The last New York Islanders playoff game I attended was in 1984, a 6-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, the second game in a final that would see the Oilers win and the Islanders dynasty years start their decline.
Those were heady years and that playoff game was much like all the others I’d attended during the Isles’ run to four cups; the Nassau Coliseum was rowdy, loud and exuded a party atmosphere.
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 of a Fisherman’s logo - a loud, large party comprised of way too many people who weren’t even alive when the Stanley Cup was last 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.
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.
People ask why I love sports. They ask all the time why I love hockey in particular but it’s the same as 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.
Watching this 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 Barclay ads to the guy in the last row of my section who keeps shouting out “Brooklyn Sucks.” The ads in the bathroom imploring us to buy season tickets for the team’s inaugural season at Barclays sting but that sting is relieved by the salve of today’s game.
We’re in the playoffs. First time since 2007. My first playoff game in almost 30 years.
The puck drops. The place is as noisy as I think it might get. Then less than two minutes into the game, the Islanders score.
The old barn is filled with the sound of joy. And I think more than just cheering the first goal of the game, there are other factors at play, factors which turn a noisy arena into a place of absolute bedlam.
There is a relief, a letting go. Islander fans have held onto their hope for so long, losing season after losing season, years with no playoff games at all. Years of uncertainty, years of frustration with the management and local politics. Years 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, they all disappear when that red light goes on and the total stranger in the seat next to you reaches over for a hug and a pat on the back. We live in that millisecond and 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 for the few Pittsburg 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 Tuesday. We get more chances.
And no matter what happens, no matter what the outcome, we rocked the hell out of that barn. That we were able to do that is in itself a triumph of sorts.
Tuesday’s coming. Let’s make some noise.