype machine for inputting text into the scoreboard.
Harry Klaff

Once I was finished typing whatever I was doing, such as a penalty (Nystrom – Slashing – 5:12 on three separate lines), I would tell George to put it up via a headset. Remember, he’s about a hundred feet above me. He would then type in a code number on his console, and out it went. (Yes, I’m the one that put up “Ruff for Ruffing.”)

Oops Moments and Yashke Futz

The only problem was it didn’t always work, and we had to check everything—if we had time. There would always be some surprises, but despite this, we were incredibly good. In fact, I would say we were 99% accurate. (Consequently, whenever I’m at a sporting event, my eyes are glued on the scoreboards to catch bloopers, and I find plenty.)

But there were certainly oops moments. A newly-typed message erased the previous one. Except when it didn’t. The one thing I was always concerned about was that during the announcement of the starting lineups, the players from the previous game would go up.

I always did the same test. Before I put the first player in the lineup, I would type in a nonsensical name, “Yashke Futz,” to clear the machine. Yup... one night the starting goaltender for the Detroit Red Wings was Yashke Futz.

Fortunately, another thing that we absolutely worried about never happened. The difference between the letter P and the letter F on the board was one light bulb. Although Dom made sure that every bulb worked before the game, they could flame out during the course of the evening. We would hold our collective breaths every time we put up the penalty, “Hand on Puck.” You get the idea.

A scoreboard terminal like the one used at Nassau Coliseum.
Harry Klaff

We were able to do some very creative postings early on because basically no one told us what to do. We ran our own show. Occasionally we would get a call from the PR Director to put up something, but otherwise, we were on our own.

We worked very closely with organist Paul Cartier. He was always in sync with us, as all he had to do was watch the board. If George put up Let’s Go Islanders, Paul would play the chords. Same with BILL-E, or CHICO. We had the whole deal down pat.

As I said, we were able to pull off some pretty miraculous things. When the Isles played the Soviet Wings in an exhibition match in 1976, we were able to get the board to flash messages in Russian. A friend of mine who spoke Russian printed Let’s Go Islanders in Cyrillic (pronounced eed-yom Islanders). We were able to take a crude shot of it with a tv camera, save it, and put it up.

Similarly, the board was able to flash head shots of Islanders players. It was also capable of doing animations, which were created offsite. You might remember “School’s Out” after an empty-net goal. An empty-netter would also be celebrated by us putting up “Game, Set, and Match.”

“Just Start Playing”

Probably our most amazing accomplishment did not occur at an Islanders game, but rather at an Arrows indoor soccer match. That was the famous afternoon in 1980 when the US took to the ice against the USSR at the Olympics in Lake Placid. If you’ll remember, ABC did not televise the game live.

George was getting the scores by way of an ancient ticker tape machine (that’s how we got the NHL out of town scores back then, too). He would call down the score to me and I would type it in. Needless to say, the crowd was getting more involved with that than the soccer game.

When it was over, someone in the Arrows PR department asked if we could put up the words to “God Bless America.” Sure, no problem. Right.

Step one. Someone has to know the words. (There was no Google in those days.) Fortunately, I had listened to Kate Smith so many times with the freaking Flyers, that I knew it by heart.

Step two. I had to type it in. As I noted earlier, I had to put it in line by line, and repeat everything on each screen. So the first screen was God Bless America. The second screen was (line 1) God bless America, (line 2) Land that I love. Etc., etc.

Step three. The organ. “Hey Paul, can you play God Bless America?”

“Sure.”

“Great, when they announce it and it goes up, just start playing.”

Step four. George had to press the magic buttons and out it went. Perfect! We did it!! The crowd went crazy.

I Could Have Hooked Him

I’ll conclude with my greatest memory. Of course, it’s Bob Nystrom’s OT goal to win the Islanders’ first Cup. First of all, I don’t know what period it happened in, but there was a conversation between the officials and the timekeeper next to me. It seems there I am on international television scratching my nose. My grandkids love that one.

The winning play developed literally right in front me. When Lorne Henning made the pass to John Tonelli, I was so close to him that if I had a hockey stick, I could have hooked him.

But as they went by, a Flyers player yelled out, “Offside.” It wasn’t. At least not that one, (we all know that linesman Leon Stickle was the 7th Islander earlier in the game). But now my brain is thinking that maybe it was. I really couldn’t tell at ice level.

When Nystrom put the biscuit in the basket (another one of our clichés), the first thing I’m doing is looking around for someone waving it off. Then PA announcer Jim Patterson and I went bonkers. (Yeah, I know. No cheering in the press box.)

After the game, I climbed over the boards and took part in the celebration. Bob Bourne skated over to me and gave me a big hug. I had been writing about him in The Hockey News since he was a rookie in 1974 and I knew him pretty well.

So that’s a day in the life of the old scoreboard. I’m sure its old pieces are moldering in a garbage pit somewhere on Long Island. I hope it knows it did a hellava job.

Harry Klaff