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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Daily News Essay; "Being a Kid Again with My Beloved Islanders"

Real nice piece by Mark Feinsand that those of us of a certain age will certainly relate to...

Summer Essay Series: Being a kid again with my beloved Islanders
BY Mark Feinsand
Updated Wednesday, August 12th 2009, 1:17 PM

On a snowy night this past February, I became a kid again.

I've taken my children to Disney World, been to Sesame Place and walked through more toy stores than I care to remember, but it wasn't until Ryan - my 4-year-old son - and I walked into Nassau Coliseum on the night of Feb. 3 that I truly felt like I was back in the glory days of my youth.

Being an Islanders fan growing up in Manhattan wasn't easy. All my friends were Rangers fans, and half the team lived in the building across the street from me, as I would often run into Ron Greschner, Ron Duguay and Barry Beck at the local diner. Sure, I asked for some autographs every now and then, but they were never displayed in my room the way my Bobby Nystrom or John Tonelli signatures were.

That's because Islanders hockey was my biggest passion. The walls of my room were covered by those old Sports Illustrated posters featuring action shots of Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin, Billy Smith and later Pat LaFontaine, while my Bossy-model Titan stick was never far out of reach.

How did a kid from the city start rooting for that little team on the Island? Well, contrary to what my friends might have thought, it wasn't because the Isles won those four Stanley Cups from 1980-83. That was just a happy coincidence.

My grandparents lived in Rockville Centre, a short drive from the Coliseum, and they had Isles season tickets since before I was born. As soon as I was old enough to join them at the games, I started going.

Truth be told, I probably wasn't old enough to go, but they would carry me in and let me sit on their laps. Grandpa Danny used to tell me stories of how I would fall asleep at games, though I never believed him. Still don't.

Regardless, it wasn't long before those games were the things I looked forward to above all else. I watched almost every game on television, often turning it on Jiggs McDonald and Eddie Westfall's broadcast while my parents thought I was already asleep.

Those Nystrom and Tonelli autographs I mentioned? My grandfather and I stood in line at a camera store in Oceanside for six hours to get them. That tells you how much I loved the Islanders, and more important, how much my grandfather loved me. I can't say for sure that I would have the patience to stand in line with my own kids for six hours if they were giving away bags of money.

My days at Camp Westmont were the best of my life, and in my early years there, they would have "Islanders Day" each summer, bringing three or four players to the camp to conduct clinics, play pickup games with the kids and sign everything we could get our hands on.

Trottier, Ken Morrow, LaFontaine and Greg Gilbert were among the guys that made the trip over the years, and with a majority of the kids at the camp coming from Long Island, they were treated like kings. (Except by my buddy Nino, a die-hard Rangers fan from Brooklyn who would suit up in his Beezer jersey and try to stop their shots. He wasn't usually very successful.)

I learned to appreciate each of the four Stanley Cups more and more each year, and when the Isles swept the Oilers - the Gretzky-Messier-Kurri-Coffey-Fuhr Oilers - I honestly didn't know if it would ever get any better than that.

Little did I know, life as an Islanders fan had reached its ultimate peak.

The "Drive for Five" fell short with a Finals loss to that same Oilers team in 1984, though there was no reason to believe that the dynasty was over. But it was. The next great moment came in 1993, when they upset the Penguins in seven games, stunning the two-time defending Cup champions to advance to the conference finals.

There hasn't been another since.

I came home from my freshman year of college the day David Volek won it in OT to beat Pittsburgh, and they've been back to the playoffs five times in the past 15 seasons, never making it out of the first round.

Since that night, I have graduated from college, held five jobs, covered nine years of Yankees baseball, gotten married, had two amazing sons of my own and abandoned 30 years as a city-boy for a house and a yard in New Jersey. Through all of that, the Islanders haven't given me many reasons to cheer.

That all changed on Feb. 3.

Ryan and I made the 90-minute drive from our house to the Coliseum, trekking through weather that caused my wife to question my sanity. I had heard the rumors that the Islanders could be moving out of town at some point, and knowing that bringing Ryan to a game in Kansas City wouldn't be quite the same, we were going to the Coliseum.

I didn't care how hard it was snowing. I was taking my son to an Islanders game, and somewhere in heaven, I knew my grandfather was smiling as he watched us make the trip.

The Coliseum smelled the same as it did 25 years ago, and while that may not sound like a good thing, it was. I know that the Islanders are desperate for a new arena, and I understand it. Hey, I cover a team that just moved into a $1.5 billion ballpark, so I get the allure of a new stadium. But as I walked into that building, I couldn't help thinking about all the great games I'd seen there, the hours I spent there with my grandparents and just how much the Isles meant to me as a kid.

Ryan was amazed by just about everything he saw. From the fans chanting "Let's Go Islanders!" to the folks shooting t-shirts into the crowd (we caught one, by the way) to the players zooming by us on the ice, you could see the excitement in his eyes. We stopped by the souvenir stand - just as I would make my grandparents do almost every time I went - and picked up a mini-stick and a regulation puck. As you can imagine, my wife was thrilled to hear that.

Ryan asked me about a thousand questions about the game, wondering why the goalie was standing alone while the rest of the team was on the other side of the ice or why the two men on the ice were punching each other. I was more than happy to answer every one of them, thinking to myself that I probably asked Grandpa Danny the exact same questions 30 years ago.

After a scoreless first period, the Isles exploded for three goals in the second. Ryan got more excited with each outburst from the 9,000 or so in the crowd. The Isles were up 3-0 at the end of the second, and with Ryan starting to rub his eyes, I knew it was time to go. Besides, with a 3-0 lead, it wasn't going to get any better. Let the kid have a good memory of what could very well be the only Islanders game of his life.

We buttoned up our coats, threw on our hats and made the long walk through the parking lot - which had accumulated about four inches of snow in the two hours we were there - before getting in the car. Ryan fell asleep about 37 seconds into the drive home, but I was running on adrenaline. I had just taken my son to an Islanders game, and even if it doesn't turn out to be one of the greatest experiences of his life, it is definitely going to rank up there for me.

Forever1940 is the nom de plume of Eric Hornick, statistician on Islander home telecasts since 1982.

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