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New York Islanders

A professional hockey team in the Eastern Conference of the NHL.

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Lost on an Island

  • Mar 26, 2013
Among the inescapable facts of life are death, taxes, and New York City sports fans having a serious sense of entitlement. Maybe the New York Islanders can be a little bit of an explanation for that, or a cause of it. The Islanders were the rebel alternative on the New York City hockey scene when they were created in 1972, but they quickly brought up the question: What happens when the rebel team starts seeing more overall success than the reliable, popular mainstay? Go over the list: Baseball's New York Mets are the most successful expansion team in the sport, but their list of accomplishments still makes them look like a hapless, putrid clown team when they're set against the might Yankees. The Jets won a Super Bowl which was very important to the merging of the AFL and NFL, but that's still a single Super Bowl to hold against the Giants, who have won four - or eight if you want to get old school about it too. The closest this came to happening before was when the ABA's New York Nets won two titles to parallel the senior NBA Knickerbockers, but neither one of these teams has managed to surpass the others.

As for hockey, the World Hockey Association was created in 1972. Like all wannabe major sports leagues, they knew they had to exist in New York City if they were going to exist at all, so they had plans to create a team called the New York Raiders and have them play in the newly-built Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Nassau County. There was just a slight little problem: Nassau officials didn't consider the WHA a major league and were quick to write off the Raiders. Unfortunately, they only had one legal recourse to use in keeping the WHA out of the Coliseum, and that was to get the NHL there, pronto! Nassau County even found the perfect man for the job: William Shea, who had been responsible for the creation of the Mets. While the senior New York Rangers of course had reservations about ceding their area, NHL President Clarence Campbell was willing to listen to Shea, and while the NHL had just expanded to 14 teams two years before, Campbell was willing to hastily expand to Long Island to keep the WHA out. And so came a new team, or actually two new teams to keep the schedule balanced: The New York Islanders and the Atlanta Flames.

The name New York Islanders was actually a surprise. The new team was expected to be called the Long Island Ducks, after the minor league team that once played there. They were also made to pay a territorial fee to the Rangers. The Isles wasted no time doing what they were brought into the NHL to do: Wipe out the Raiders, who were then forced to play under shitty lease terms in Madison Square Garden which sent them packing in the middle of their second season. So, now with no Raiders there to keep the city away from, what now? Well, there's apparently this little sport called hockey which the Isles were called into existence to play…. So what happened was the Isles picked up a few veteran players and junior leaguers in the Expansion Draft and Amateur Draft respectively, but while the boroughs were safe from the Raiders, the NHL still wasn't safe from the WHA, and a lot of the Islanders' draft picks ended up jumping there. With hockey to be played no matter the misfortune, the Islanders played hockey. And suffered misfortune. The highlight of their inaugural season was a 9-7 win over the Boston Bruins, who had won the Stanley Cup in the 1972 season. It was one of a putrid twelve wins in a season which saw the Isles land a 12-60-6 record for an equally putrid 30 points in the standings, easily the worst in the league that year and one of the worst in NHL history. It did secure first pick in the 1973 amateur draft, though, and allowed the Isles to nab Denis Potvin, who had been called The Next Bobby Orr when he had been all of 13 years old! Potvin won the Calder, but the Isles still finished last. There were bright spots, though; they allowed 100 fewer goals than they had the previous year; and improved to 56 standings points. It turned out to be their last losing season for 15 years.

In the 1975 season, the Isles' third, the team was ready for the playoffs. They earned a good 88 points in the standings with the help of Potvin, Clark Gillies, Ed Westfall, and others. And you know who their first playoff opponents were? None other than the New York Rangers! Given the chance to steal the spotlight from their senior crosstown rivals, the Islanders did just that and sent the Rangers home. In the next round, they met the Pittsburgh Penguins and fell into one of those 3-0 series holes which usually means any following games are formalities in a series which is already over. But the reason the games are played at all is because you never know if you don't find out. The Pens choked and became only the second team to ever lose a playoff series in which they had been up 3-0, a feat since duplicated by only two other teams, total, in all of sports. The Isles advanced to the conference finals against the Philadelphia Flyers and found themselves in that situation again, down 3-0. And, shockingly, they dug themselves right back out of that hole, too! The comeback effort was ultimately cut off, though; in the seventh game, the Flyers managed to regain their composure and finish off the Isles, and eventually win the Stanley Cup that year.

The next season, the Isles drafted Bryan Trottier, who quickly found superstar form. In 1977, they unearthed Mike Bossy. During the next few years, the Islanders went to the playoffs repeatedly, always getting knocked out by the Montreal Canadiens, who would move on to win the Stanley Cup each year. In a telling show of how good the Isles were getting, though, the Habs went 24-3-0 in the playoffs in 1976 and 1977. All three losses came against the Islanders. In 1979, the Isles were the best team in the league, clinching their league-leading record in a game against the Rangers. The Rangers, however, took revenge in the first round of the playoffs, knocking out the Isles. As the Isles' bus left Madison Square Garden after the loss, Rangers fans stood outside, throwing all the shit they could at the Isles, and sportswriters started asking the question: "CAN the New York Islanders win it all?" Classy move, you know, for a team that had been in the league for all of seven year by then, no matter how good.

Well, in the 1980 season, those journalists had their answer: Yes! Damn right, the New York Islanders could win the Stanley Cup, even despite posting 91 points, which was the first time they posted less than 100 in years! I like to imagine the journalists going "humph!" in a quick breath because this is New York City sportswriting and sportswriters all seem to believe there's a script there, then going right back to doting on the Rangers. Well, the next year, the Isles proved the Stanley Cup from 1980 was no fluke. They won it again, sweeping the Rangers in the semifinals as Isles fans serenaded the Rangers with chants of "1940!," a reference to the year the Rangers had last won the Stanley Cup at the time. A third Stanley Cup victory in 1982 placed the Islanders on totally equal footing with the Rangers. The Rangers had won the Stanley Cup three times in an existence dating back to 1926 - in 1928, 1933, and 1940. And now the Islanders had won it three times in an existence dating just back to 1972. With the 1982 Cup, the Isles shouted at the hockey fans in New York City "You WILL fucking respect us!" And with a fourth Cup in 1983, the dynasty of the New York Islanders was complete. Their theft of New York City NHL elite was complete. It had taken only eleven years to win more Stanley Cups than the Rangers had won 57 years.

For good measure, the Islanders returned to the Finals in 1984. In the Finals, they faced their opponents from 1983, the Edmonton Oilers. After the Oilers lost the 1983 Finals, they happened to walk by the Isles' dressing room, where they were surprised to see a rather subdued celebration, with the NHL Champions nursing their injuries as if winning their fourth Stanley Cup was just business as usual. To this day, the players on the mighty Oilers dynasty that dominated the rest of the 80's say that sight is where it began, when they knew the Islanders were on the ropes. So upon being matched up with the Islanders again in 1984, the Oilers struck, winning the first of five Stanley Cups in seven years. The great dynasty of the New York Islanders was officially over.

The Islanders were plenty dangerous through the rest of the 80's, though. Unfortunately, they were handicapped because their talent was starting to walk off and their management started pocketing the money the team was making instead of doing what it had always done in the past, which was put it back into the team. In 1985, the Flyers beat the Islanders in the first round of the playoffs - it was the first time since 1978 the Isles had visited the playoffs and not gotten through the first round. The 1987 playoffs culminated with one of the most famous games in NHL history: The Easter Epic. It was the seventh game of the first playoff round, and the Isles were playing against a determined Washington Capitals team. When regulation ended with a 2-2 score, the game went into overtime, which ended scoreless. Then the two following overtimes also ended scoreless. Eight minutes into the fourth overtime period, after what was basically an exhausting double-header of hockey, the Isles reliable goalie Kelly Hrudey had stopped 73 shots. The young Islanders star Pat LaFontaine finally shoveled the puck into the net to end the game and punch New York's ticket to round two. Probably still feeling the effects of the Easter Epic, the Isles did manage to put up a seven-game fight against Philadelphia, but lost.

The good times were going to end at some point, and after 15 years of dominance, they ended for the Islanders in 1989. That year, they posted 61 points, tied with the Quebec Nordiques for the NHL's worst. After that season, goalie Billy Smith, the last player on the team who had played for the Islanders at their inception, retired. A short rebound in 1990 ended with a first round loss to the Rangers, after which the Isles bought out the rest of Bryan Trottier's contract, and he signed on to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is the New York Islanders' all-time leader in games played. In 1991, the Islanders began a rebuilding project with a pair of blockbuster trades. The first sent the Isles' superstar, Pat LaFontaine, to the Buffalo Sabres as the centerpiece of a trade for Buffalo's Pierre Turgeon. He then sent longtime Captain Brent Sutter and Brad Lauer to the Chicago Blackhawks for Steve Thomas and Adam Creighton. These trades and an influx of players from the former Soviet Union added to an already talented core of players like Derek King and Ray Ferraro and Patrick Flatley, and in 1993 they were in the playoffs again. In the second round of the playoffs, the Isles faced the Penguins, who had won the Stanley Cup the previous two years and were clean-cut favorites to win it again. The Isles pulled off the upset in seven games, though, creating the Miracle of 1993. Their Cinderella run ended in the Wales Conference Finals against the Montreal Canadiens. In 1994, the Isles started to languish. They got back to the playoffs, barely, and were brushed aside like dust in a lopsided sweep by the Rangers. Ah, yes, the Rangers. The senior team which had been embarrassed by the Islanders for most of the last 20 years, who had to suffer the indignity of being a much older team with fewer Stanley Cups to claim, had packed itself up for the 1994 season with many of the key components of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 80's. By the end of the 1994 season, those old Edmonton players proved they had one final Cup in them and, now taking the ice as the New York Rangers, won it all for the fans in the Big Apple. Rangers fans could finally walk with pride again.

The Islanders weren't being handled very well now, and so after barely upgrading over the last few years, they started a massive rebuilding project. Ray Ferraro, the team's leading scorer, was allowed to walk away in free agency, and you can guess what everyone thought of that move. As much so with Pierre Turgeon, who was traded to Montreal for Kirk Muller, a player who didn't want to be involved with a rebuilding team and who ultimately only played 45 games for the Islanders before he was sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The rebuilding project also involved a new jersey and logo, which went terribly wrong because the logo resembled the Gorton's Fisherman, a fact the Isles never forgot, largely because opposing fans - mainly the Rangers' fans - wouldn't let them for get it. The Islanders were mocked at games by chants of "fish sticks!" General manager Don Maloney was fired. His replacement, Mike Milbury, wasn't much better, and the Islanders began the first real extent playoff drought of their existence.

In 2000, a team sale brought an influx of cool, green CASH! Unfortunately, Milbury was still the GM, and his investments weren't very popular. He traded away two future stars, Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen, then took Rick DiPietro in the entry draft over Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik. The team failed in immediate improvement, and was once again the worst team in the NHL. The coach, Isles legend Butch Goring, took the fall, and Milbury stayed the GM. (Hey! Back then they were operating THE EXACT SAME WAY the Buffalo Sabres are now!) Fans were pissed, even more so when Milbury passed on Ted Nolan as a head coach candidate in favor of Boston Bruins assistant Peter Laviolette. But before the 2002, he also managed to grab Alexei Yashin, Michael Peca, and Chris Osgood, and the Islanders had a turnaround season which saw them post 96 points. They lost to Toronto in the first round of the playoffs. After that, though, they were pretty much relegated to first round purgatory.

The Islanders since the 2005 lockout have been a passable team. They have a fantastic star in John Tavares who is going to light up the league, but have been hit or miss as a team. This isn't the dynasty years anymore, that's for damn sure.

Six players have had their numbers retired by the New York Islanders: Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Bob Nystrom, and Billy Smith. Other great Islanders have been Pat LaFontaine, Brent Sutter, Todd Bertuzzi, Ron Hextall, and Butch Goring.

The rivals of the New York Islanders are naturally the upscale, sexy New York Rangers. The Rangers, in history and prestige, have always been the Giants to the Islanders' Jets, the Yankees to their Mets, and Knicks to their Nets. It no doubt pisses Islanders fans off, especially now that the Islanders' period of looking down at the Rangers is long over. The Rangers rule broadway again, not that the Isles ever REALLY ruled it in the first place because they play in the middle of fucking nowhere in Nassau County while the Rangers play in the Center of the Universe in Manhattan. These two teams have a lot of history with each other, and have played against each other many times, often brutally. The Islanders also have a rivalry with the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils. All four teams in this pissing contest are littered with history, prestige, and Stanley Cups - the Flyers, who have won the Stanley Cup fewer times than anyone else in this land war, have won it twice. The Devils won three times, while the Isles and Rangers won it four times each.

The Islanders have a great history on their side too. The Miracle of 1993, the Easter Epic, the dynasty, all big deals in hockey lore. Even their 1984 loss in the Finals was big because it helped pave the way for the Edmonton Oilers seven-year whirlwind tour through the NHL. The 1994 playoffs loss came against the Rangers while the Rangers were on their way to their first Stanley Cup since 1940. Of all the Renegade teams in New York City, the Islanders are the only one that had the opportunity to condescend to their seniors for a considerable stretch of time, and the bragging rights for that are eternal. Even now, the Rangers can't get too uppity because, even though they're competitive and the Islanders seem stuck on rebuild, they still have an equal number of Stanley Cups. Rangers fans won't have bragging rights until their team stops choking in the playoffs and comes through.

On the other hand, the Islanders play in a shithole in Nassau County. Their arena is pretty much universally considered the worst in the NHL. The Gorton's Fisherman years were an embarrassment, as was the mismanagement which got them into the hamster wheel purgatory in which they now reside. And frankly, even if it's accurate, no team in the New York City area should ever call itself the Islanders - it's a name much more suited to a team in Hawaii, because the New York City metropolitan area doesn't really have the isolation of an island. It's the largest city in the country, and you can't get away with this kind of shit.

I can see an appeal to adopting the Islanders. But get used to life in a rut, and having a stupid name.

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Quick Tip by . December 24, 2010
It was 1980.   The US Olympic hockey team won the gold medal,   Defenseman Ken Morrow joined the Islanders,   The Islanders went on to win four consecutive Stanley Cups.      It was a great time to learn hockey.
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Conference: Eastern
Division: Atlantic
Stadium: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum
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"Lost on an Island"
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