Feeling the Islanders Fever…Again


For long-suffering Islanders fans, the team’s success this season revives
emotions of ‘the old days’

By Bill Jensen

January 3, 2002

IT’S THE KIND of cold that makes you think of only one thing: getting inside.
The wind that swooshes unimpeded from the North Shore to the paved-over
Hempstead Plains that are the Nassau Coliseum parking lot is unyielding. Fans
hustle from their cars to the turnstiles, forgoing any thought of a tailgate
party or parking-lot roughhousing on a Saturday night. But as the hundreds
surge forward, 10 men stay in place.

It’s a strange sight for a midseason Islanders game in the post-Stanley Cup
champion era. Even stranger is that the men standing in the chill, all ticket
scalpers, are emitting a cry to purchase tickets from fans walking into the
game just as frequently as they are shouting that they have some to sell. For
the first time in years, their supply of choice seats is low.

“I just got the word that six or seven guys just came back,” says one scalper
with a wind-whipped face who has been selling seats outside for the last 20
years. “There were about four of us diehards that stayed over the past five
years. Business is good.”

Back when the Islanders were kings of two counties, when they were winning four
straight Cups (1980-83) and making the playoffs year after year from the mid
’70s to the late ’80s, the Coliseum was the place to be on Long Island. The
mile-long stretch of Hempstead Turnpike, from Merrick Avenue to the gates of
the Hofstra University campus, was filled with car horns blurting out a
mono-note version of the popular chant of the day: “Let’s Go Islanders! Let’s
Go Islanders!”

And fans were not satisfied with simply showing up at a game, watching it and
leaving. They wanted to strut their stuff in central Nassau, going to confident
dinners at Borelli’s before the game and celebratory toasts at the Salty Dog
after. Being an Islanders fan was a culture unto itself, and, at least on game
nights, Long Island was a hockey hot spot.

Tonight, after nearly 15 years of sparse crowds, a revolving locker room door,
crooked and stingy owners, and last-place finishes, the Islanders are winning
games. And with Islanders wins returns Islanders ethos.

***

The John Tonelli jersey that he bought when the rugged left winger joined the
team in 1978 is a little tighter on Dan DeGorter’s frame than in the glory
days, but he’s wearing it tonight. The 47-year-old manufacturer’s rep from
Merrick was a season ticket holder for 20 years. He gave up hope, and the
seats, last year.

“They have called me back,” DeGorter says with a laugh as he shares a plate of
wings with his son Jon, 15, at Hooters on Hempstead Turnpike in East Meadow.

Like many fans from the glory days, DeGorter used to conduct his pregame
rituals at joints like Bill’s Meadowbrook and Bogart’s. But as the team began
to waver, the crowds began to thin. In the recent past, going out before a game
became a lost tradition, as acknowledging another fan wearing an Islanders
jersey became less of a proud fist-shaking and more of an empathetic head nod
for what was to come. But an hour and a half before the game, Hooters, the new
go-to pregame spot amid the bars in the ripple of the Coliseum’s new splash, is
an orange and blue sea of wing-eating, beer-drinking fans.

“They’re sold out and, pretty much, so are we,” says Tony Perisi, Hooters day
manager. “Last year, those who did come would come at 6:15. They wouldn’t care
if they missed half of the first period. Now, they’re coming earlier. They
don’t want to miss anything.”

Just as at Fuddrucker’s and Bertucci’s around the corner on Merrick Avenue, the
people here converge less for the need to eat and drink and more for the
camaraderie of fandom.

“When my parents used to take me to games, we used to just pick up sandwiches
at the deli,” says Jimmy Sullivan, 16. Sullivan is out with three friends from
Hicksville. “I think we’re going to keep going out before the game like this.”

“I like seeing all the Islander fans getting ready for the game, see how pumped
they are,” says Matt Sviridoff, 9, of West Sayville, going to the game with his
dad.

***

While the fans cling to their beer mugs, first-line center Alexei Yashin
clutches a blowtorch, crafting the curve on a blade in the Islanders stick room
deep in the catacombs of the Coliseum a few hours before the game. Yashin was
born in Sverdlovsk, Russia, spent seven seasons in Ottawa, and now gets paid to
score goals at least 82 games a year wearing a silhouette of Long Island on his
jersey.

“These fans were hungry for good hockey,” says Yashin, his right index finger
wrapped from an injury incurred in his previous game. “We give them something
to cheer about. The fans are very happy, and they make me feel very good.”

Yashin is now a Long Islander. He bought a house near his girlfriend’s mother’s
place, his girlfriend being East Williston native and supermodel Carol Alt, who
has added some glamour to the Islanders by cheering on her guy every night in
the Coliseum stands.

Yashin is here because of the wallets and spirit of new owners Charles Wang and
Sanjay Kumar (of Islandia-based Computer Associates). After purchasing the team
in 2000, Wang and Kumar gave virtual free reign to general manager Mike Milbury
to build a team that would fill the seats. Milbury acquired Yashin in a
multi-player trade.

A few steps away from Yashin, Mike Peca, another boon from the new ownership,
is sitting on a bench inside the locker room. More than any other player, Peca
is deemed the savior by the fans. Also acquired in a trade in the offseason, he
was named captain before playing a single game in an Islanders jersey. All
signs point to Peca being in this thing for the long haul. Signing a five-year
contract, the 27-year-old center recently bought a house in Huntington.

A major component of Islanders culture in the past was player interaction. Fan
favorites such as Clark Gillies and Bobby Nystrom moved to Long Island fulltime
(and are still here) and could be seen at the local Chuck E. Cheese as well as
on the ice. While guys like Peca have yet to gain the celebrity status of
Islanders past, they understand their importance to the community.

“It’s a great responsibility to have an ability to impact an organization,”
says Peca, road-weary face carrying a 5-o’clock shadow that consistently works
overtime. From 1995 to 2000, he visited the Island as a member of the Buffalo
Sabres before sitting out the 2000-01 season in a contract dispute.

“The one thing I always remember is how sparse the crowds were,” Peca says
bluntly. “It was really boring.”

A soft-spoken Canadian, Peca is the last to boast he’s an antidote to boredom.
But as he takes the ice in front of 16,000 fans, the house quivers.

***

The Islanders are sold out again. Two years ago, after the team traded away fan
favorite Ziggy Palffy, along with many other players in a host of cost-cutting
salary dumps, the season ticket base fell to a league low of 2,800. Today, the
number is up to 8,000. They have sold out six games this season, compared to
four all last year, and are averaging 14,000, compared to 10,000 last season.
Coming by tickets is not “Lion King” difficult, by any means, but it’s getting
there.

“It’s fun again,” says Peter Karikas, as he and his son John, 8, eat ice-cream
cones as they watch the game from their second-row seats. “We used to come, and
he didn’t know what the score was, but he knew we were going to lose.” Now,
John has to fight with his sister over who will accompany Dad to the next game.

“Next year, I’m going to have to get three seats,” says Karikas, a restaurant
owner from Garden City.

Unlike Madison Square Garden, where suit-wearing businessmen are the norm in
the good seats, the Coliseum’s lower level is filled on the weekends with
families.

“It’s like the old days. It’s like flashbacks. It’s like ‘finally,'” says Fran
Berkowitz, 42, a Centereach substitute teacher, at the game with her
11-year-old daughter, Robyn, who is clutching a stuffed doll of the Islanders’
new mascot, Sparky. “I love it.”

The Islanders never got that new arena that seemingly everyone was whining
about in the early and mid ’90s. And, save for luxury boxes, they don’t need a
new one. The general architecture of the building hasn’t changed since Bryan
Trottier and Mike Bossy patrolled its frozen water — an oval building with
great sight lines. But the atmosphere shows signs of 21st century corporate
encroachment. Islanders power plays are now “sponsored” by Keyspan. The
scoreboard is a state-of-the-art giant TV screen, flashing numerous
advertisements at breakneck speed. Beers are 6 bucks each. Vendors also sell
smoothies and Starbucks and sushi.

But the most important facets of the Islanders experience are the same: Fans go
crazy for goals, saves and whenever the scoreboard shows that the Rangers are
losing a game across town.

The Rangers are the team that has garnered most of the attention, even on Long
Island, in the past 10 years. Rangers fans are quick to point out that the
current wave of Islanders popularity is merely bandwagon-jumping from
fair-weather fans. No Islanders fan will admit that he or she gave up on the
team. They were still going to games — now they are just going to a whole lot
more.

“Everybody knew this was a hockey town,” new Islanders head coach Peter
Laviolette says, defending the now-big crowds. “The fans were out there. And if
the players go out there and play their hearts out, the fans will come. And,
usually, that leads to success.”

Peer around the stands at the Coliseum, and you can identify plenty of
fresh-off-the-rack jerseys. Peca, Yashin and goalie Chris Osgood are the fans’
major choices, and many people are showing up at the games and spending $200
for a jersey of their new heroes.

Donna Hutchinson, a stay-at-home mom from Rockville Centre, is out Christmas
shopping between periods. She has a specific list for her two boys: an Osgood
jersey for her 11-year-old and a Peca for her 7-year-old, who is also getting
an Islanders warm-up suit, a hat and a T-shirt.

“His nursery school teacher used to say he was the only Islanders fan left on
Long Island,” Hutchinson says.

Sitting across the way in section 309, row B, seat 11 is a fan at the other end
of the age spectrum. Bill Hayes says he has never missed an Islanders game.
Ever. In 30 years. Neither snowstorm, nor rainstorm, nor threat of falling
scoreboard has kept him away. The 77-year-old retired security guard from East
Meadow has seen the place go from a palace of champions to an arena sometimes
referred to around the National Hockey League as The Nassau Mausoleum. A
genteel man, he sits with a pad and pen, jotting down the number of every
player that hits the ice for each shift. “What I see is more of a team effort,”
he says, laughing at the fact that all of his “friends” have returned.

***

After the game, fans still spill out into The Blue Line Grill, a bar on the
Coliseum’s lower concourse, to watch a live postgame radio interview with an
Islanders player or coach.

Bob Sarnowski, 26, of Oyster Bay, is clutching a cowbell and drumstick in the
center of the room. A 10-year veteran as a fan, Sarnowski has 220 vision in one
eye, no vision in the other. He can’t see the puck, can barely make out the
teams. He judges the game by the sounds — and the shakes.

“You can’t look forward to the game enough,” says Sarnowski of the Coliseum’s
rediscovered vibe. “The chanting, the noise. You can be completely blind and
you could feel it. The building shakes.”

The room shakes when Peca walks in for an interview. In the corner of the room,
Ed Woods, 40, a Port Authority police officer from Sunnyside, Queens, is
fighting a losing battle against a plate of messy hot wings. He and childhood
friend Lou Martini, 41, are sporting new jerseys they purchased when they
bought a 12-game ticket package this season. The Blue Line will be the first
stop on a late-night postgame tour.

“We wear the Islander jerseys to Flanagan’s [a bar deep in Ranger- friendly
Manhattan] after the game,” says Martini, an actor. “We don’t have to take them
off before we go in. It’s been a long time since someone patted me on the back
for wearing an Islander jersey, especially on the Upper East Side.”

“Especially anywhere!” Woods chimes in.

Across the Coliseum parking lot, there’s a horde of fans buzzing around
Champions sports bar in the lobby of the Long Island Marriott. At one corner of
the room, Islanders players Garth Snow and Adrian Aucoin are sharing a plate of
nachos with Hall-of- Fame goalie and current goaltending coach Billy Smith.
It’s two hours after the game ended, and the place is packed.

“If it was a 7-1 loss, you would be falling asleep during the third period and
want to go home,” says Mike Pollack, 34, of Farmingdale, part of a group of
friends swapping turns at a Golden Tee video game. “Now, you’re coming off a
certain high — that energy, that adrenaline, keeps you going.”

Pollack’s crew breaks into an argument as to whether the team can make it to
the Stanley Cup finals this year. Most fans would be happy with just making the
playoffs, which the Islanders haven’t accomplished since 1994. But these guys
want more.

“See this jersey?” says Brian Malone, 31, a mortgage banker from Carle Place,
pointing to his chest. “They could play outdoors, at Christopher Morley Park,
and we’d go. I don’t need sushi and all that. I just want to win.”

While Champions is filled with 20- and 30-somethings, the teenagers hit T.G.I.
Fridays, where Joanna Schoener, 16, of Mineola is eating appetizers with friend
Stephanie McDonald amid a bunch of fans bubbling about the game.

“There were times last year,” says McDonald, 20, a student at Nassau Community
College, “when you dreaded going to the games, ’cause you didn’t want to see
what happened.”

“I’m getting season tickets next year when I can drive,” says Schoener, her
blond locks draped over a home white Islanders jersey crowded with autographs.

“Yeah, right,” McDonald says.

“No, I am,” a defiant Schoener counters.

That’s new school. But for some fans, the tradition hasn’t changed. Across
town, the Colony Diner on Hempstead Turnpike in East Meadow is relatively
sedate. Bill Hayes is in the same spot he’s been after a game for years. If his
stomach is cooperating, he might get a tuna melt or a bowl of soup. But, win or
lose, he’ll always get coffee.

“After the games lately,” Hayes says with a smile, “my coffee tastes good.”

Bill Jensen is a freelance writer.

Copyright (c) 2002, Newsday, Inc.

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