We once lived in a world where the New York Mets were more popular than the New York Yankees, where cigarette smoke filled restaurants, bars and airplanes (and we liked it), where O.J. Simpson made us laugh, where hockey was more than a niche sport and where the New York Islanders ruled the world. The team from Long Island once had one of the great dynasties in sports history. But lately? The Islanders have been the long-lost son of New York sports. They've had everything going against them in terms of Q Rating: They a play a sport that's been fading in popularity, they play in the suburbs with an out-of-date arena, they've had decades of mismanagement and shoddy ownership and they haven't won a division title in over 20 years. But all that can change now that they've signed a 25-year lease to play their games in Brooklyn's Barclays Center beginning in 2015.
The franchise, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last season, began its life with such promise, and was an exemplary model of how to construct a team from scratch. The owner, Roy Boe (who also ran the then New York Nets), may have been short on cash, but he hired the perfect person to run the Isles, in Bill Torrey. The team was brought into the NHL solely to thwart the rival WHA from adding a team of their own in Nassau Coliseum, and the birth of the Islanders was the death-knell of the fledgling league's New York presence, as the New York Raiders (also known as the New York Golden Blades and New Jersey Knights) moved to San Diego in 1974. Torrey came to the Islanders after a brief stint running the Oakland Seals, but he clashed with owner Charlie Finley (who didn't?) and was hired by Boe.
Torrey eschewed a win-now mentality and instead built the team through youth. Billy Harris was taken with the team's first pick in the entry draft, and the expansion draft netted the Islanders Billy Smith, Gerry Hart and Ed Westfall. Though they battled Finley's newly named Golden Seals as the worst team in hockey in their first two seasons, they began stockpiling draft picks, and picked up one future superstar after another, with Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies and Mike Bossy filling out the Islanders' (and the NHL All-Star Team's) roster. They upset the New York Rangers in their first-ever playoff series in 1975 thanks to a J.P. Parise overtime goal in the decisive Game 3 and then came back from a three games to none deficit to knock off the Pittsburgh Penguins in the next round to open the team's postseason history in memorable fashion. The Islanders became a powerhouse in the late '70s and a dynasty in the '80s, winning four consecutive Stanley Cups along with a North American sports record 19 straight playoff series. They continued to have success after Potvin and a few other stalwarts were gone, such as in '93, when they beat the Washington Capitals -- with Pierre Turgeon getting leveled by a Dale Hunter cheap shot after scoring the series-winning goal -- and in the next round they upset the Penguins once again, with David Volek scoring the Game 7 overtime goal.
But it went all downhill from there. No playoff series wins since '93. Mike Milbury. The fisherman logo and uniforms. John Spano. Charles Wang. The 15-year Rick DiPietro contract. An aging, crumbling arena. Rumors of moving to Kansas City or Quebec. But now there's hope. Can the Islanders parlay their move and become a spotlight-stealing, headline-grabbing ‘it' team as is happening right now with the Brooklyn Nets? They have a superstar in John Tavares. They have stability in a 25-year lease. Yes, the 14,500 capacity for hockey will be the smallest in the NHL and it will be a sad day when they leave their longtime and only home of Long Island, but the team has been part of the area's sports fabric for four decades, so remaining in New York is something to celebrate.
The New York Islanders were once the forgotten team of New York, but now they've been saved. Will a rebirth and return to their once successful ways follow? Maybe, or maybe not, but at least they have a fighting chance now.