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The Last Waltz

April 13, 2015
April 13, 2015

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April 13, 2015

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The Last Waltz

The Islanders are a joke no longer—but their best season in three decades is also their final one in the suburbs. Can hockey's most provincial franchise win another Stanley Cup before it flees for Brooklyn?

This is an article from the April 13, 2015 issue

ONE OF the top teams in the Eastern Conference has spent the better part of the last 30 years as a laughingstock. The Islanders' futility has come in phases, with a slow decline followed by mediocrity, followed by calamitous mediocrity, followed by funny calamitous mediocrity, followed by rebirth.

Since New York reached the conference finals in 1993, the team has bought out a combined 12 years of the contracts of both captain Alexei Yashin and former No. 1 draft pick Rick DiPietro and, in a series of ruinous trades, sent away goalie Roberto Luongo, defenseman Zdeno Chara and the draft pick that would become center Jason Spezza. It has been purchased by not one but two men who eventually went to prison for financial felonies. It briefly replaced the Long Island crest on its sweaters with a monstrosity that bore an uncanny resemblance to the Gorton's fisherman. It cycled through eight coaches while leaving "Mad" Mike Milbury—the general manager who not only traded Luongo and Chara but who also signed Yashin to his budget-busting deal—in charge for 11 years. The Islanders finally replaced Milbury in 2006 with Neil Smith, the architect of the 1994 Rangers' Cup-winning team, only to fire him 42 days later. His replacement was Garth Snow, the team's backup goalie.

But the Islanders are not the joke that the last three decades of their history suggest. The franchise holds the record for most consecutive playoff series wins (19), and their four Stanley Cups (won from 1980 to '83) in 41 seasons look a lot better than the rival Rangers' four in 87. Winger Mike Bossy may have been the best pure scorer ever (his 0.76 goals per game is tops in NHL history), and a host of his teammates on those Cup-winning teams deservedly sit alongside him in the Hall of Fame. Current captain John Tavares hasn't fallen meaningfully shy of a point-per-game scoring pace since his sophomore season in 2010--11, when the center was all of 20 years old.

And that backup goalie turned front-office exec? Garth Snow is a good bet for General Manager of the Year. He snapped up the rights to goalie Jaroslav Halak in May 2014 and then signed him before free agency began, and stole a topflight first pairing—defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy—from two cap-pressed teams just before the season opened. Says center Frans Nielsen, "Right away [those moves] gave us the feeling that we shouldn't be scared of anyone—they should be afraid of us." It's more than a feeling now: With three games left, the Isles had 98 points, their highest season total since 1984. It's been at least that long since Long Island was this excited about the playoffs.

Nothing sums up the duality of the franchise better than the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Islanders' home from their inception in 1972 until whenever their playoff run ends this year—a 16,170-seat sculpture that involuntarily contrasts New York's big-time past with its small-time present. Bronze plaques of the Islanders' greatest players line the hallway from the dressing room to the ice surface, but look up and the drop ceiling is cheap gypsum. The home locker room must be the only one in the NHL that relies on two overworked ceiling fans for ventilation. DiPietro, an analyst for MSG Network, says he can't count how many times he used a blowtorch—meant for curving the blades of hockey sticks—to chase cockroaches out of the room. The dingy facility may have spooked potential free agents, but it also built an us-against-the-world mentality for the men who called themselves Islanders.

And like those cockroaches, the Islanders can survive anything. New York will keep its name and tradition when it moves in the fall. But before it decamps for Brooklyn—just 25 miles west but in a different world entirely—it's worth pausing to examine the unique little place the Islanders are leaving behind, a window into America's recent past.

SUBURB IS an ugly word, so unsightly, so u-heavy, that it reads Germanic despite its Latin roots. It looks like a first cousin of burp. The word has spent much of its life as a pejorative. Lewis Mumford, the noted urban planner, wrote in 1922 that in the suburbs, "life is carried on without the discipline of rural occupations and without the cultural resources that the Central District of the city still retains." He wrote that long before the suburbs—including Nassau County's Levittown—had completed the bulk of their 20th-century growth.

In the popular imagination, cities are edgy and enriching. The suburbs have been portrayed by everyone from Cheever to Eminem as suppressive and draining, home to hypocrisy and pricey sameness. But there was a time and a place—post--World War II, on Long Island—when the perceived dichotomy didn't hold. New York City was overcrowded, dirty and a bad environment for the families that GIs and their wives planned to raise. The suburbs would be clean and prosperous. Long Island, to that point known for farms and the summer estates of the wealthy, would be ideal for the middle class.

Understandably few major league franchises have ever affiliated themselves with suburbs, regardless of where their stadiums and fans may reside. The Dallas Cowboys play in Arlington; the Washington Redskins play in Landover, Md. The Atlanta Braves are moving to Cobb County but won't be changing their name. The California Angels urbanized into the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. So too did the Florida (now Miami) Marlins.

Only the Islanders have been loud and proud about their suburban status. The team came to be after Nassau County decided it would rather have an NHL franchise playing in its new arena than one that hailed from the upstart WHA. (The poor New York Raiders ended up instead at Madison Square Garden.) Naming a team for your suburb was the silent-majority thing to do—Nassau County had gone for Nixon in 1968. Better still to put that team in a building named to honor veterans.

In 2004, with the Coliseum aging, New York owner Charles Wang came up with the Lighthouse Project, the first major attempt to replace the building. All parties involved thought they had cooked up a real winner—the county would give Wang and a developer partner the land on which the Coliseum is built. Wang, who claimed to lose millions each year from keeping the Islanders afloat in a bad arena, would get something of a windfall for his trouble. The county, meanwhile, could arrange for a more lucrative lease with the promise of attracting a young, skilled tax base. Renderings suggested a modern, downscaled cityscape, with apartments and office space, a luxury hotel, restaurants, shops and a minor league ballpark. But the suburbs put their foot down; citing concerns over traffic and public utilities, the town of Hempstead insisted that Wang dramatically scale down his project before it would give zoning approval. He said no and walked away.

For all that the Long Island suburbs had once symbolized about postwar America—the ability to create something meaningful where there once had been nothing—they now stood for intractability. The citizens who owed their neighborhoods to the ambitious developers of the mid--20th century had no use for the planners of the 21st. The ugly word looks a lot like stubborn, too.

ONE YEAR after a referendum to fund a new arena had been rejected by Nassau County voters, the team in 2012 officially left the suburbs behind, announcing in the midst of the NHL lockout that it would move to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn once its Coliseum lease ended. Wang later agreed to sell the team to two investors. Although Barclays doesn't have quite the right layout for hockey (its small floor means that one goal will have essentially no lower-bowl seats behind it, and the arena will have fewer than 16,000 total seats), it does have 112 luxury suites and spacious roach-free locker rooms.

This year New York finally seems worthy of first-class digs—and capable of a long playoff run. Struggling with injuries, the Islanders went 4-6-3 in March. But led by Tavares, who's second in the NHL with 80 points (35 goals, 45 assists), they are still the fourth-highest-scoring team in the league (2.96 goals per game). New York is potent, and it is deep: Six forwards have scored at least 15 goals, tied for second most in the NHL. "You could see the talent in the room [from Day One]," says Tavares. "Jaro, a goalie in the prime of his career; [forwards Mikhail] Grabovski and [Nikolay] Kulemin—that made us feel good about up front. We had a lot of kids on the back end, then brought in Leddy and Boychuck—they're winners."

As for next season, Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark says that his sales pitch has been two-pronged. (Barclays Center, not the Islanders, has been handling the sales and marketing of the team, which has yet to announce whether its employees will be offered jobs at Barclays.) To Brooklyn fans, he talks up the speed of the game and borough pride. On Long Island his slogan is, Tradition has a new home. Yormark says that he has become acutely aware of how much Islanders fans value their traditions. He says more season-ticket holders have agreed to come to Brooklyn than he expected—Barclays anticipates that between 20% and 30% of next year's attendees will be from Long Island. And the Long Island Rail Road, as he will gladly remind you, stops right across from the Islanders' new home.

But many fans won't come, and so this season of unexpected success has been bittersweet. Perhaps the Islanders, who have not won a playoff series since 1993, can win one more in "Fort Neverlose"—perhaps their depth, and their occasionally brilliant netminder, can take them even further. Jokes DiPietro, "If they play the Rangers in the second round, they won't even need to knock down the Coliseum. It'll be in ruins either way."

The new building carries no guarantee of financial success. In 2007 the Devils moved from the isolated Meadowlands into Newark's gleaming Prudential Center, a site easily accessible by public transit, but they've never ranked better than 20th in the league in attendance in the years since. (This season New Jersey is 26th.) Still, the NHL probably doesn't mind having a new arena in its ranks, and the space will help the Isles entice free agents.

As for sharing it with the NBA's Brooklyn Nets? Funny enough, the first game at Nassau Coliseum was a Nets game, too. On Feb. 11, 1972, the ABA's New York Nets, who had been playing in Commack and later in West Hempstead, beat the Pittsburgh Condors 129--121. As Newsday put it the next day, COLISEUM DEBUT IS A SMASH HIT. The Nets were gone in five years, sure. But today? The Brooklyn future looks bright for the Islanders, almost as bright as their future looked when the Coliseum opened in '72, just as bright as the twinkle in the eye of developer William Levitt when he appeared in '50 on the cover of TIME, surrounded by Long Island homes, along with the headline FOR SALE: A NEW WAY OF LIFE.

Suburban Slide

OCT. 12, 1972

Eleven months after the NHL awarded the franchise to clothes maker Roy Boe, the Islanders win their first game, defeating the Kings 3--2 at Nassau Coliseum.

JUNE 10, 1973

After winning 12 games in its inaugural season, New York hires former Blues coach Al Arbour (left).

APRIL 11, 1975

The Islanders win their very first playoff series when winger J.P. Parise scores in overtime of Game 3 to upset the Rangers.

MAY 24, 1980

New York wins the Stanley Cup in its first trip to the finals, defeating the Flyers in six games.

MAY 19, 1984

After hoisting four straight Cups, the Isles lose in the finals to the Oilers, their first playoff series loss since '79.

ISLANDERS

OCT. 7, 1995

The team debuts the ill-fated "fish sticks" jerseys depicting a stick-wielding fisherman who bears a striking resemblance to the logo for Gorton's Seafood.

JULY 6, 1997

Less than a year after John Spano (above) agreed to buy the Islanders—then in the midst of a seven-season playoff drought—for $165 million, Newsday exposes him as a fraud, showing that he has nowhere near the amount of money he claims. In 2000, Spano was sentenced to 71 months in prison for bank fraud.

SEPT. 13, 2006

New York signs goalie Rick DiPietro to a 15-year, $67.5 million contract. Often injured, he plays 175 more games the next seven seasons before retiring.

JUNE 26, 2009

With the top pick in the draft, the Islanders select current captain John Tavares.

OCT. 24, 2012

A year after Nassau County voters shot down a referendum on a new arena, New York announces that it will move to Brooklyn's Barclays Center for the '15--16 season.

PHOTOPhotograph by Brad Penner USA TODAY SportsREVIVAL LEADER Tavares, who ranks second in the league in scoring, is the heartbeat of the NHL's fourth-best offense.PHOTOMIKE STOBE/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (HALAK)NET BENEFIT Halak (41) has stabilized New York's goaltending. He ranks fifth in the league in wins, with 37.FIVE PHOTOSDENIS BRODEUR/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (ARBOUR); JOHN GIAMUNDO/GETTY IMAGES (SPANO); BRUCE BENNETT STUDIOS/GETTY IMAGES (CUP); DAVE SANDFORD/GETTY IMAGES (ZAMBONI); FRED VUICH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BACKGROUND)PHOTO