Isles always love you: Islanders fans share mixed feelings about team's move to Brooklyn
Michael Galligan paused in his storytelling, his clear blue eyes watering.
After his years of suffering with a lackluster team, the Islanders are on fire -- in the final season before their move to Brooklyn.
As he stood in the still-empty Nassau Coliseum an hour before a recent game, clad in a No. 2 Gord Dineen jersey covered with Islanders autographs, he realized that this tradition, too, would end. Soon the day would come when all of his pilgrimages to this place, through the good and the oh-so-bad, would be relegated to mere memories.
He was here, he said, when the Islanders won their first Stanley Cup nearly 35 years ago. And since then, this arena has become more than just a massive cement block filled with rickety blue chairs and steep steps -- its own legacy, its own story.
Adam Shaked feels the same. One of his first memories was his blue-and-orange toddler jersey. Years later, the Coliseum would become a place where he found family and a home.
Nancy Masone thinks it'll never be like this again. Never again, she said, will a professional hockey team be so thoroughly intertwined with the fabric of the community it inhabits.
"People say it's bittersweet," she said. "We want to see them win but we don't want to see them go. The history is here."
This season, Islanders fans have seen their team win in a way they haven't in a long time. And in a few short months, they will watch them go.
Big railroad blues
Donald Ustler of Massapequa won't be following his beloved team to Brooklyn's Barclays Center.
It's just too hard, he said. He's 66 years old, and though he's been a season-ticket holder since 1974, an expensive two-hour train ride "is a lot over  games," he said.
"It's tough knowing that they're not going to be here," Ustler said. "They could've been here if people had cooperated . . . They could've done the same thing here that they did with the Garden. They could've replaced things.
"They got a team on the ice now and people are selling out almost every game."
The thought was even harder to stomach, he said, when he and his friend Masone, also of Massapequa, reminisced about what this team has meant to the surrounding communities.
Masone, a teacher in the North Bellmore school district, first started following the Islanders in 1980 and was there for the first parade. It was a moment she'll never forget. "The guys were on pickup trucks and everyone was just screaming and it was a big Long Island, suburban kind of thing," she said. "They were such local guys. You could see them at the local restaurants and bars and things like that, so they were very accessible and [they were] these big winners of this great national championship. It was really neat."
There are more stories. Once, Ustler said, he ran into original Islander Ed Westfall at the Coliseum. He had a Westfall stick at home, "and I asked him, 'Mr. Westfall, do you do a [memorabilia] show or something,' " because Ustler wanted to get it signed.
"He said, 'No . . . but call me, and I'll meet you up on Jericho Turnpike and I'll sign whatever you've got,' " Ustler said. "And he did!
"We sat on a bench for 45 minutes . . . and we just talked."
Masone said she'll miss the legacy, and though it's wonderful to see the current team's success, she wished that this team in this place didn't come with a stark expiration date.
"This is great for the community," she said. "I don't think there's any other venue like this anymore that's so local . . . This would never happen again."
Can't break the bond
Shaked, of East Meadow, has a Nassau Coliseum patch sewn onto the left sleeve of his No. 22 jersey. At 22, he is a lifelong Islanders fan and a recent inductee into Section 329's Blue and Orange Army.
But his favorite memory isn't a particular goal or a particular win. It was bonding with his stepfather about five years ago at an Islanders-Rangers game. His stepfather is a Rangers fan, but in that moment, hockey tied them together.
It also didn't hurt that the Islanders won.
"I live off of Merrick Avenue," he said. "This is going to be so different, not living 45 seconds away and having to take the train . . . I've been sitting in those seats for seven or eight years."
Though he'll have to cut down on the number of games he attends -- from every home game to a handful a season -- he plans to follow his Isles to Brooklyn. The success they're having in their final Coliseum year is less bitter, more sweet.
"You couldn't ask for a better start or a better team," he said. "This reward has been so wonderful this whole season and I keep hoping for another win, another win, another win."
Home is where the heart is
Chris McNally, of Medford, just asks that they give Brooklyn a shot.
Now 38, he has been an Islanders fan since he was 10, when his aunt would bring him to Cantiague Park to watch them practice. Iconic Islanders would sign his practice puck. To him, they were just regular people.
"I was too young to understand that Mike Bossy was amazing or that Bryan Trottier would be a Hall of Famer," he said. "I just got to experience them on a one-on-one level."
So when he said all that lore doesn't have to end with the move to Brooklyn, he said it as someone fully steeped in Islanders tradition. "I went to the Barclays for a preseason game and the guy with the signs was there, and from 329," he said. "I think, in time, the Barclays will be home, too . . . It's just as loud and just as exciting."
It helps, he said, that a train ride to Brooklyn is less of a hassle for him than getting stuck in traffic on the way in from Suffolk County. Parking at the Coliseum is not for the faint of heart, and he actually sees himself going to more games next season after the Islanders move. As of now, McNally, one of the writers for the Lighthouse Hockey blog, can make it out only about four times a season.
"It's a little sad that they're getting it together now that they're leaving," he said. "But I think it's good that they're putting out a good product now. It gets us going and allows the fan base to maybe embrace the Barclays. It's not the Coliseum -- the Coliseum feels like a childhood home and it has good memories -- but if we can make good memories in the Barclays, fans will embrace it."
Where they go, he will follow
When Bobby Nystrom scored his overtime goal against the Flyers to clinch the Islanders' first Stanley Cup, the broadcast camera panned to the deliriously happy Coliseum stands and passed a rusty-haired man in a blue-sleeved Islanders T-shirt. You see him scream as the crowd explodes around him, his arm up in the air.
Three decades later, Galligan's hair is a snowy white, and he's traded that pristine T-shirt for the marker-riddled Dineen jersey. He's attended games in all four of the Islanders' Cup seasons, and the home playoff games leading up to each.
"It was unbelievable," the Garden City resident said. "It was like going to a party with 16,000 people."
He's been through the highs and the lows, but the difference is that after years of watching his team in his backyard, they're leaving just as things are getting good.
"You're not going to be on top forever, so you just hope," he said. "You start looking at the kids and hoping it turns around. It takes time . . . first it's seven years and then 10 years, but this year is wonderful. It's a great team."
He'll be following them to Brooklyn ("I have to get my fix," he said), but it will be different.
"It's my home away from home,'' Galligan said, "and that's it."
There's more to the story than that, and Galligan hints at it. The Islanders will have a home at Nassau Coliseum for as long as they play this season. Even with time expiring, there may yet be more memories to make.
And what if? Oh, but what if, he asked.
What if they win the Cup this season?
"I think it'll be the most unbelievable experience in hockey ever,'' he said. "I really do."
Brooklyn's a trek, but . . .
Tom LoFaso of Levittown clarified the situation when he was asked about rooting for the Islanders since the age of 3.
"I've been rooting for them since I was born," he said. "I've been coming to games since I was 3 . . . This is all I knew. This was all I did."
When he was a week old, the 24-year-old received his first Islanders stick and puck, courtesy of his father. His mother is a Bruins fan, and his cousins root for the Rangers and the Blackhawks, "and my cousins from Virginia are somehow Pittsburgh fans. I don't know how that happened.
"But I was more than proud to be an Islanders fan, even through the bad years."
Now a season-ticket holder and firmly entrenched in a not-so-bad year, LoFaso is intent on squeezing all of the nostalgia he can out of this season.
"I love the team," he said. "I love the building. It's really sad that we're leaving, but it's really cool that we're here for one more year.''
He said that if it were financially viable, he'd make the trek to Brooklyn. After all, he's been through a lot more than a few bumpy LIRR rides in support of his team.
"[There's been] a lot of downs -- the whole late '90s and early 2000s and the last few years,'' he said. "We just kept going with the team. We figured one day we'd be good."
LoFaso wore the hat he's had since 1997. It's signed by dozens of Islanders and speckled with more than 20 pins. It's a road map to his fandom -- a little battered but full of history.
"It's bittersweet," he said. "I consider this my second home."