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Long Island has hockey in its blood

Vibe at Coliseum is Isles' secret weapon 

Fans cheer after the Islanders scored a second

Fans cheer after the Islanders scored a second period goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on Dec. 10, 2018. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

If visiting hockey players find a trip to Long Island unpleasant now, they should have been here about a half-century ago. Opponents got an earful, and a handful. During the 1965 Eastern Hockey League championship game at Long Island Arena, someone reached out of the stands and thrust a live chicken into the arms of the Nashville Dixie Flyers’ Ted McCaskill.

McCaskill, stunned, dumped the bird into the scorekeeper’s box before his team went on to lose. True story, as told in the new book “Broph,” by North Massapequa resident Gregg Inkpen.

The point is, hockey was and is in Long Island’s blood. If the blood happens to boil every now and again, that’s the way it goes.

The book is a biography of Long Island Ducks legend John Brophy, and its release has coincided with the Islanders’ return to Nassau Coliseum. The author does not see a direct lineage from Ducks fans to Islanders fans, but he does see a common thread: passion then and passion now.

“Long Island is dying for hockey,” said Inkpen, who attended his first game in Commack as a 5-year-old in 1970 and was in the packed house in Uniondale for the Islanders’ game Monday.

The staggering difference in vibe between Islanders games at the Coliseum and those in Brooklyn is one of the most fascinating stories in the National Hockey League this season — notwithstanding complaints like the one this week from Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang, saying there is nothing to do near the rink.

The Old Barn was full and rocking again Saturday night for the matchup with the Red Wings, a fellow middling team. For the second time in two Saturday night games back in their true home, they rallied late and won. This time, it was 4-3 in a shootout, and a shout-out.

“It’s a hard building to play in,” Barry Trotz said, satisfied with two vital points.

Mathew Barzal was at the heart of the frenzy for the first time, tying the score at 11:03 of the third period and scoring the only goal in the shootout. “I knew the Isles had crazy fans, and obviously Barclays brings that out every once in a while,” the night’s No. 1 star said. “When you come here, it’s something else. I’ve never played in an atmosphere like this on a consistent basis, so it’s pretty amazing.”

Casey Cizikas, who put the Islanders ahead 3-2 in the third, said: “It’s crazy. This atmosphere is something else. As a line, as a group, as a team, we feed off that.”

Location, location, location. Here’s the important part: Trotz said recently that a full season of home games in Nassau would be worth 12 points. So this half-season on Hempstead Turnpike certainly could make things interesting.

The hockey environment here always has been interesting, so much so that many Ducks and Islanders players have settled here. Red Wings center and Islanders alumnus Frans Nielsen cited the golf courses, the quiet neighborhoods, the proximity to Manhattan. “I still enjoy coming back in the summertime,” he said.

He might have added something about the schools, some of which were built by Brophy during his offseason construction job. His no-holds-barred approach to the sport lit a distinct fervor on the Island. Inkpen’s thorough and entertaining work quotes late Ducks owner Al Baron saying, “This is the only rink in organized hockey where the players stand on the ice and watch the fights in the stands.”

An enterprising Ducks fan once gummed the lock to the visitors’ locker room door so the Dixie Flyers couldn’t get in between periods. Players had to fend for themselves against fired-up spectators. The live fowl episode occurred after Nashville coach John McLellan had called one of the Ducks players “a chicken.”

Times and tastes have changed and arena security is a whole lot tighter. Long Islanders once relished Brophy whacking someone with his stick. On Saturday, they cheered for the speed of Josh Ho-Sang and Barzal.

Either way, passion did, does and will run high, and it might be the best thing the Islanders have going for them.

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