The Islanders' Cup-winning teams in 1980s put Long Island on the map

Bobby Nystrom scores in overtime to give the

Bobby Nystrom scores in overtime to give the Islanders a 5-4 victory over the Flyers and their first Stanley Cup. (Credit: AP, 1980)

John Jeansonne

Newsday columnist John Jeansonne. John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since

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Reflect on the team logo: Long Island put the map on the Islanders, and within a few short years, the team returned the favor by winning four consecutive Stanley Cups in the 1980s. That symbolism -- that the championship Islanders put Long Island on the map -- meant plenty to this identity-challenged sprawl that grew up in the shadow of the Center of the Universe known as New York City.

Their very name is territorial -- "Islanders" -- and by quickly becoming giants of their industry, they presented a high-profile flip side to unpleasant Nassau-Suffolk identifiers such as Hurricane Gloria and the Long Island Lolita and the Amityville Horror.

Thus does their announced move to Brooklyn on Wednesday play something like a rejection of home? The Islanders, for these last 40 years, have been "Our Boys."

When they won their first Cup in only their ninth season, 1980, Newsday sports columnist Steve Jacobson wrote that the Islanders were "worth a good substantial yell for their contribution to our sense of well-being. They made a lot of us feel better about ourselves."

Francis Purcell, then the Nassau County Executive, proclaimed that the team's success "gives us an identity we've been striving for for a long time. People won't say, 'Where's Long Island?' "

A younger generation of Long Islanders -- native-born, unlike their city-raised, flee-to-the-suburbs parents -- particularly responded to the team. They, like the expansion Islanders, had started life here. The Islanders, furthermore, grew up in the equivalent of Levitt housing, the no-frills Nassau Coliseum.

There was a logical embrace of a team representing a separation -- and an equality -- compared to the overbearing Big Town. And it was magnified when the Islanders, in their first trip to the playoffs, defeated the team of Long Islanders' parents, the Rangers. That was the Islanders' bar mitzvah.

Furthermore, the team's officials and players were suburbanites to the core, decidedly not city people. Coach Al Arbour, the architect of their four championships, had to be flown to the Island from his previous job in St. Louis and shown the trees and grass to convince him this was not the skylines and concrete of Manhattan.

When the Islanders won their first Stanley Cup, and it was called New York's first such victory since the Rangers won in 1940, Islanders goalie Bill Smith responded pointedly, "The Stanley Cup is not in New York. It's on Long Island." There was a parade along Nassau Coliseum's access roads and an estimated 30,000 fans and Long Island chauvinists participated.

Before the Islanders, Long Island had plenty of sports history, most of it ancient. America's first horse-racing course was on the Hempstead Plains, laid out in 1665. The country's first golf course was built in Southampton in 1891. The Vanderbilt Cup car race, predating the Indianapolis 500, was first staged in 1904 in Nassau.

But big-time professional spectator sports was another matter, and Brooklyn-born Al Baron, whose minor-league Long Island Ducks hockey outfit played in Commack from 1959 through 1973, knew it. He called the proximity to New York City "the good news-bad news situation" for a sports franchise on the Island.

But, because the Nassau Coliseum had just opened in 1972, and the National Hockey League wanted to block competition from the fledgling World Hockey Association in what was already among the 10 largest metropolitan areas in the nation, the Islanders were delivered to Uniondale.

The basketball Nets never quite made it here, in spite of superstars such as Rick Barry and Julius Erving, and moved to New Jersey in 1976. Marketing research done by the Arrows, an indoor soccer team that failed to survive a brief existence at the Coliseum, found there was no clearly defined "Long Island sports market" -- television, history and day-to-day business all tied much of the Island to the "New York market."

In fact, the new hockey team was named the "New York Islanders," rather than the "Long Island (Somethings)," because of the area's ongoing, nagging suspicion that "New York" better graces a marquee. Even in their glory years, the Islanders players often grumbled that they got neither the recognition nor the endorsement opportunities of Manhattan-based players.

For anyone paying attention, Long Island had its claims to fame long before the Islanders materialized: "The Great Gatsby," Levittown, Grumman's lunar module and the Hamptons. But the Islanders' reign over the NHL did have something to do with tying together this difficult-to-label place. We are not a state, not a county, not a city. Just home to a four-time hockey champion.

It helped that the Islanders deepened their local roots with years of community service and the fact that several of their original players settled here after retirement, among them 1980 Stanley Cup hero Bobby Nystrom and original captain Ed Westfall.

When, in 1995, team management ditched the team's Long Island logo for a goofy fisherman design, fans were up in arms, demanding the map be put back on the Islanders.

Brooklyn, of course, is geographically part of Long Island, and not so far away. But this clearly is a case of leaving home.