77° Good Morning
77° Good Morning

Islanders led us down a road of highs and lows that now leads to Brooklyn

Islanders captain Denis Potvin hoists the Stanley Cup

Islanders captain Denis Potvin hoists the Stanley Cup over his head after the Islanders' championship in 1981. Photo Credit: Newsday / Paul J. Bereswill

Back up. Long before the Islanders' 2012 announcement that they will move to Brooklyn next season, and before they spent most of the past two decades lamenting the advancing age of their Nassau Coliseum home as an excuse for continued on-ice shabbiness that has sent so many of their hard-core fans into the woodwork, they had been the very model of a professional sports franchise.

Those four consecutive Stanley Cup victories in the early 1980s -- now so distant that nothing remains but the banners and references to "tradition'' -- were radical. For many residents, those championships soothed a longstanding grievance that Long Island, this identity-challenged sprawl, forever has been in the shadow of New York City.

So now the Islanders intend to resettle within the city limits.

But back up. Forty-two years ago -- Oct. 7, 1972, to be exact -- when the expansion Islanders played their first NHL regular-season game at the eight-month-old Nassau Coliseum, they elicited the pronouncement of then-league president Clarence Campbell that the Coliseum was "a magnificent place to watch hockey . . . the sight lines are perfect."

Campbell then discredited such remarks by describing the game -- a messy, hesitant slog with the Islanders' fellow expansionist Atlanta Flames -- as "very exciting." Which it most decidedly was not.

Still, the Coliseum was, and remains, a venue with ideal views from throughout the building. And, as the atmosphere during the team's brief 2013 playoff appearance reminded, it can be a raucous house for the home team when the games have meaning.

Compare that ambience to reports after last month's Islanders-New Jersey Devils preseason game at Brooklyn's Barclays Center that hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of seats inside Barclays have obstructed views of the ice, because it is an arena designed for basketball. Designed, specifically, for the Nets, who themselves called Nassau Coliseum home in the early 1970s.

So back up. It was the completion of the $28-million Nassau Coliseum, which had its "unofficial opening" with a Nets game on Feb. 11, 1972, that the NHL used as a gambit to outmaneuver the start-up World Hockey Association's plan to place a flagship team on the Island. With lawyer William Shea, who had played a major role in baseball's decision to create the expansion Mets, greasing the skids, Campbell agreed to hurriedly award an NHL expansion franchise to Nets owner Roy Boe four months earlier.

That forced the WHA into the less attractive option of being second tenant to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. That team, the Raiders, was gone to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, in a year and folded in 1977, two years before the WHA ceased operations.

For that first Coliseum event -- the Nets defeated the soon-to-be-defunct Pittsburgh Condors in an American Basketball Association game -- there were 7,892 fans and roughly 7,000 not-yet-installed seats. Ushers worked with mimeographed charts to find seat numbers. Sections were numbered in chalk. A ceiling in the hallway leading to the dressing rooms sprang a minor leak. The teams played on a floor that had been brought from the Nets' previous home at Island Garden in West Hempstead, and Pittsburgh coach Mark Binstein, who had been the Nets' general manager when they debuted as the New Jersey Americans in 1967 in Teaneck, New Jersey, said, "I'm surprised that they built a $28-million arena and still are using the same scoreboard I bought five years ago for $1,800."

Nevertheless, Nets veteran Bill Melchionni that night declared that occupying the new Coliseum was "like going from the outhouse to a bathroom with plumbing."

And big-time professional sports had come to Long Island.

Four days later, Feb. 15, 1972, Boe introduced his choice for hockey general manager (Bill Torrey), the team's logo (more about that later) and the official team name -- the New York Islanders, as opposed to the Long Island (Somethings). Boe said the "New York" title was meant to appeal to potential fans from Brooklyn and Queens, but it became clear that he subscribed to the same theory as the team's first draft choice, Billy Harris, who admitted seldom telling folks from his Toronto home that he would be playing for a team on Long Island. "New York" sounded more spectacular.

At the time, Long Island still was considered a potato capital, and during much of the team's first season, a large banner was hung in the northeast corner of the Coliseum depicting an anthropomorphic potato on ice skates carrying a hockey stick, with the exhortation, "Go Spuds." A Newsday reporter, who earlier had imagined the team being christened the Long Island Spuds, never was able to identify the fan (or fans) who provided the banner.

Torrey -- affable, spiffy in his ever-present bowtie, with a spark of hockey genius not yet evident and with the patience and wit of a good parent -- began work that February day for an organization consisting entirely of himself and scout Ed Chadwick. Yet he publicly voiced an expectation of reaching "playoff status in three to five years."

It took only three. And after only eight seasons, the Islanders were Cup champions.

But if you really want to hear about it, there was plenty of angst and alienation in that coming-of-age first season after Boe paid $6 million to join the NHL and handed over another $5 million to the Rangers in "territorial" fees.

The first Islanders training camp opened in Peterborough, Ontario, northeast of Toronto. (Every player in the Islanders' camp then was Canadian, as were 94 percent of all NHL players in 1972.) The team's first preseason game was at the training base of the Atlanta Flames in Drummondville, Quebec, an eight-hour bus ride from Peterborough, during which time Torrey believed his young players could get to know each other.

They spent more time together than planned when the team bus threw a clutch and was stranded for hours on a country road. And they remained in relative anonymity when they and the Flames took the short trip to Sherbrooke, Quebec, for a second preseason game. That night, prizes for "lucky program winners" were 1) a carton of cigarettes; 2) a pair of tickets to Sherbrooke's first junior hockey game of the season; 3) a case of soda; 4) a box of chocolate candy; and 5) one hockey stick autographed by the Islanders.

The Islanders' coach was 39-year-old Phil Goyette, who had just completed a 16-year NHL playing career and who -- three wins, 15 losses and two ties into a season spiraling quickly out of control -- said this: "I can't skate for them. I can't use ropes to pull them to positions they should be in. I can't put myself into their persons and move them. I ask myself sometimes, 'Would I play any better than these guys? And what would they expect from me, a goal a game?' I don't know. The idea of me playing again is only something that's been momentarily in the back of my mind. My job is to coach."

Upon the team's first visit to Boston, a 9-1 loss, Goyette got into a pointed argument with referee John McCauley that went something like this (salty language excluded):

Goyette: "You're a lousy referee."

McCauley: "You're a lousy coach."

Goyette considered that exchange the next day. "Well, gee," he said, "I've only been coaching a little while and McCauley's been around the league for years."

By the end of January, Goyette was fired and replaced, the team announced then, by "co-coaches" -- Earl Ingarfield (behind the bench) and Aut Erickson (from high in the stands), though official Islanders records soon listed only Ingarfield as coach through the season's final 30 games.

Before things got better, they got worse.

That first season, the largest Coliseum crowds showed up for visits by the reigning Cup champion Boston Bruins and the Rangers (when a clear majority loudly backed the city team). On quieter nights, some Coliseum fans began to chant "We're No. 8 [last place in the division]!" and "Let's Go, Mets!" Wire service reports constantly referred to the team as "the hapless Islanders," as if "Hapless" were some unincorporated village on Long Island.

(Back up a second: When the season opened, there was confusion over where, exactly, the Coliseum was located. Was it Hempstead? Garden City? East Meadow? Westbury? All of which appeared closer, on a map, than Uniondale -- the eventual winner.)

As matters regressed -- 37 losses in their first 45 games, including 12 straight defeats -- defenseman Ken Murray bemoaned the fact that "sometimes you're fast and sometimes you're slow, and when you're slow, you wish you were fast." Veteran Terry Crisp, who had been picked off the St. Louis Blues' discard pile, grumbled that being an Islander was "just like the first expansion team I was with. They said, 'The St. Louis Blues will sure live up to their nickname.' Now they all say, 'The Islanders? What league are you in?' "

Defenseman Bryan Lefley found himself increasingly unable to communicate with his mates on the ice, frozen by indecision. "Even my vocal cords have tightened up," he said. Goalie Gerry Desjardins said, "I see pucks in my sleep. And when I wake up, my wife gives me the shots on goal."

But then, gradually and somewhat remarkably, events indicated that neither the team nor its growing fan base had been given a lethal dose of expansionism. On Jan. 18, the Islanders scored five unanswered goals in the first period -- and twice hit the goalpost -- in Boston before holding on for a stunning 9-7 victory. Torrey chuckled and elbowed his neighbor throughout the game and, overhearing a Bruins fan tell her companion afterward that she had come expecting a rout, Torrey said, "What did she think that was?"

When asked if he could explain how the Islanders could be so good one moment after having been so awful, Torrey offered a reasonable explanation by asking, "You ever had kids?"

In early March, Torrey traded for Philadelphia defenseman Jean Potvin, a sound enough hockey move that had the added benefit of lobbying to keep the top amateur prospect -- Jean's 19-year-old brother Denis -- from being tempted to go to the rival WHA. By season's end, Jean said he would tell Denis that "this club has spirit as good as any I've seen. I'll tell you, when I came to this team, I was awfully surprised. They were better than I thought. They didn't quit. I was happy to see that."

Midway through March, the team put together a season-high winning streak of three straight, and although the overall 12-60-6 record was the worst in NHL history to that point, team captain Ed Westfall -- who had won a Stanley Cup with Boston the previous year -- said, "One thing the folks back home [in Belleville, Ontario] will want to know is what the fan reaction was like on Long Island. I'll tell them that if we were half as good as our fans, we'd have been in first place."

On May 15, 1973, Torrey, the future Hall of Fame GM, drafted Denis Potvin, the future Hall of Fame defenseman. "Jean tells me the organization is A-plus," Denis said that day. "And he seems to be very happy there."

Less than a month later, Torrey hired future Hall of Fame coach Al Arbour, whose 19-year run yielded four Stanley Cups and 15 trips to the playoffs. "My philosophy," Arbour said then, "is that some guys need a pat on the back and some guys need a kick in the pants."

Not quite two years later, after Torrey brought offensive punch by acquiring J.P. Parise and Jude Drouin from the Minnesota North Stars, the Islanders were in a playoff race, a clear danger in NHL waters. And it was becoming clear that they were going to need a bigger bandwagon.

There was a Levittown salesman named Sam Levy who wore a bowtie to games, fancying himself a Torrey doppelganger. With his two teenaged children -- both former Coliseum ushers -- he rented a helium tank to fill balloons and float them to the Coliseum ceiling with such signs as "Let's Go Islanders" and, when the team played Philadelphia Flyers bully Dave Schultz, "Schultz is a Bum." The Levy kids papered the Coliseum with team-boosting banners before games.

Then came the second week of April 1975, and the Islanders' bar mitzvah. As an expansion team, the Islanders -- like most of the younger generation on Long Island in the 1970s -- had not come from somewhere else, had not immigrated from Brooklyn or another city borough. They fit the description of all those residents who had been born to suburbia, rather than choosing it. They grew up in the equivalent of Levitt housing: the no-frills, affordable Nassau Coliseum (game tickets originally were $6, $7 and $8).

What the Islanders represented was an identity separate from Big Town, and that was magnified exponentially when -- in their very first trip to the playoffs -- they dismissed the team of Long Islanders' parents, the bright-lights New York Rangers, in that best-of-three 1975 first-round series, on Parise's goal just 11 seconds into overtime.

The Islanders began to look and sound like winners, with Denis Potvin preparing for the Rangers series by reading a book titled "Million Dollar Sure Thing," with Billy Harris declaring himself a Yankees fan because "when I was a kid, they were the best, and I'm a front-runner."

Furthermore, they were embracing their role as the anti-city team, often grousing about what they considered Madison Avenue's illogical embrace of the Cupless Rangers. When the Islanders won that first Cup in 1980 and it was called New York's first hockey title since the Rangers' 1940 triumph, feisty Islanders goalie Bill Smith shot back, "The Stanley Cup is not in New York. It's on Long Island."

In strict geographical terms, of course, Brooklyn is part of the same land mass as Nassau and Suffolk Counties. But it has been part of New York City since 1898 and therefore -- along with Queens -- distinct from "Long Island" in popular usage.

Back up. Right at the start of Islanders history, Newsday columnist Joe Gergen, aware of the old hockey insult that a bad team "couldn't put the puck in the ocean," pointed to the team logo -- a hockey stick as part of the "NY," superimposed over a map of the Island, with the puck positioned off the South Shore. "See," he said, "they can put the puck in the ocean."

Soon enough, they began putting the puck in the net with regularity. In short order, Torrey was filling his offensive toolbox, mostly from the team's farm system: Clark Gillies (another Hall of Famer) arrived in 1974, Bryan Trottier (ditto) in 1975, Mike Bossy (him, too) in 1977. They had Potvin and the goalie pair of Smith (yep: Hall of Fame) and Glenn Resch as primary stars to stop the other guys from scoring, and solid pros at every position.

By March 1980, the Islanders already had been to the Stanley Cup semifinals four times when, during the stretch drive, Torrey traded for veteran center Butch Goring -- often considered the final piece to the team's championship puzzle. Four consecutive Stanley Cups were followed by a fifth trip to the Cup Final -- a still-unmatched professional sports record of winning 19 straight playoff series -- and consistent playoff contention virtually until Arbour left after the 1993-94 season.

But then came attempts at reshaping and rebranding the organization, summarized by the misguided switch to the so-called "Fisherman" logo for the 1995-96 season. Islanders fans hated it, Rangers fans ridiculed it (and management reversed course two years later).

Ownership, meanwhile, went from criminal to shaky. With Torrey forced to resign after 1992, trades didn't pan out so well anymore. The farm system wasn't helpful. Hired to coach in 2001, Peter Laviolette brought the team to its first playoff berth in eight years, repeated that the next season, and quickly was gone. With dwindling crowds, attention turned to replacing the Coliseum amid arguments that no really great player would want to come to such a dump.

In fact, said Bill Guerin, who signed as a free agent in 2007, the building wasn't the issue so much as the lack of fans. (And fans were staying away because the team wasn't competitive.) "There's a big difference," Guerin said then, "between playing in front of a full house and 5,000 people, and anyone who says there isn't is lying."

In 2002, four shoulder stripes were added to the uniform, meant to represent the team's long-ago four Stanley Cups, and veteran Mike Sillinger, signed as a free agent in 2006, acknowledged at the time that such a reminder might serve as "motivation. But you can't live in the past," he added. "I don't think [ownership] is trying to pound into our heads, 'Stanley Cup! Stanley Cup!' . . . Well, maybe they are . . . "

The team's traditional jersey style, which had been replaced by a wavy seasick look during the "Fisherman" era, was ditched again in 2007 for a more gaudy version, then revived. Sometimes the longing for a Stanley Cup inheritance was front-and-center; other times, there was an urge to start over completely.

The four stripes were taken off the uniform in 2010. Brooklyn is on the horizon. There is no going back.


We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

New York Sports