Breakups are hard. When it comes from something that doesn’t quite love back, it’s even harder.
That’s because loyalty to a team or organization is as a unique a feeling as one can have not just as a sports fan, but as a human being. Fans pour their lives, their souls — and much of their disposable income — into cheering on people who will remain relative strangers to them forever.
We ride the wave with them in good times, defend their honor in bad times and never give up hope no matter how dire things seem. We make this connection with a group of people, come and cheer them, encourage them, buy their merchandise and grow to love them. Out of that love comes loyalty.
Which is the most that both parties can hope for in this relationship. It’s a specific type of relationship, maybe, and a strange type of loyalty, but it’s real. And it’s fragile.
The moment that I fell into my relationship with the Islanders wasn’t the night I stood in the last row of Nassau Coliseum as the Islanders paraded the Stanley Cup around the ice. It wasn’t the time we made a “May the Fourth Be With You” banner and hung it behind our season ticket seats. It wasn’t at a parade, or after any of the successes or the records set that I felt my truest connection with the Islanders.
It was, instead, in the living room of my mother’s house, where there is a framed Islanders jersey signed by the team that won their third Stanley Cup. My mother is the one who turned me on to hockey, back in 1973 when the Islanders were new kids in the league.
This was before the seats were full, well before the glory days. We stuck with the team through those lean times, and our loyalty paid off when the Isles won four cups in a row. The jersey hanging in my mother’s house used to be a reminder of those great times, and a reminder that someday, even as the team’s time at the top had faded further into the distance with each passing year, there would be another cup to celebrate.
The loyalty is why I still wear my Islanders sweatshirts, and why I still get defensive when my Rangers-fan son (I tried) re-ignites our rivalry with insults; I’m not alone in any of this, naturally. That sense of loyalty and, yes, devotion, is why Islander fans are feeling a very specific insult added to the injury of a National Hockey League season held hostage by a lockout.
There is only so much time left for the Islanders on Long Island, and the looming split is painful on its own, enough to make the jersey in my mother’s living room seem like an insult of its own, an ex-husband’s photo hanging with the family portraits.
But the long slow goodbye — the collapse of a relationship coupled with an impending breakup — is worse. Things are threatened. Ultimatums given. It’s all about to come to a head. And then, after it happens, there’s finally, finality. After the initial feign of surprise, when you’ve realized (and are relieved) that the guessing game is over. That is the moment — after they tell you they are leaving — you begin to make peace.
You tell yourself the same things everyone else does:”They’re not moving that far away”; “you’ll still see them”; “it might not be the same, but it will be something”. But what happens if in that moments before you get closure — when the lump in your throat has moved so near to your heart you can feel it — that change was taken away from you? The breakup is bad enough. The waiting is worse.
Which is how many of us felt about our time time with the Islanders. Until this season, we assumed that long slow goodbye would be the worst part, the years left on the Coliseum lease when each game would be yet that chance to prolong the final farewell and receive the validation we need from the team we’ve loved so much. As it turns out, worse than the lingering is having that chance to linger taken away. Each locked-out day is another day in which fans are unable to attain closure.
The players and owners seem to miss this. Probably think it’s a little pathetic. But I — along with every Islander fan I know — just want to see them play, let them know we’re sort of okay with them going to Brooklyn, that we just want to spend some time before they go. With the prospect of a year without hockey seeming more and more likely, fans can’t even do that. It’s tough not to wonder if the team feels the same way, if they feel as aimless and adrift as the loyal fans who just want to embrace one last time before they part ways. Two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl and all that. Season after season.
Of course, in a sense the break-up has already happened. The last Islander game I attended was an early season game against the Boston Bruins last year. The Coliseum’s seats were colored black and yellow, with visiting Bruins fans easily outnumbering the home team fans by at least a 3-1 margin. I think that was the point at which I questioned my own sense of loyalty, or at least the wisdom in playing the part of dutiful fan, still hoping to catch a glimpse of something good on the ice.
I thought about my mother’s prized jersey, and it held with it memories of the way the Coliseum was alive and vibrant in earlier days. I wondered if the few Isles fans at the game were thinking what I was thinking: that this is all going to be gone. We’ll look around and point to the section where our first season tickets were. We’ll talk about the impromptu booster club meetings held in between periods, we’ll remember the night Bossy scored his 50th goal in the 50th game and yes, we’ll point to the banners hanging in the rafters and we’ll remember the bad times, too. Fans do that.
I left the game in the second period that night. Not because the Islanders were playing like crap, although there was that. It was because I hated feeling like a visitor in the Coliseum, as if it were not our building.
This was a glimpse, maybe, of what it might be like going to a game in Brooklyn when the team moves to Barclay’s Center in two years: my team, not in my building; those banners born-and-raised in Long Island — the four Stanley Cup banners, the conference banners and division banners, the banners with names like Bossy, Gillies, Nystrom and Smith — hanging in strange rafters. That night, it felt like the Islanders had moved out early.
Ask a Browns' fan like S. Spratticus, about how long the feelings associated with the breadkown of a relationship such as this, with anger over the team leaving is still palpable more than a decade later. “When Art Modell spurned the city's enduring affection for the first thing to spare him a second glance, we went all Glenn Close on his bunny,” he says. “No matter how far from home I am, I can find hometown natives by playing Cleveland Marco Polo. I just yell ‘Art Modell’ and wait for the response ‘can go to hell!’”
That same resentment at being spurned still exists in Seattle, where residents have gone through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief over the Supersonics, with a long stop-over at anger. Says Paul Belmore, a long time Sonics fan, “There is a huge feeling of betrayal. You've shed tears for this team. You've skipped meals for this team. You've spent money you didn't really have on memorabilia and tickets. And then Clay Bennett swoops in and buys the Sonics from Howard Schultz, with David Stern giving his full approval while patting his friend Clay on the back. Immense anger takes over. You want the three of them to burn.”
In one sense, maybe Islanders fans are ahead of the curve: we’re at the anger stage and the team is still here on Long Island. Even if the move to Brooklyn took us by surprise, even if we’ve known for years our time left with the team would be brief and our relationship was headed toward a cliff.
If the lockout is not resolved, we’ll have lost one of our last chances to spend time with our team at the Nassau Coliseum. It may not be a beautiful place, and it may not even be a great place for hockey. But it is where we feel at home, and it is the place the Islanders are leaving. We can’t even say goodbye yet.