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By Michael Malone
Special to Page 2
It's April, which means the Yankees' pursuit of yet another championship -- no, I'm not ripping Paul O'Neill again -- is under way. The Mets look to reach another Fall Classic, the Knicks eye the pending playoffs and the MetroStars -- well, to be honest, I'm not sure what those guys are up to, though I wish 'em the best. Along with the New York Giants' surprise march to the Super Bowl, it has been a pretty memorable time for New York sports, making us New Yorkers even more arrogant than we were before.
The Rangers are expensive, old and bad; the Isles thrifty, young and worse. It's tough to drum up sympathy for an overpaid bunch of players on a team I never liked, so I shed no tears for the Blueshirts. But watching the Isles and their persistently putrid performance is downright depressing. I was at the perfect fan age (11) and in the perfect locale (Long Island) when the Isles won the first of four consecutive Stanley Cups in 1980. God, it was fun -- and intense. Islanders/Rangers games made today's Mets-Yanks contests seem like an afternoon of lawn bowling.
Each year, for my birthday, I painstakingly composed an A-list of friends to join me in my father's station wagon, Dad quietly cursing the Long Island Expressway traffic, Nassau Coliseum gleaming like Emerald City off in the concrete horizon. Christmas meant another Islander jersey, and with it, the torturous decision about which name and number to get on one's back.
Your selection said much about your personality: Did you identify with the graceful yet plucky Trottier, the classy finisher Bossy, the workmanlike Tonelli, the terrifying Gillies or perhaps a Sutter brother -- the grizzled gunslinger or the suave swordsman? Or maybe Denis Potvin, the cornerstone and captain of this gifted and colorful band, or the indescribable Bobby Nystrom -- without the gifts of his colleagues, but with an amazing knack for scoring game-winning goals while sliding on his butt?
Isles sightings around Long Island were common, yet no less special. I remember lining up outside Marsh's department store to meet Mike Bossy, and getting an autographed puck and the polite winger's thoughts on a prospect named Pat LaFontaine in return for my patience. I begged my parents to drive me to car dealership and haberdashery grand openings to meet third-line players named Gordie. I was in Sno-Haus when Nystrom, his flaxen mane never to feel a helmet's restraint, walked in, prompting everyone in the ski shop to wordlessly, breathlessly nudge each other.
The mood in the Isles locker room afterward was surprisingly upbeat; players busting on each other, doing what guys do after they've played a game together. Does this frivolity reveal a lack of intensity, a complacency in the face of perpetual loss? No. Even on the Green Mile, there are moments of laughter.
The Islanders played host to the Penguins not long thereafter, and a perfectly healthy Mario Lemieux, perhaps scared off by Expressway traffic, chose to stay in Pittsburgh. It's hard to fault Mario for anything these days -- every game he plays is found money -- but many found his absence insulting. "It is a slight," acknowledged Islanders center Dave Scatchard of No-Show Mario. Still, a full 12,500 fans came out on that Monday evening, giving the charmless Coliseum the buzz of a prior era, one where all the New York papers actually assigned beat writers to Isles games, instead of relying on the newswires.
Walking the concourse during that Isles-Pens game, I spotted none other than the great Nystrom. A smattering of giddy kids, entirely too young to have ever seen ol' No. 23 play -- except one Gen-X doofus -- lined up to have him autograph a cap, a napkin, bank receipts from their fathers' wallet. From where this Gen-X doofus stood on the line, eagerly awaiting a handshake and autograph from an Islander great like I had 20 short years before, the scene was alternately pleasing and saddening.
Kind of like the Isles themselves, who whipped the Pens 4-1, a decisive and surely satisfying win. But the victory could not prevent the Isles from securing the NHL's worst record. In this expansion team era, that's no small feat.
Michael Malone is a senior editor at Playboy.com, where he writes about food, drink, sports, music and, occasionally, Playmates. His writing has appeared in Gear, The San Francisco Examiner, Stuff, Rugby and Smoke, and he's currently shopping around his first novel, "Too East For Numbers." His woefully self-aggrandizing website can be found at www.mmalone.com.
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