Long Island hockey fans in the capacity crowd were not deterred one bit by the looming demise of their beloved home building. Nothing could stop them from cheering and roaring during the exhilarating 3-1 victory in that final game.
All of this happened 50 years ago.
Most popular sports stories
The occasion was the Long Island Ducks winning their only Walker Cup championship in the Eastern Hockey League, closing out the Nashville Dixie Flyers in the fifth game. The scene was Long Island Arena in Commack, which was vibrating with excitement despite its very shaky future.
Of course, the same scenario -- with the exact same final score -- occurred again last week when the Islanders bowed out of Nassau Coliseum with a playoff victory over the Washington Capitals. It turned out differently, of course, in that the Islanders were only in the first round and were eliminated two days later. And the Coliseum will not get a last-minute reprieve like the one that would keep the Ducks at home for another eight years.
Still, there was symmetry in the fact that professional hockey's "goodbye" to the Nassau-Suffolk region came soon after the golden anniversary of a title for the team that exuberantly carried the sport's "hello."
There was joy in Commack on April 7, 1965, with owner Al Baron and coach John Muckler both reflecting on six tough seasons before the Ducks reached the top of their league. The 4,300 people in the Quonset hut-shaped building on Veterans Highway were gleeful, sounding air horns and letting loose balloons and firecrackers. Players drank champagne from the 2-foot-tall trophy.
"We didn't have any trouble celebrating," John Brophy, 81, said the other day from an assisted living facility in his native province of Nova Scotia. "It was very, very nice. That's all I can say, it was very, very nice."
Brophy's speech is soft and measured now, not the way it was in his heyday, when he was so spirited that he served as the inspiration for Paul Newman's lead character in the classic hockey movie "Slap Shot." A half-century ago, he was a fierce defenseman on a fearless team that knocked off the (original) New Jersey Devils and Clinton Comets before toppling Nashville.
"I loved John. He'd give you the shirt off his back," Wayne "Porky'' Kitchen, a rookie on that title team, said this past week from his home in southern New Jersey. "It was a great bunch of guys. We had a lot of fun. I loved Long Island.
"It was the greatest time I ever had in hockey," said Kitchen, who had a hat trick in the clincher against Clinton and scored a pair of goals apiece in Games 2 and 3 of the final series. He got into a scuffle with Nashville goalie Marv Edwards in the last game, which was typical.
"It was good hockey, tough hockey, you know what I mean?'' he said. "If you didn't have a stitch or didn't get a sock in the mouth, you weren't playing the game."
In the raucous dressing room, Ducks captain Ed Stankiewicz -- who played in numerous leagues, including the NHL -- told Newsday's Charlie Clark: "This is the best bunch of guys I've ever played with. This isn't a one-man team. Everybody contributed and everyone helped each other."
Now 85, he still feels that way. "We had a good attitude, we had guys from all over. We loved the game and the way people treated us," he said from his home in Waterloo, Ontario. "You felt like you were worth something when you came to Long Island."
Stankiewicz recalls scoring 48 goals that season, skating on a line with Gene Achtymichuk (113 points) and Ron Hergott (48 points in 41 games). He remembers living in Lake Ronkonkoma and working construction with Brophy in Suffolk during summers.
"I was really impressed with the people on Long Island. They were really supportive. It was a great place to play and I'm glad I played there," Stankiewicz said.
The fervor sustained the Ducks during rough rides on the team's DC-3 plane. "The first trip we made past the skyscrapers in New York, I swear I thought we were going between two buildings," Stankiewicz said. "The worst was when we played in Cape Cod and came back in a rainstorm, over the ocean, into Islip. That was a scary trip."
Kitchen, 70, remembers bus rides that lasted 31 hours because of breakdowns. Players passed the time by playing cards. "One game, in Charlotte, John Muckler comes in with a brand-new suit and alligator shoes and goes, 'Thanks Porky and Broph.' He did pretty good on the card trail," the former forward said.
There was no place like Commack, where heat was more of a concept than a reality. Stankiewicz said the locker room was the only warm spot in the building at practice.
The arena was fueled with passion on game nights, though. Between the second and third periods of the 1965 finale, a fan shoved a live chicken into the arms of Dixie Flyers player Ted McCaskill. That was a response to an earlier comment from Nashville coach John McLellan, who called the Ducks "chicken." Nobody was allowed to confuse a Duck with a chicken.
A month later, the Ducks seemed on their way out. The Town of Smithtown found many code violations at the arena and the team considered the rent too high. They were earmarked for a move to St. Petersburg, Florida, until the facility was bought that summer by Ben Kasper and a new lease was arranged.
The Ducks kept playing in Commack through 1973. "Then the Islanders sort of put us out of business," Stankiewicz said, referring to the fans' choice of major-league over minor-league hockey. He left to coach in Austria and did some European scouting for the Islanders.
Muckler went on to coach the Oilers to the Stanley Cup and also coached the Sabres and Rangers. Brophy coached the Maple Leafs. His fellow 1965 Ducks defenseman, Don Perry, coached the Kings. Hockey kept going in Nassau through the farewell last Saturday.
To this day, former Ducks are proud to have been the first to say hello.