It’s 29.5 miles from Elmont, NY, to Newark, and in that tiny lane of the United States are three of the 32 NHL teams: the 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 metro area should be hockey crazy. But hockey, the Big Apple and the surrounding area has had a problematic relationship at times, and that has been one of those times.
The Rangers? They have missed the playoffs three of the past four years. They last won the Stanley Cup in 1994, ending a 54-year drought and drowning those nasty Islander fans who chanted “1940!” To commemorate the previous Rangers Championship.
Devils ? Their legacy is in the rearview mirror, having failed to advance to the playoffs in eight of the past nine years after losing the 2012 final, and having suffered three consecutive losing seasons. It’s a hell of a downhill for a team that won three Stanley Cups, the last of the 2002-3 season.
The islanders? Not bad. A playoff team the last 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 also made this record even more special was that, 10 years earlier, when they were founded, they had compiled the most losses of any team in NHL history.
Now there’s a vast wasteland of broken sticks, dirty towels, and unsharpened skates stretching from Long Island to Midtown Manhattan in New Jersey. Take the devils. During their current nine-year frustration, their home fans have seen them win barely half of their games – around 55%. Not much better across the Hudson, where the Rangers have given Madison Square Garden fans a win 55 percent of the time over the past four years.
But the Islanders have done exceptionally well at home for the past three years in the playoffs, capturing 71 percent of their games. However, it might take them a while to move this season – they’re playing their first 13 road games and won’t be in their new arena until late November. The Isles are a pretty good team on the road, having won around 55% of their away games in the past three years. They could end the season strong, 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 New York or New Jersey team and get booed in your own bailiwick, which happens when this trio visit each other. When the Islanders were formed in 1972 and the Rangers visited them at the Coliseum, the Rangers roar was louder than the Isles. After all, Long Island hockey fans had grown up following the Rangers. Now, of course, Islanders fans can’t stand the Rangers anymore. The idea of being booed not far from where you are playing is unusual. You can’t imagine, say, the Bruins getting booed if they went to Wellesley, 16 miles from Boston.
How does it feel to play for all three teams? Eleven players can claim this, and John Vanbiesbrouck, a goalkeeper, was by far the best.
“It’s strange for sure,” said Vanbiesbrouck, 58, when asked if he was a visiting player a few kilometers from his home port. “Each team behaved differently.”
He recalled the differences between the arenas – the Nassau Coliseum was “a difficult 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 top goaltender when he was with the Rangers, is now assistant general manager in charge of world affairs for USA Hockey. Most of his career was spent with the 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 an additional year.
“I would say the Devils and Islanders definitely have a rivalry with the Rangers, but not so much between them,” he said. “The rivalries are based on the playoffs, and the Rangers have had epic playoff battles with both teams. “
The Rangers continue their quest for stability today: Gérard Gallant will be their 11th coach since winning the Stanley Cup in 1994.
The Devils have seen even more upheaval: Lindy Ruff, who took over last season, is the club’s 14th coach since winning the Cup in 2003. His resume, 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 three seasons – the 16th coach since the team’s last championship in 1983 (Al Arbor, their cup-winning coach who died in 2015, has returned twice).
Hockey in the New York area remains on the move now that the Islanders, who escaped to Brooklyn, are back in 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 metro area doesn’t come as naturally as, say, naming the Toronto team the Maple Leafs, or Montreal the Canadiens, or Vancouver the Canucks. The Calgary Flames? Well, they actually started life in Atlanta and just kept the nickname, Calgary having nothing to do with the Atlanta fire during the Civil War.
The Devils were actually the Colorado Rockies, a nomadic team who couldn’t draw fans to their hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, or their adopted country in the West. When planning to move to New Jersey, the name question arose. There is a legendary creature that supposedly lives in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey called the Jersey Devil. This name was proposed, but Devils Ownership feared the Catholic Church would object and the idea was scrapped – 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 Madison Square Garden butler in the 1920s was a man named Tex Rickard. The newly created hockey team therefore became the Tex Rangers.
The islanders? The owners wanted the name “New York”. Everyone wants to beat a New York team, they explained. In addition, 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 York Islanders – retaining the recognition of the big city as well as the connection to Long Island.
Now, at the end of November, they will return to Long Island again when their arena is ready. Fans are likely to greet them warmly, not like frustrated Rangers fans treated their heroes in the doldrums of the early 1960s, when a player said of boos and noise from his suburban home: ” Playing at Madison Square Garden is like playing a game on the road.
The irony of playing around the Big Apple for hockey players is that even when they’re near home, they’re on the road.