In part two of an ongoing series, an Islander fan reflects on the past, prepares for the future and tries to live in the present.
People ask why I love sports. They ask all the time why I love hockey in particular, but it's the same for any sport. I love it for moments like this. When 16,000 people chant something in unison. When a crowd comes together as one to make some noise, raise the roof, shake the rafters and cheer on the hometown team. And when that team delivers for a split second, everything else in the world is gone. There's just you and the fans and the game. It's a moment of unadulterated bliss, a flash of happiness unhindered by the obstacles of life. You clap. You yell. You high five the security guard standing next to you. A few seconds of glory.
The last New York Islanders playoff game I attended was in 1984, a 6-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, the second game in that year’s Stanley Cup final that would see the Oilers win and the Islanders dynasty end.
That playoff game was much like all the others I'd attended during the Isles' run to four cups; the Nassau Coliseum was rowdy and loud, with a particularly Long Island type of party atmosphere. If you’re with us, you’re family. If you’re against us, well, we’ll let you stay, but you better behave.
Cut to almost thirty years later. I'm standing in the parking lot of the Nassau Coliseum which is a sea of blue, white and orange - with the occasional teal from the Gorton’s Fisherman years - filled with waves of way too many people who weren't even alive when the last time the Stanley Cup was hoisted on Coliseum ice.
But oh, it's a great feeling. The beer, the music, the guy walking around with a penguin on a noose, the booing of anyone in a Pittsburgh jersey. It's like old times. Playoff times.
Inside the arena, close to game time, the scoreboard flashes a signal, telling us to make some noise in the barn. The Barn. A rather affectionate nickname for a place whose other nickname is The Mausoleum. And here I am in The Barn, section 315, Row O, so high up I get dizzy looking down, and I am making some noise.
Watching that game in the old barn brings back memories and those memories in turn make the spot in my heart where my Islanders allegiance lives hurt just a little when I think about how all this is going to end soon. There are reminders everywhere, from the guy in the last row of my section shouting "Brooklyn Sucks" to ads in the bathroom for the team's inaugural season at Barclays. But we're in the playoffs. First time since 2007. My first playoff game in almost 30 years.
The puck drops. The place was as noisy as I thought it could get. Then less than two minutes into the game, the Islanders scored. The old barn was filled with the sound of joy. And I think more than just cheering the first goal of the game, there were other factors at play, factors which turned a noisy arena into a place of absolute bedlam.
There was a relief, a letting go. Islander fans have held onto their hope for so long, losing season after losing season. Years of uncertainty, of frustration with the management and local politics. Of not knowing what comes next. And now, in a time when the uncertainty is gone and we know the team is gone and will cease to be Long Island's, we've made it. We're in the playoffs. We're at a home playoff game. And there's the goal. There it is. Those screams, those chants and hollers and all the towel waving and high-fiving? That's us going down with a fight. You can take our team, but you can't take us without letting us feel this sense of victory, even if it's as fleeting as sixty-plus minutes.
Each goal is the same. Each goal produces the same noise, the same sense of overcoming something. The same release.
You can take us, but we're not going easily.
There's a palpable sense of triumph in the air when the puck crosses the line and the red light goes on. And that triumph you feel in the moment - when the win or loss is yet to be determined and you're living in that very second - that triumph is why I love sports. Everything you brought to the game with you, your work woes, your home life, your financial burdens, everything disappears when that red light goes on and the total stranger in the seat next to you reaches over for a hug. We live in that millisecond. We revel in it. It may be someone else's accomplishments but aren't those accomplishments ours to be shared after years of being stalwart fans? We've triumphed, too, just by virtue of sticking around.
Halfway into overtime, Nabokov falls to the ice. The red light is on. It's time for the few Pittsburgh fans scattered around the arena to cheer. The rest of us react by either scooping up our stuff and heading down the steep Coliseum cement stairs. Some of us sit still in our seats, trying to absorb what just happened.
The things you love about sports are the things you also hate. The red light, when it's not yours. The triumph when it's worn by someone else.
I sit in my seat, dazed and let down. Then I remember. It's only game three. We get to do this again. We get more chances.
And no matter what happens tonight, no matter what the outcome, we will have rocked the hell out of that barn. That we were able to do that is in itself a triumph of sorts.
We’ve got at least one more party. Let's have some fun and make some noise.