Monday, May 24, 2010

Even through tough times, I haven’t given up on Islanders – 30th anniversary of first Stanly Cup victory

There was a very good story in this morning’s New York Times about the fact that today is the 30th anniversary of The New York Islanders first Stanley Cup victory. (Note: Click here for NY Times article) A lot of the piece focused on the fact that many hockey fans don’t credit the Islanders enough for their four straight Stanley Cup wins from 1980 to 1983 or the fact that they won 19 straight playoff series—a record that still stands.

I give the Islanders lots of credit since—as I’ve mentioned here before—I was one of their first fans. In fact, that day 30 years ago remains an indelible memory for me. I was in a hotel room in Atlanta, getting ready to cover a North American Soccer League game that night between The Washington Diplomats and The Atlanta Chiefs when Bobby Nystrom scored the winning goal on a cross-ice pass from John Tonelli at 7:11 of overtime to beat the Philadelphia Flyers. For those of you who might not remember, it was Lorne Henning who started the play, feeding Tonelli as he steamed down the right side.

That was a fun period in my life. I was a young reporter at The Washington Post which happened to have a sports staff that only had one other person who had much interest in covering hockey: That was Bob Fachet, who had been the beat writer for the Capitals from day one of their existence. The approach taken by the rest of the staff when it came to hockey was best summed up by something Ken Denlinger, who along with Dave Kindred, split the column-writing at the time. After being sent kicking and screaming to a hockey game one winter night, Ken walked into the newsroom and announced, “I have built an insurmountable 1-0 season lead on Kindred in hockey columns.”

Turned out he was right.

Every April I would come home from The Final Four and would be sent to cover the hockey playoffs as the second guy, backing up Fachet on Caps games and often covering whatever series Bob wasn’t covering once the Caps were eliminated. Sadly for me, the paper only sent one guy to the finals in 1980—Bob—leaving me to cover what was my true second beat in those days, the Dips. That’s why I was in Atlanta and not on Long Island 30 years ago today.

It didn’t really matter. As soon as Nystrom poked the puck past Pete Peeters, I leaped off the bed, arms in the air and began celebrating. My greatest moments as a sports fan had all come within 16 months of one another: The Jets in January of 1969; The Mets in October of 1969 and the Knicks in May of 1970. So, it had been a while. It is worth remembering that in my college years Duke’s best record in football was 6-5 (turned out those were the golden years) and its best record in basketball (I swear I’m not making this up) was 14-13—and that was my senior year. So, I hadn’t done a lot of celebrating.

The Islanders had come into existence during my senior year in high school—shortly after I’d bought my first car. Since I had always been a fan of expansion teams (in one form or another) I was already a Mets, Jets and Nets fan. Since the Nets were still in the ABA in those days I could also be a Knicks fan. (If you don’t believe I was a Nets fan quick tell me who did their radio broadcasts during their first year of existence when they were the New Jersey Americans and played in the Teaneck Armory. Answer: Spencer Ross. If you got that one right here’s a bonus question: How did the Americans miss the playoffs that year? Answer: They tied for the last playoff spot with (I think, not 100 percent sure) the Pittsburgh Pipers and were designated the home team for a play-in game for the last spot. But the Armory was rented to the circus the night of the game and the Americans had to forfeit. Seriously).

So, with my new (very old) car I decided to make the trip to the brand new Nassau Coliseum to see both the Nets and Islanders on a regular basis during that first Islanders season. As luck would have it the Islanders went 12-60-6, the worst record in NHL history. Al Albert, younger brother of Marv, did the games on radio.

I stuck with the Islanders and they got better fast—making the playoffs in 1975 and upsetting the Rangers in a best-of-three mini-series in the first round when J.P. Parise scored 11 seconds into overtime in the third game. They went on from there to come from 3-0 down to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins and then came from 3-0 down to tie the Flyers at 3-3 before The Flyers brought out their (not so) secret weapon, Kate Smith for game seven. Flyers-5, Islanders-2.

The next few years, the Islanders were good, but not good enough, the low point being a loss in the semifinals to the Rangers in 1979. But the next spring made up for all that had come before. The Islanders were the No. 5 seed but blew into the finals to play the Flyers, who earlier that season had set a record by going 28 games without a loss. I covered the game in which they broke the old record (I think it had been 23) in The Boston Garden.

Of course Nystrom’s goal was just the beginning for the Islanders. They won the Cup again the next three years and I got to cover them quite a bit during that time. What made it so cool for me was that they were a fun group of people to be around: Al Arbour, the coach, was a wonderful story-teller. The superstars were all cooperative: Denis Potvin, Brian Trottier, Mike Bossy and Billy Smith but the best guys were Nystrom and Tonelli and Bob Bourne (still perhaps my all-time favorite person among the athletes I’ve met through the years) and Clark Gillies.

Those were innocent times when you’d show up at practice on an off-day or at a morning skate and just wander into the locker room and talk to whomever you needed to talk to. I remember going to the old ice rink where the Islanders practiced on off-days during the playoffs and walking into the locker room without so much as showing anyone a pass of any kind. Even though I was from Washington and never covered the team during the regular season a lot of the players knew me (and most of the guys who covered the team at all) by name.

The streak ended in the finals in 1984 when The Wayne Gretzky-Mark Messier-Grant Fuhr Edmonton Oilers started THEIR run (five Cups in seven years) by beating the Islanders in the finals in five games. There hasn’t been much glory since then—the last real run was 1993 when the Islanders upset the then two-time champion Penguins in the conference semis before losing to the Canadiens in the conference final.

Still, unlike with a lot of the New York teams, I’ve never wavered from the Islanders. I pay for the hockey package mostly to watch them. There was some hope this past year, especially with the young players, but the Rick DiPietro contract continues to haunt the franchise as does the lack of a viable arena with no sign of an agreement between the town of Hempstead and team owner Charles Wang anywhere in sight.

But I still haven’t given up. And I still have a lot of fond memories—both as a fan and as a reporter. That Saturday afternoon 30 years ago is still vivid in my memory. Which, in the end, is what makes being a sports fan worthwhile, right? I’m sure every person reading this has a memory just as vivid. Good for all of us.


John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases

To listen to 'The Bob and Tom Show' interview about 'Moment of Glory', please click the play button below:


Paul said...

The early Islander teams showed the most important things for a new franchise to build (in any sport) are scouting and player development.

Contrast their first few seasons with the Washington Caps. The Islanders won Cups with players passed over by the Caps, such as Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier, and Mike Bossy. The Caps picked such legends as Greg Joly instead of Gillies; Mike Marson instead of Trottier; and Robert Picard instead of Bossy.

Rick Green, taken by the Caps with the #1 overall pick in 1976 was once described as having deceptive speed: he was even slower than he looked.

Anonymous said...

Man, I remember those Edmonton Oilers......I still can't believe that the dynasty was broken up artificially. If anything, they should have been able to stay together until they were beaten consistently.

Peter said...

Nothing will ever top that afternoon, 30 years ago. Junior year of college, University of Delaware (Flyer country), wearing my Islander jersey to take my last final 1 hour after OT ended. If the game had gone into additional OT's, I would have had to repeat Organic Chemistry 2, but it would have been an easy decision. Sad to see what a clown John Sterling has become these days, he was great doing the Isles back then. Just finished a book that brought back alot of memories, Birth of a Dynasty, by Alan Hahn. Went to the first Cup parade, basically went around the Nassau Coliseum parking lot, but total euphoria, and relief at finally breaking through. Watching the team build and grow over the early years, and battle through years like 1979 with the Rangers loss, made the feeling all worth it. Always felt bad for the guys who were there for much of the growth, but left just before the Cup years. Guys like Billy Harris, Dave Lewis, Gerry Hart and Jean Potvin. What great memories. Thanks John