It’s the aftermath of yet another Islanders loss. Morale has plummeted to a whole new low after our team teased us with hints of mounting a comeback only to fall short in the end. Islanders fans everywhere are indignant, angry and growing tired of backing the losing horse. Like most of you, though, I keep coming back for more, and I’ll tell you why. I have a confession, you see.
In my part of the world, I’m a bit of an anomaly: I’m a New York Islanders fan. Telling people of my allegiance is often cause for looks of sympathy, or condolences. That is at least partly because around here, if your team doesn’t have either a maple leaf or a big “C-H” across their chest, you’re in the minority. But also, it’s because the average sports fan has a short memory, and the loyalty of all but the diehards has a pretty short shelf life.
I have been a fan of the New York Islanders for a long time. Before Twitter, before Facebook. Before the internet. Before most of the current NHL teams existed. I was there in 1980, when the Isles won that first Stanley Cup. (Ok, I wasn’t there, I was here, in the Great White North. But I was cheering along just the same). In ’83 I was still there, still cheering, along with what felt like millions of others who hadn’t been all that interested even a couple of years earlier (and would largely vanish a couple of years later).
Lots of people can claim that, I guess. But I was still there in ’87 with Pat Lafontaine and Kelly Hrudey, the Easter Epic. I was there in ’93 when Ray Ferraro and David Volek broke the backs of the Penguins and ruined their dynasty aspirations. I was there for the Wade Dubielewicz poke check that brought the Isles back into the playoff picture. And of course I was there last spring, with the Brooks Orpik heartbreaker that ended the short Cinderella run. Quite a few people were along for the ride through those events as well.
Here’s where my path diverges from an awful lot of others: I was there at the end of the 80s, when the draft hadn’t been as kind as it had been in previous years, and the cupboard was nearly bare. I was there when our top prospects were guys like Kevin Cheveldayoff, Dean Chynoweth and Dennis Vaske. I was there when guys like Mariusz Czerkawski and Brad Isbister were the best offensive tools the Isles had, and Jeff Norton and Gerald Diduck were the blueline core. I was wearing the blue and orange when the team was spending high first round picks on Brad Dalgarno and Dave Chyzowski.
What’s my point with all of this, aside from letting you know that I’m an old guy that’s a glutton for punishment with a pretty good memory for unpleasant events? To tell you that the current slump the Isles find themselves in is not that bad in the grand scheme, and that all the negative posts and tweets and comments regarding the status of the roster and the employment of the coach, GM and owner are not new phenomena. There have always been – and always will be – those fans who scream the loudest when things seem their worst, and are right there with an “I knew it all along” smile when things turn around.
Anders Nilsson stepped into Saturday night’s game against the Flyers in relief of Kevin Poulin, who had just suffered a three-minute meltdown. The Flyers popped in three goals in the opening 3:48 of the second period, the third on the power play, and the Isles had just taken another penalty, this one for unsportsmanlike conduct. Enter Nilsson, who despite the hole the team had dug before tossing him in, stood tall and played well, allowing just one goal over 35 minutes and doing what he could to hang on while the Isles slowly began a comeback attempt. Alas, it was not to be; the one goal Nilsson allowed gave Philly back a two goal lead, and seemed to take much of the fight out of the Isles.
In his relief role Nilsson posted a 1.72 goals against average, with a .923 save percentage. I know, I know: spouting impressive numbers based on a little over half a game played seems like a bit of a stretch, like I’m grasping at straws in a feeble attempt to put a shine on just another crushing loss. Maybe, at the end of the day, that’s all it is. Nilsson could step in there next game and let in four soft goals from center ice. But why not appreciate his performance for what it was: a solid first outing by a 23-year-old? The point is, Poulin and Nilsson are going to make mistakes. The defense is going to collapse from time to time. The guns are going to stop firing for stretches. It doesn’t matter, folks: things are going to play out the way they do, and we’re going to be there game in and game out, year after year, because as Islander fans, that’s what we do.
The thing about being an Isles fan is, the highs and lows reach the extremes. Some teams, they drift above or below a certain level from year to year, but rarely do they soar or plummet. We, on the other hand, have been subjected to both ends of the spectrum. It’s a different era now, a different game in fact. Free agency, salary caps, league parity, and any number of things have worked to prevent the building of powerhouse teams and dynasties any more. I know it’s been a long time in the works – maybe to some of our younger fans it’s been literally a lifetime – but I can tell you that, as frustrating as the rollercoaster has been, the current management has done wonders as far as building a foundation goes. Anyone who remembers the Milbury era – during which the Isles traded away for next to nothing what amounts to an all-star team – will admit that much.
Yes, it feels like the rebuilding has been going on for an awfully long time. It has. As for me, I would rather suffer through years of slow building than watch as tens of millions are wasted on teams heavily stocked with ringers that bow out in the first or second round annually, or miss the playoffs entirely for long stretches, like a certain cross-town rival who shall remain nameless. Besides, when it comes to following the Isles, what’s the alternative? We’re diehards, we’re going to be there no matter how frustrated or discouraged we get. And when things turn around, we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing we didn’t jump on the bandwagon when it was fashionable to do so. We’re diehards, and we’re Isles fans. It’s what we do.