The final New York Islanders regular season game at the Nassau Coliseum is in the books and the team's final game can come as abruptly as a sudden death overtime goal as the club approaches the cold, cruel world known as the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As the Coliseum hosts its final games, at least in its current configuration and aging state, the occasion of watching the Isles' last game brought back a flood of memories for many a fan that grew up with the Islanders. These are those wonderful memories.
It was a scene straight out of Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous as my Mom drove up Hempstead Turnpike, past Borelli's Pizza and across Meadowbrook Parkway, to the brand new arena, glowing in splendor in the vast nothingness of Mitchell Field. As she maneuvered past the parking lot attendants and made a u-turn to drop-off the pack of 13-year-olds, her maternal instincts kicked-in and the familiar phrase of "Be Careful" echoed out as the car doors opened. Unlike Frances McDormand's portrayal of Elaine Miller, mother of William, in the motion picture, my Mom, now 90-years-old - God bless her, wasn't worried about her son doing drugs at a rock show. She was worried about her 13-year-old running from the car, so excited to attend the first New York Islanders regular season game ever played.
Now, in 2015, it would be real easy to "Google" - New York Islanders - Nassau Coliseum - First Game - and get some details, but this reporter is going to wing it and encourage the Internet trolls to add comments to correct any wrong-doings of this column. I will trust my memory.
The Islanders lost, 3-2. Eddie Westphal, the captain stolen from the Boston Bruins in the dispersal draft, scored the Isles' first goal. Our tickets were $6 face value -- a hefty price tag for a Newsday paperboy and a considerable increase over the $3.25 student tickets we had purchased to attend the Tuesday night game against the Los Angeles Kings to be staged a few nights later. It was a cool October Saturday night and the buzz outside the arena was noticeable. The opponent was the equally inexperienced Atlanta Flames as the schedule-maker at the National Hockey League brilliantly plotted to have one of the two fledgling NHL expansion clubs get a "W" on their very first outing.
Sports marketing and retailing had yet to be realized in the manner they are today. I wore an Islanders pull-over sweat shirt, ordered from a Sears-Roebuck catalog. There was no such thing as a replica jersey. At that time, if you were to purchase such a thing, you had two choices and they were a Gerry Cosby's sporting goods store in Westbury or one at Penn Station, adjacent to Madison Square Garden in New York, home of the "hated" New York Rangers. To obtain a New York Islanders jersey, one with Westphal's No. 18 or Gerry Hart's No. 2 or Brian "Spinner" Spencer's No. 9, you had to have it custom made at Cosby's or mail away to purchase it from stores in Sherbrooke, Ontario, Canada, the real home of ice hockey. The concession stands at the new Nassau Coliseum had little to offer at the time, maybe a foam cut out of a finger or a poster or two.
Instead, we cut out photos from SPORT magazine or, maybe a rare color shot in the New York Times Sunday magazine as colorized newspaper publishing for the six-day-a-week Newsday had yet to come to fruition. We all chose our favorite players, who were cast-a-ways from that God-awful NHL dispersal draft. One of my friends decided Garry Howatt, the feisty forward, would be his guy while another picked Germaine Gagnon. Everyone liked Billy Harris, the Islanders' top rookie pick, and we all thought Gerry Desjardin would get the job done in goal. He would be the brick wall, the stopper.
Upon entering the Coliseum, the smell was "new," probably from the 15,000+ newly installed seats. Keep in mind, this wasn't the very first sporting event at the new Nassau Coliseum. We'd already attended the New York Nets vs. Pittsburgh Condors basketball game before the Islanders were to play their first regular season game ever. It was new because this game actually counted and it counted just the same as so many of the painful nights ahead when Long Island's very own expansion team would endure such inaugural year misery. Time passed quickly and more memorable nights for Islanders fans were in the glory years ahead.
Those moments from the early 1980s are the times being remembered now, as the Nassau Coliseum hosts its final New York Islanders regular season game. The team will soon be moved to the hip, (wink, wink) center of the ice hockey universe in Brooklyn, and Long Islanders who want to watch their team will have to "change at Jamaica" on a Long Island Rail Road train to Brooklyn. The young fans from Ft. Green and Flatbush will experience the first-ever Islanders NHL regular season game at the Barclays Center, the team's new home. The memories of the old Brooklyn Dodgers in baseball and the new Brooklyn Nets for basketball will now mesh with a sport entirely foreign to Kings County. The memories of the Islanders and the Nassau Coliseum will shutter when the team either wins the Stanley Cup or is eliminated from the 2015 NHL Playoffs, the former being a storybook final chapter but the latter being more likely this spring.
My memories rush past, as if I were dying an instant death and my life's best moments were flashing before my eyes. I close those eyes and I can picture Bobby Nystrom's overtime goal to clinch the 1980 Stanley Cup championship against the Philadelphia Flyers. That moment was the culmination, but, I still and equally cherish -- the journey. Thinking of that, my mind conjures up the sight of J.P. Parise's goal against the New York Rangers in 1975, again in overtime, but instead it was scored at Madison Square Garden to close out a series that allowed the Islanders to turn the corner towards legitimacy. That '75 Islanders team accomplished the impossible, coming back to beat the Rangers, then doing the same against the Pittsburgh Penguins, going down 0-3, but winning the series in seven games, a feat only accomplished once before, by the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs. When the Isles did the same thing against the big, bad Flyers in the very next series, only to fall short in Game 7, the Islanders had truly arrived and it was now a matter of time and overcoming the Flyers and a great Montreal Canadiens team to the north.
Just how did they go from expansion babies to Stanley Cup contenders in just three years? My mind wanders to seeing coach Al Arbour behind the bench and team GM Bill Torrey walking the concourse, a concourse poorly designed with too few restrooms and no amenities to speak of from an era of arena design drawn before the days of The Palace of Auburn Hills and luxury boxes on three levels. Torrey and Arbour were the masterminds and we loved them, almost as much as we loved our parents.
My mind rushes to seeing "No. 5," the great Denis Potvin - the key piece of the soon-to-be-built - and "get this" - the NY Islanders dynasty. Potvin would become the cornerstone, the captain and the best hockey defenseman I'd ever seen, because the Bobby Orr I chose to compare to Potvin was one with knee injuries and a Chicago Black Hawks jersey, not the Bobby Orr - the greatest player of all-time - from his heyday with the Boston Bruins. My mind rushes to watching "No. 19," Bryan Trottier and his mack truck, bone crushing, body checks and his wizardry in guiding the Islanders first line with wingers Michele "Mike" Bossy from Lavelle, Quebec and Clark Gillies of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Bossy was the goal-scorer the Islanders desperately needed and Gillies became the enforcer who went skate-to-skate and duked it out with all the bullies of Broad Street, like the Flyers' Dave Schultz, or even Boston's invincible Terry O'Reilly.
My mind also rushes to visions of the guys who were in the trenches for the Islanders, the guys who brought team chemistry and that extra boost. They were as valuable as Potvin, Trots and Bossy and their names were Wayne Merrick, Nystom, Lorne Henning, maybe even Anders Kallur. My mind envisions the toughest of defensemen, in Potvin, of course, but also in his brother, Jean. The defensive alignments escape me, but I can remember Dave Lewis and Dave Langevin. And, after the Miracle on Ice in the 1980 Olympics, I remember a young Ken Morrow joining the crew, straight from the gold medal stand in Lake Placid and solidifying a team defense in front of goalkeepers Billy Smith and the popular Glenn "Chico" Resch.
Going back to Torrey, I remember being sad to see the likable Billy Harris traded across the country to the LA Kings, but was happy to see the defense shored up with Lewis and a second-line center brought forth with Butch Goring joining the corps. Torrey had a way, much like basketball great Red Auerbach of the famed Boston Celtics, to secure that one extra piece, that one spark plug or trade deadline gem. In addition to Goring, I knew great things would happen when the Islanders obtained "No. 27" John Tonelli - not only because he wore the same uniform number that I did (truth be told, I also admired Toronto's Darryl Sittler) - but because he would add extra goal-scoring and toughness, much like Goring did.
The visions are not all about Stanley Cup Championships and ice hockey games. My memories are equally vivid from New York Nets games against Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel and the Kentucky Colonels or of David Thompson and the Denver Nuggets or Moses Malone, the youngster straight out of high school, playing for the Utah Stars. As the youngest member of what was certainly a "basketball family," we probably attended twice as many Nets games as I did Islanders. Similar to the Isles, the Nets delivered in a big way. They stepped up from dark days of Lavern Tart and Joe DuPre in the old Island Garden with the team coached by York Larese to better days with Rick Barry and coach Louie Carnesecca, lured from St. John's to the pros. The Nets of Coliseum fame were either championship contenders or ABA champions, led by Coach Kevin Loughery and Julius "Dr. J" Erving, of course, and some of my favorites like Ollie Taylor or Wendall Ladner, who died so suddenly and shockingly in an airplane crash at JFK airport.
I loved the Nets of ABA days with John Williamson and John Roche at guard, St. John's very own Billy Paultz, "The Whopper," at center and Tom "Trooper" Washington alongside The Doctor at forward. When the Nets and the ABA merged into the NBA in 1976-77, we went from the highly anticipated pairing of "Doctor J and Tiny A (Nate Archibald) in the NBA" to the likes of Bubbles Hawkins as Archibald blew-out his Achilles' and Erving was sold, shipped and sent to the Philadelphia 76ers right at the peak of his career. The Nets were in financial ruin and their ownership group, headed by Roy L.M. (Let's Move) Boe was about to relocate the team to Piscataway, New Jersey just to break my heart, I was sure.
Of course, the Coliseum was not just a sports arena. It was a concert hall, too. I caught my very first Bruce Springsteen show on New Year's eve 1980 at the building, and many more Springsteen shows after that, from "The River" to "Tunnel of Love" and well beyond. We saw "Chicago" - not the Black Hawks, not the Bulls - but the most popular rock band of the '70s, and we caught the Allman Brothers, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Elton John and Billy Joel. We watched St. John's in the ECAC basketball playoffs and an occasional regular season college game, including one that stands out that was an utter annihilation of the Redmen by No. 1 Oregon State.
More importantly, one of the most lasting images I will ever have of the Nassau Coliseum was a simple public address announcement made at an Islanders game against the old California Golden Seals, they of Carol Vadnais and white skates. The public address bellowed the news that the Viet Nam war was over and I remember the game stopping after a whistle, the announcement, and the players all banging their sticks on the ice or against the boards. My cousin, Air Force pilot Kevin Cheney, was going to come home soon. The next summer, they threw a ticket tape parade for the returning POWs. I remember THAT like it were yesterday.
The closing of the Coliseum is long overdue. I hear they're thinking of reducing it in size, a bit, refurbishing and updating the old, cement barn, built to resemble The Spectrum in Philadelphia or The Summit in Houston, the modern day marvels of the 1970s arena design. They can do what they want. I hope they make it a town hall for Long Islanders. I hope they make it more affordable and family friendly for ice shows and the circus. I hope they find an indoor lacrosse team or an ECHL ice hockey club. Billy Joel can still play and so can Elton. Sadly, though, too much time has passed for Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier. Too much time has passed for Julius "Dr. J" Erving. Too much time has passed for the Allman's and too much time passed for the likes of the late Brian "Spinner" Spencer, who was once my pen pal as he did time, awaiting the death sentence in a Florida jail after his post hockey life had spun way out of control and into the depths of drug abuse.
My memories are alive and well, unlike Spencer, who was shot and killed in a drug deal gone terribly wrong a few years after being exonerated of the crime he was accused of committing. My memories of a young, hard-hitting fan favorite, my "Spinner" Spencer, along with my fond memories of the Long Island's very own Islanders and Nets and the dump called the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, will live on forever.