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SportsColumnistsJim Baumbach

My Turn: Reliving a night in Islanders’ history

A nostalgia trip to a family’s roots takes an unexpected turn to a Stanley Cup victory

Jon Ledecky, Islanders co-owner, left, speaks with longtime

Jon Ledecky, Islanders co-owner, left, speaks with longtime Islanders fan Norma Keeping, of Virginia, during a train ride on the LIRR in October. Photo Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

 

 

Often the best part about history lessons are their ability to surprise us. Such was the case when an 82-year-old Virginia Beach woman took her grandson and his girlfriend to Long Island for the first time to learn his roots.

The October day started in Flushing where Norma Keeping showed Josh Daniels and Victoria Gaffney where Josh’s mother, Arlene, lived and the elementary school she attended. They sent pictures to Arlene, home in Richmond, and she said she barely recognized everything.

Then it was off to Floral Park to see where Norma and Arlene lived when she started middle school. There, they visited Norma’s old homes.

“I pointed out his mother’s bedrooms,” Norma said. “We lived upstairs in two-family houses at two places in Floral Park and they haven’t changed much. New sidings on the houses, that’s all. Really, Floral Park hasn’t changed one iota.”

And that was it for the day, or supposed to be.

They boarded a Long Island Rail Road train and began their trek back into the city when they saw a bit of a commotion further up in the car. It was my group trying to find seats. That day, on assignment for Newsday, I was riding the LIRR with Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky and a few other team executives en route to their game at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.

There were already a number of fans wearing Islanders jerseys on the train, and Ledecky, 59, chatted with them on his way to the seats.

When Norma got word of who the man in the suit was, she caught his attention by saying she was at the game in 1980 when the Islanders won their first Stanley Cup title.

“And I’ll never forget it if I live to 100,” she said.

That kicked off perhaps the unlikeliest of history lessons that day, with Norma talking about how luck helped her and her daughter Arlene get inside Nassau Coliseum.

Having heard that a limited number of tickets were available at the box office, Norma said she sent Arlene with cash. The line had already been cut off, but Norma noted how street smarts led Arlene to strike a deal with the last man in line.

“You were only allowed to buy four, and she asked him if he was buying just two,” Norma said. “He said he was, so she asked him to buy two more for us. She trusted him with all of her money and waited outside and he did it, he got the tickets for us.”

At the game, they sat side-by-side — Norma, Arlene and the man who bought their tickets — and witnessed the most memorable game in franchise history. It ended with Bobby Nystrom scoring the game winner in overtime.

“I can still see Bobby Nystrom leaping through the air,” Norma said. “I can see it like it was yesterday. I could take you to my seat in the Coliseum.”

On the spot, Ledecky invited them to attend the Islanders game that night, and they agreed. And as luck would have it, Nystrom was scheduled to make an appearance for the team, so the Islanders arranged for him to meet Norma and co. at the door.

The four of them — Norma, her grandson Josh, his girlfriend Victoria and Nystrom — posed for a picture. And Josh and Victoria recently had that framed for Norma as an early Christmas gift, a reminder of their history lesson that they’ll be talking about for years to come.

“It is on my wall in my bedroom,” Norma said recently. “And that’s where it will stay forever.”

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