The Day I Became An Islanders Fan

This post originally ran on Islanders Insight’s Fan Retrospective, click here for the full article.

At 13 years old the world is a place that isn’t defined. One day you discover music that isn’t for “kids” and then next day you say it’s behind you. Thought the only sport in life was baseball? Too bad, now you’ve found soccer and life is ret-conned into completeness. I was a 13 year old Quebec Nordiques fan. Look how that turned out.

Little League World Series champion Chris Drury is from my hometown. He was drafted by the Nordiques when I was 12 and I was in awe that someone from Trumbull, CT had left to do something cool. I kinda-sorta knew what a “Quebec” was from French class so it wasn’t like I had to familiarize myself with Pardubice or Örnsköldsvik. At the time I thought I had my hockey team.

For my 13th birthday my mom bought me the only (known) Nordiques jersey in Connecticut and two tickets to my first NHL game…the Quebec Nordiques at the New York Islanders. The only hockey games I had been to were St. Lawrence University games, and those were maybe once a year for me. Since we didn’t get cable until I was halfway through high school, I only knew the Coliseum as some big thing across the street from a McDonald’s we’d stop at on the way to my grandparents’ house. Now I got to go inside for a hockey game.

As this was 1995 the tickets were $39 for row D behind the penalty box. Not due to the lockout, just because the NHL had not experienced the popularity spike of the early 00’s. Also, John O. Pickett owned the team and…let’s move on.

I was blown away by what was in front of me. Not twenty feet from my seat were professional hockey players. Sakic, Forsberg, Thibault, Kamensky, Kovalenko, and the great Stephane Fiset. History shows Fiset was merely average and benefitted from years of firepower in front of him. To me, his igloo mask was the best especially with the Nords’ road blue. What else mattered in that moment?

While I was in awe, my mom read a book. Not just through warm-ups but from the moment the lights came up after intros to the final ferry horn. She’s never been particularly interested in sports but she knew being at the game was important to me. Thanks, Mom.

The Islanders won 5-2. That box score to the left helps to pull details that never really stuck, but those aren’t the memories I carry. Joe Sakic scored for the visitors and I lost it, highlight of the night. Tommy Salo earned his first NHL win in the face of 42 shots from the Eastern Conference heavyweights and Stanley Cup favorites. You also don’t forget the first time a guy named Ziggy scores in a professional sporting match.

There were lowlights too. When you cheer for the opposition in the lower seats of NVMC you become an easy target. I know I was hit by a pretzel and I’m fairly certain there was some mustard on my right shoulder from a flying hot dog. Words and phrases I never knew could be aimed at another human being washed over me. My mom, the Long Island native, heard these things and reinforced a great life lesson. “You’re at a game in New York and you choose to be with the visitors. You had to know this was going to happen. Look at these people.”

Fun fact: DON’T cut the bathroom line. “YOU WALK IN THAT DOOR AND AH’LL PISS ON YA FUCKIN’ FEET!” Yessir. The line will do fine for me.

“These people,” some lucky-to-not-be-in-Utah goalie, and a guy named Zigmund converted me. Well, not really. Everything that happened around me gave me my favorite team. Before we left, and before I could hear again, I said I wanted to come back. It was the loudest place I had ever been to. It was the craziest environment I never knew could exist. The game itself was the most fantastic I had ever seen it with my own eyes. Yes, deflecting insults and making it to the car in once piece helped pull me into this slice of life that wasn’t some fad like the one found thirty-five miles west. The weird old building across the street from the McDonald’s became something to me.

I’ve used Islanders games to show people what hockey is. No one has ever said it wasn’t a great night, win or lose. I know what they felt and knew they’d never forget it. You never forget why you’re an Islanders fan.

My first child–a boy–is due next month, and I cannot wait for him to experience his first (and likely last) Islanders game at NVMC (whether he remembers it or not).

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