Monday, November 7, 2011

There is Nothing About the New York Islanders That Isn't a Travesty

A few months ago, a couple of druggies shot up a pharmacy on Long Island, killing four, including a young teenager. Days after the story broke, I was not in the least bit surprised to learn that the druggies became engaged to be married at a New York Islanders game. Deadspin wasn't surprised either--in their immortal words, "Of course the pill-popping couple charged with four pharmacy murders got engaged at an Islanders game." Of course for decades, the most obvious Islanders word-assocs. weren't "druggies," "losers from Long Island" and "quadruple homicide," but "Trottier," "Nystrom," "four consecutive Stanley Cups" and "one of only two American-based NHL-recognized dynasties in hockey history." Now, 23 years after the last banner was hoisted to the already-crowded rafters at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum (for the 1987-88 Patrick Division title. The Patrick Division doesn't even exist anymore, by the way), the Coen Brothers' humor of a couple of psychopathic, murderous druggies getting engaged at an Islanders game is so self-evident that it barely requires explanation. In fact, why haven't the Coens directed a sort of dark suburban, po-mo apocalyptic Bonnie and Clyde-type yarn that begins with a deeply-in-love Hempstead meth head proposing to his mate via NVMC jumbotron?

Again, not the sort of question that the once-glorious Islanders once begged. Going to a game in Uniondale is sort of like visiting the Agora in Athens, or the Forum in Rome--or, more accurately, the Colossi of Rameses in Thebes, about which Shelly wrote these familiar and actually-immortal lines:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The Nassau Coliseum is the cradle of a fallen empire; theirs was a vast imperium that few can remember, but that casts a decrepit and ever-receding shadow on our present day. Look on my works, ye Mighty! Seven Stanley Cups or Regular Season Titles (the pre-President's Cup award for most points in a season) in just a five-year span! Nine Hall of Famers (the Caps, who have been around as long as the Islanders have, boast only Gartner and Langway)! A ceiling crowded with banners! Unquestioned home-ice supremacy! A rivalry with the Rangers as embittered as any in sports!

And despair: when the girlfriend, the younger brother and I arrived at the NVMC for Saturday night's Capitals-Islanders game, we were told our cheap, upper-deck seats had turned into expensive (yet complimentary!), lower-bowl seats on account of a ceiling leak pissing all over section 305. NVMC is in a pretty advanced state of dilapidation, but then again so is RFK, a building that, against all logic-based argument to the contrary, I believe should stand as a permanent memorial to the Redskins' 20-year golden era. Decrepitude can add character to a sports venue is what I'm saying, but emptiness can only detract. And what was sad about the leaky ceiling snafu is that, on a Saturday night, in a game against the best team in the NHL (and a former Patrick Division rival, at that), a game in which Alex Ovechkin, Brian Rolston, Niklas Bakstrom and a host of past and present stars and almost-stars would be competing--was that they actually had lower-bowl seats they could move us to. The official attendance, according to, was 14,812, but there were far more than 1,500 empty seats on Saturday night. And about a third of the 10-12,000 seats that did have people in them were occupied by those who, like myself, were wearing Capitals gear. Which means there were somewhere between 6 and 9,000 actual Islanders fans at a Saturday night game against a former division rival with a two-time MVP on its roster. I bought my tickets on StubHub for $13 each--$10 below face value.

Forget that the Islanders are now so easily mocked, that they've sucked for 20 years, that the Long Island white trash nature of their fan base is an implied punchline on a nationally-read sports website, or that they play in a decaying building in the middle of a parking lot off the frickin' Long Island expressway, for fuck's sake. A formerly proud franchise can hit rock-bottom and still retain some essence of its former mystique, as anyone who's been to a Mets or Redskins game over the past few years can attest. But that essence has totally dissipated in Uniondale. It's sad to have to say this, but one of the NHL's all-time great, historic franchises should no longer exist. For a few reasons.

Firstly, that existence is predicated upon a once-fashionable, once-plausible social theory that time and history and demographics has gradually debunked. In the early 60s and 70s, the triumph of the suburbs over the city--and the automobile over every other form of transportation--seemed all but assured. Even visionaries like Frank Lloyd Wright were convinced that the ideal American society should be arranged around peace, quiet and living space rather than proximity, convenience and social cohesion. The Islanders were founded in 1972, at the tail end of Robert Moses's auto-centric building spree, and at a time in which The American City wasn't thought of as the country's social and intellectual engine, but as a decaying national disgrace. Some of the worst urban riots in American history took place a mere 4 years before the first drop of the puck at NVMC; "Taxi Driver" came out in 1976; the famous "Ford to City: Drop Dead" headline graced a 1975 issue of the New York Daily News; the Son of Sam stalked the streets in '76 and '77. In the mid-70s, New York City (and Cleveland, and Detroit, and Washington DC...) was violent, black, menacing and broke; if Wikipedia is to be believed, New York City lost over 10% of its population between 1960 and 1980. If it weren't for a combination of a sort of auto-centric teleology in American urban thinking and good ol' fashioned white flight, Nassau County's population wouldn't have doubled between 1950 and 1970, and the New York Islanders likely wouldn't exist.

Now, thanks to the housing crisis, expensive gas, Jane Jacobs, ebbing racism and all sorts of other shit that the Islanders ownership group and the NHL simply could not have anticipated back in 1972, the suburbs are over. Hell, according to the Wall Street Journal, white flight is over. The Nets' relocation from a parking lot in the middle of the Jersey peat bogs to Flatbush and Atlantic in Brooklyn encapsulates a kind of positive, macro-level shift in American society. And it's a shift that the Islanders are incapable of adapting to, so long as they keep playing in Uniondale.

A fan said as much to me at the game the other night. In the first period, P.A. Parentau meekly shoved a typically-clueless Roman Hamerlik into the boards, leaving him prone on the ice for about 20 terrifying seconds, during which I half-wondered if I'd just seen a guy get paralyzed in front of between 10 and 12,000 screaming, bloodthirsty hockey fans. Hamerlik was fine enough to play the rest of them game (albeit poorly), and because the play was off the puck and a good 5 or 6 feet off the boards, Parentau was whistled for a weak but arguably-justified 5 minute boarding major. "He was six feet off the boards! That couldn't have been a penalty. He should get five minutes for diving!" some dipshit behind me opined. For some reason, I felt obliged to explain to him that a player's distance from the boards is actually part of the justification for a boarding penalty--that you can only shove the guy into the boards if you're like, next to the boards and going for the puck, rather than six feet from either of them. I got an argumentative and totally-expected "have you ever played hockey before?" (I haven't, not that it matters here...)...but the guys behind me ended up being pretty sold by Islanders-fan standards, since we spent the first intermission talking about the Redskins, Ovechkin, DC sports, and, finally, the fate of Uniondale's seemingly-doomed NHL franchise.

The Islander's lease on NVMC is up in a couple years, and the team has failed to secure public financing for a new arena in Uniondale. Where's this team going? I asked them. "They'll figure something out. They'll keep them here," said an older gentlemen with the kind of bullshit gravitas that crusty looking older dudes can lend to mildly insane statements, such as "the Islanders have a future in Long Island."

"See, the problem is that the arena isn't close to any public transit," a younger, more intelligent fellow added. "You think this place is empty now, come here on a weeknight. I want them to play out by where the Mets play." Then again, if this guy thinks that New York City is going to throw down $400 million for a new arena for the New York Islanders, maybe he was as delusional as his older seatmate. No one mentioned a third possiblity: that the Islanders could play at the soon-to-be-compelted Barclays Centre in Downtown Brooklyn. It's obvious why this never came up: Barclays is on top of a dozen subway lines and the LIRR, but it's also much further from the Long Island suburbs than Flushing is. A Flushing arena would allow Islanders fans to conveniently see their favorite hockey team (probably by driving, I should add. Flushing is more easily accessible by car from the Long Island suburbs than it is by LIRR...), but their convenience isn't worth the high public-sector cost of a new building.

Long story short, even Islanders fans are sorta in denial here. They admit that no one wants to drive to games, and that the team needs to move to the city. But in the process, they invalidate the Islanders original reason for being.

Second reason this team isn't viable, and this is gonna sound sorta tautological but fuck it: they're just not viable. According to Forbes, the Islanders are the NHL's fifth most worthless team (or 26th most valuable team, if you prefer). In this day and age (at least according to an epic Nate Silver essay in Baseball Between the Numbers. It's the one about whether or not A-Rod is overpaid), a sports team makes a lot of its money off of the sort of things that really offend sports purists: stadium naming deals, luxury suites, expensive tickets, overpriced stadium concessions and television rights. NVMC has only 15 permanent concession stands (15! For the whole arena!) and only 32 luxury suites; by comparison, MSG has 88 luxury suites, and probably 15 concession stands on the club level alone. Islanders games are broadcast on something called MSG+, and according to Forbes, they rank 22nd out of 24th in television viewership among American NHL teams. NVMC's naming rights are currently unsold, probably because the team is going to leave in 2015 when their lease on the arena expires.

As Forbes points out, the team's current financial model is unsustainable. And hockey, unlike Baseball and arguably unlike Football and Basketball, has a number of markets it can successfully expand to. An NHL team in Hamilton, Quebec City or even Hartford (which is building a new arena for the UConn basketball team, I believe) would probably sell out every game. Gary Bettman is understandably worried about the NHL turning into a regional, small-cap sort of league, which explains why the Coyotes are still playing in front of 6,000 people a night in Phoenix rather than in front of 17,000 a night in, say, Saskatoon. But as the NBA's experience with the New Orleans Hornets demonstrates, it's better for a league to maximize its profits elsewhere than subsidize an open, festering wound in a market it badly wants to penetrate. The NHL should go where the hockey fans are, to places where a team's success won't depend solely on socio-economic factors that are outside of the league's control. Demand for hockey is elastic in Uniondale, but it sure isn't elastic in Canada (so far this season, the Ottawa Senators have the lowest attendance among the Canadian clubs, at least in terms of per-game percentage capacity. They only sell 98.8% of their seats).

Finally, and this is the real reason the Islanders should move: the human mind believe that certain things--nations, cities, sports franchises--are as immovable as a mountain range, and as permanent a feature as the Agora or the Forum of the Colossi of Ramses. How often this belief in immutability is revealed as the arrogance that it is. The Agora and the Forum aren't functioning urban spaces but tourist attractions; even mountain ranges are slowly eroding into the ground. Nothing in this world has the inherent right to continue existing, least of all you or I, whose obsolescence could be closer than we realize--and least of all a hockey team in Long Island, whose point of obsolescence has long since passed.

Saturday night's game was one of the most exciting I've ever been to. There were lead changes and lots of scoring, but also plenty of the little things that hockey fans thrill to: clean open-ice hits, diving blocked shots (most of them by the Islanders, unfortunately), and a couple of glaring, game-changing strategic fuckups (by the Capitals, also unfortunately). There was the excitement of seeing Alex Ovechkin draw a bullshit interference penalty as only a player of Ovechkin's stature can, as well as the weirdness, peculiar to hockey, of seeing a player get a major penalty, two assists and a game-winner in a single, schizoid 60-minute span (Parentau is a beast, as it turns out). And then there was Rick DiPietro, who had to hear an arena of gutless fans chant Al Montoya's name after letting in a couple of blazing wrist-shots in the first period. He demonstrated astounding mental toughness in the process of ignoring the crowd and stonewalling the Caps during the last two frames--in a final "fuck you" to the NVMC faithful, he even recorded an assist on the Islanders' game-icing, open-net goal. The Islanders fans underwent this wareworlf-like metamorphosis from garden-variety hockey fan dipshits to uber hockey fan dipshits when the horn sounded on their team's 5-3 victory. But I felt genuinely happy for them for a couple seconds there, with the NVMC rocking like a high school gym and the 9,000 or so Islanders supporters relishing a gutsy, hard-won victory over arguably the best team in the league. The optimism, that delusional feeling that the good old days weren't quite as far off as the dates on those wrinkled, dusty banners cluttering the (leaky) NVMC ceiling would suggest, was briefly infectious, even for me, and I hate the Islanders, who beat the Capitals in an infamous, quadruple overtime playoff game back in 1987.

The bonds between fan and team are strong in hockey, and the few Islanders fans who came out on Saturday don't deserve to have a part of themselves skip town for Quebec. But then again, only sentimentality can justify the Islanders' presence in Uniondale. Time and necessity have a near-perfect head-to-head record against sentimentality, I think. They'll triumph in this case, as they always seem to--and sooner rather than later, I hope.

A things-being-over themed song:

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