It’s 49.5 miles from Elmont, NY, to Newark, and on that back street in the US are three of the 32 NHL teams: Devils, Rangers, and Islanders, who will soon be moving to Elmont. from their creaky Long Island home in Uniondale.
With this hockey glut – nearly 10 percent of the NHL – the New York metropolitan area should be hockey mad. But hockey, the Big Apple and the surrounding area have had a troubled relationship at times, and that was one of those times.
The Rangers? They have lost the playoffs three of the past four years. They last won the Stanley Cup in 1994, ending a 54-year drought and drowning those bad island fans singing “1940!” To commemorate the previous Rangers championship.
Devils? Their legacy is in the mirror, having failed to advance to the playoffs in eight of the past nine years after losing the 2012 final and suffering three consecutive losing seasons. It’s a big setback for a team that won three Stanley Cups, the last of the 2002-3 season.
The islanders? Not bad. A playoff team in the past three seasons, and still holding an impressive record: They are the last major North American sports team to win four consecutive championships, which they crowned in the 1982-83 season.
What made this record even more special is that, 10 years earlier, when they were founded, they had recorded the most losses of any team in NHL history.
There is now a vast wasteland of broken sticks, dirty towels, and blunt skates stretching from Long Island to Midtown Manhattan in New Jersey. Get the devils. During their current frustration of nine years, their home fans have seen them win barely half of their games, around 55%. Not much better through Hudson, where Rangers have given Madison Square Garden fans a victory 55 percent of the time in the past four years.
But the Islanders have done exceptionally well at home over the past three years in the playoffs, capturing 71% of their games. However, it may take some time to move into this season – they are playing their first 13 away games and won’t be in their new arena until the end of November. The Islands are a pretty good away team, having won around 55% of away games in the past three years. They could end the season in a big way, as 41 of their last 69 games are at home and their fans have already bought 15,000 season tickets.
It must be a weird feeling to be a team from New York or New Jersey and being booed into your bailiwick, which happens when this trio visits. When the Islanders formed in 1972 and the Rangers visited them at the Colosseum, the Rangers roar was louder than the Islands. After all, Long Island hockey fans had grown up following the Rangers. Now, of course, Islanders fans can’t stand Rangers anymore. The idea of being booed not far from where you are playing is unusual. You can’t imagine, for example, the Bruins being booed if they go to Wellesley, 16 miles from Boston.
How does it feel to play for all three teams? Eleven players can say that and John Vanbiesbrouck, a goalkeeper, was the best by far.
“It’s weird for sure,” said Vanbiesbrouck, 58, when asked if he was a visiting player a few miles from his home port. “Each team behaved differently.”
He recalled the differences between the arenas: Nassau Coliseum was “a hard place to play, a very loud crowd. The Devils didn’t have a large number of anti-Ranger fans.
Vanbiesbrouck, winner of the Vézina Trophy in 1986 as the league’s best goalkeeper when he was with Rangers, is now deputy general manager in charge of world affairs for USA Hockey. Most of his career was spent with Rangers – nine full seasons starting in 1983. He then played for the Florida Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers before returning to New York – this time for the Islanders in 2001. Later in the season he was traded to the Devils, for whom he played another year.
“I would say the Devils and the Islanders definitely have a rivalry with the Rangers, but not that much between them,” he said. “The rivalries are based on the playoffs and Rangers have had epic playoff battles with both teams. “
Rangers continue their quest for stability today: Gérard Gallant will be their eleventh manager since winning the Stanley Cup in 1994.
The Devils have seen even more upheavals: Lindy Ruff, who took over last season, is the club’s 14th manager since winning the Cup in 2003. Her track record, however, is impressive.
And the islanders? Although they continue to change owners, they have been the most stable franchise of the three in terms of head coach and development on the ice. Barry Trotz has been behind the bench for the past three seasons – the 16th manager since the team’s last championship in 1983 (Al Arbor, their cup-winning coach died in 2015, has returned twice).
Hockey in the New York area remains on the move now that the islanders, who fled to Brooklyn, are back on Long Island and will soon be in their new home. This is reminiscent of the difficulty that the creators of these three teams had to simply name their hockey clubs. Let’s face it, naming a hockey team in the New York metropolitan area isn’t as natural as, for example, naming the Toronto team the Maple Leafs, or Montreal the Canadiens, or Vancouver the Canucks. The flames of Calgary? Well they actually started their life in Atlanta and kept the nickname, Calgary had nothing to do with the Atlanta fire during the Civil War.
The Devils were actually the Colorado Rockies, a nomadic team that couldn’t attract fans to their hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, or their adopted country in the West. When he was planning to move to New Jersey, the question about his name arose. There is a legendary creature presumably living in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens called the Jersey Devil. This name was proposed, but Devils Ownership feared the Catholic Church would object and the idea was discarded – for a while. A statewide vote was called with a total of 11 names to be taken (including “Patriots”). In the end, Devils got the most votes.
As for the Rangers, the boxing promoter and butler of Madison Square Garden in the 1920s was a man named Tex Rickard. The newly created hockey team then became the Tex Rangers.
The islanders? The owners wanted the name “New York”. Everyone wants to beat a New York team, they explained. Plus, it offers integrated marketing. The people and politicians of Nassau County wanted “Long Island” – after all, they were building an arena for them. Finally, as a nod to Long Island, they became New Yorkers, retaining the big-city recognition and bond with Long Island.
Now, at the end of November, they will return to Long Island again when their arena is ready. Fans are likely to give them a warm welcome, not like frustrated Rangers fans treated their heroes in the doldrums of the early 1960s, when one player said of the boos and noise from his suburban home: “Playing at Madison Square Garden is like playing a game on the street.
The irony of playing around the Big Apple for hockey players is that even when they are close to home, they are on the go.
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