FROM THE ISLE
There was so many seats. I couldn't believe that this many people all sit in the same room. At the bottom was a grand oval of white ice. Every seat was pointed in the same direction. Everyone was here to see the Islanders play a game of hockey.
According to my own calculations, I must have been somewhere in the 4 year old range. I remember having trouble seeing the ice or the pucks. What I had no trouble seeing was a coif of bouncing, flowing orange hair in the wind. The huge numbers "2" and "3" seemed to jump off the skater's back as he made his turn behind the net. My father taps me, "That's Bobby Nystrom...he's the best", in a voice that shouted "while I don't know much, I do know him". For the next 2 hours I watched players fly around the ice with such speed and grace that it was unreal and impossible that they were doing something with their hands. I remember starting to care about the score, and wanting them to win. I don't remember much else but walking what felt like miles to our car afterwards. My father says to my mother (while really saying to me) "It's ok they lost, the game didn't count, it was just practice". To this day I don't know if this was an exhibition or regular season game - but what I do know is I needed to get back to this place as soon as possible. I needed to see the real thing. From this point on, I was hooked.
When our flashy, yet humbled neighbors moved in next to us - they didn't just give us access to a pool for hot summer days. They had 2, yes 2, sets of season tickets. One set was at the first row of the 200's, the second was the very first row in the corner. The seats in the 200's had a great view, and the perfect little shelf for your hotdog or nachos. The first row was impossible to see anything, but there was nothing between you and the players. You can see their sweat. Watching the games from either area was both thrilling for school aged child. The 200's taught me the game, the 100's taught me the players. I'd look up and see the endless rows of seats behind us and I knew I was lucky. I remember being so elated to be going to the games. I loved the whole process. Parking, the tickets, the walk in. I also remember being 6 years old and as I'm about to enter the doors I'd be stopped dead in my tracks. From my father: "let's go buddy". Me: :Please, not again, I have friends that are going to be at this game." Dad: "stop, you know the drill. let's go." And there I was, being picked up and held like a baby through the turn-style as my father snuck me into the game as a "lap child". My legs dangled down below his knees. I buried my head and closed my eyes to not see anyone actually walking into the game. I'd first get that Coliseum smell and then I'd open my eyes. I was there. Nothing mattered now. It's hockey time.
A few years later I remember once sitting in the first row seats with my friend Jamie while our parents sat above. It was our first independent moment, though our fathers were clearly still in sight, around 20 rows up from us. We spoke like we were alone and made off-color jokes. I'd keep glancing up to the fathers, to see them wolfing down peanuts at an alarming rate with no concern of how we were doing. Peanut crack, hand to mouth, hand to mouth, and next. Over and over again. 10 minutes later, a puck clears the boards and I can see it sailing right near us. I quickly realized that this puck was heading straight to the dad's. I look up and it was like the puck was being funneled to where they were sitting, in slow motion. I see it hit their seats, peanut shells fly, and whole bunch of commotion. A guy 2 seats away holds up the puck while my father holds up...the peanuts. Yup, he chose the peanuts over the puck.
7 years later, I finally crossed a hurdle. I can now go to games ALONE with friends. It was a Ranger game, and another friend was there with parents that could drive us home. Jamie and I descended to his seats so we'd be together for the final buzzer. I then saw 2 men with silver hair and bad jackets grabbing each others collars with beet red faces. They wanted to kill each other. My friends mom said, "we have to go". I was confused...why is everyone happy and smiling when the guys on the ice fight?
About 4 years later, Jamie and another friend, Adam, scored some tickets. Now that we're fully functional teenagers, it meant we can drive. We went to the mall first, and made our way to the game. See at that point, I was still a small, pre-pubescent teen with one thing on my mind...hockey. Unfortunately, Jamie and Adam were not. They were starting the next phase of their life, and therefore, had 2 things on their mind. Girls, and girls. It was a constant distraction for me, constantly trying to find 'hot chicks' while I wanted to watch the game. Somewhere around the 2nd period we locked onto a group of 4 girls that appeared to be our age sitting 6 rows back in the "VIP" (red clothed) seats. By the last 10 minutes of the game I had enough of the strategizing about how we can talk to them. That was it, I was going to do it myself. This was my opportunity, right here at the Coliseum, to pull of something amazing. Something not like me. I had my line...I was going to tell the prettiest one she looked familiar, and ask if we went to summer camp together once. Granted, I never actually went to summer camp, but the line felt like it could work. I remember my heart pounding and it feeling surreal as I approached. Somewhere after "hello" she gave me a big smile, and I was in. I finished the line, came strong with a second question, and moved aside to let the horn-balls do their thing. There was no touching, no kiss, no numbers, and no date, but I was thrilled. The Islanders than punched in any empty netter wrap this one up.
It's Thanksgiving eve, and my body is tingling as I head to Champions before the game. College is going strong at this point, but seeing the big old barn makes me feel confused and miss home. I somehow got out of going to the China Club in the city with all the same people I go to school with. I never like to miss a night, but this college road show wasn't for me. The last thing I needed was to be at Mulcahy's with the Long Island guys. No, this is now a tradition for Thanksgiving eve that doesn't need to end when we get old. I don't need to go anywhere to feel uncomfortable. I can go to the most comfortable place there is...the coliseum. There's Jamie at the bar, haven't seen him for a while. Let's do this night. Nothing else matters.
Now we're in the final season at the Coliseum. I head to the same doors with my father that we always have, with the same child like buzz about the next 3 hours. About to get in, I stop, look down, and say "let's go buddy". I lift my son up into my arms as his legs dangle to my knees. He's heavy, and my back already hurts from having him on my shoulders through the parking lot. I give the man my tickets, and carry my own son through the same turnstyle I was carried through 30 years ago. I see the same excitement, shock, and amazement as I did. Watching a game with a little man on your lap is new to me but I'm perfectly fine with it. This is still hockey, and this is still the Coliseum. This is life.
So now here we are getting ready for the final regular season game at the Coliseum. It comes with plenty of emotion. Hockey was my first true love, and the Coliseum is where it lived. I will miss this place. Terribly. It feels strange that this book has to end and that after tonight and some playoff games, it closes for good. I feel bad, but I also appreciate what it's done for me, and how it's always been there. With the place feeling old, and the parking/traffic getting worse, it feels like it's time. Time to thank the arena for what it's given us. Time to thank my dad for putting himself in a position in life to be able to take me to games, and introduce me to my first true love. Time to thank Jamie for being the only other true hockey freak and sharing all of this with me (and our expensive season tickets). You see the fact that it's closing, and the team is moving, gives me a chance to do this look back now and say goodbye and thank you to something meaningful in my life. Not everyone gets that. I will appreciate every minute of this night instead of feeling like it was avoidable. It wasn't. At the end of the day we move on. I'm older now, with kids of my own. I'm ready to experience the next phase for the Islanders while fondly remembering all the good things of having a team so close. Change isn't always bad, and different can sometimes be better. As the great Derek Jeter said a few years ago, "We'll take these memories with us to the next place, and build on them from there."
Farewell, and thank you for always being there, Nassau Coliseum.