Lonely Island

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — “There,” Jon Hock is saying as he points at an inconspicuous spot on the sidewalk near the parking lot, “is where Howie used to stand.” We are here to say goodbye to a friend, and it is the perfect day for goodbyes. The sky is gray. A cold wind blows. We are full from bagels purchased at the Bagel Oasis in Queens. Yes, this is how you say goodbye to Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

“You know, I think about it, Howie was just a kid,” Jon is saying. Jonathan Hock is a fantastic filmmaker, you know. He made a film about taking the great pitcher Luis Tiant back to Cuba (“The Lost Son of Havana”) and he made a film about the misplaced brilliance of running back Marcus Dupree (“The Best that Never Was”) and he made a film about the Miracle on Ice told from the perspective of the Soviet Hockey team (“Of Miracles and Men”). But right now, he’s not making films. Now Jon is 35 years younger, and he’s just a boy coming to Long Island for an Islanders game.

“Howie wore, I guess, a hoodie, and the hood was over his head,” he says, and he stares again at the spot. Howie, you see, was the ticket broker of last resort. He was the guy you went to when the games were sold out … and Islanders game always sold out then. Hock and his friends even had a phrase for it: “Tonight,” they would say, “we’ll have to buy no-seats from Howie.”

They would walk up to Howie and slip him five or 10 bucks. He would then give a ticket of some sort; usually it was an unused ticket from the circus or an old Harlem Globetrotters game or a concert. Then Howie would divulge the secret password, which in Jon’s memory was always “Howie sent me” or something blindingly obvious like that. Then, Jon and his friends would take their worthless ticket to one particular turnstile, hand them over and say those magic words: “Howie sent me.” The guy would tear the ticket and, like the guard from the Merry Old Land of Oz, let them in. Magical.

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They did not have a seat, of course — “no-seats” literally meant no seats — but they were in. They would wander around, looking for a view, looking for a stair to sit on, looking for a way to see just a little bit of the ice without getting shooed off by some usher.

“It was,” Jon says, “the dirtiest feeling. It was like I was living a life of crime. But that was the only way in. And, in those days, I had to get in.”

* * *

We are coming to the last game. The Islanders will pack up and leave for Brooklyn after this season ends, which means as soon as they lose in the playoffs (or, more optimistically, after they win the Stanley Cup). To most of America, this will not seem like much of a move. Brooklyn is, after all, only about 21 miles west of Uniondale, and you can get there in an hour if there isn’t too much traffic on the Southern State, Belt and Rockaway Parkways.

But in New York, well, first of all there’s ALWAYS traffic on the parkways, but more to the point, Brooklyn and Long Island are different worlds. And no matter how wonderful the Brooklyn Islanders become, it won’t ever be like the 1970s and ’80s, when the Islanders were Long Island’s team, when Mike Bossy scored and Clark Gillies fought and Billy Smith slashed and Bryan Trottier led and Dennis Potvin kept everything under control.

“God, it was great then,” Jon Hock says. “Probably the most immersive fan experience I ever had, and it lasted six or seven years. The only louder place I’ve been was Boston Garden, Game 2 of the ’86 NBA Finals. But that was a rabid, scary loud.

“The Coliseum, in those days, was younger, less drunk, we really felt unconditional love for those players. They were almost like our kids, which is strange to say because we WERE kids. But the team was so new, and every achievement was a first. And we were there for it. … The Coliseum, in those days, that was the closest most of us will ever feel to actually playing.”

The official name of the place, as mentioned, is Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. That’s because it was built on Mitchel Air Force Base, a historic plot of land that, until it was decommissioned in 1961, played a part in every American war. It was even an enlistment center during the Revolutionary War. This was where Charles Lindbergh began his famous “Spirit of St. Louis” flight to Paris. Well, a lot of things happened here.

Then, in 1972, they opened up the Nassau Coliseum here. Jon was not there for the first event, a New York Nets victory over the Pittsburgh Condors in the old ABA, but he was there for the second. The Nets lost to the Utah Stars 119-114 even though Rick Barry scored 50. All Jon really remembers about the game was the dust. He was 7.

Those Nets would become an amazing team after a local physician named Julius Erving joined, and Jon has some good memories of watching Dr. J and Dr. K (Larry Kenon) and Super John Williamson and The Whopper, Billy Paultz. But the Nassau Coliseum belonged to the Islanders. It became so on May 8, 1975 – when Jon was 11. That was the third year of the Islanders’ existence and the first year where they showed a real heartbeat.

The Islanders made it all the way to the semifinals, where they played the Philadelphia Flyers, the famed Broad Street Bullies. The Flyers would win the series in seven games (and later the Cup). But on May 8, the Islanders won, 5-1. And more to the point, Clark Gillies fought Philadelphia’s toughest man Dave Schultz. In those days, hockey fighting was about more than cheap entertainment, more than tempers flaring, more than unleashing frustration. Fights like this one had an epic quality to them. To win a fight was to win respect for your team. It was to win a brighter future.

Clark Gillies obliterated Dave Schultz that night with a series of savage right hands.

“What would it mean for the Islanders if Gillies could record a victory here,” the Islanders announcer John Sterling said on the radio. “They’re still tied up. Now Gillies with the right. Gillies again! … Gillies destroying Dave Schultz!” … Clark Gillies a victory, you can tell on his face. The Islanders now with the icing on the cake.“

“When Gillies beat the baddest bad-ass in the world,” Jon says. “that’s when I knew we belonged.”

* * *

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The thing that strikes you the most once you get into Nassau Coliseum is how little anything strikes you. It is more a container than a building. It’s some sort of oval or circle or something, and the seats climb high, and that’s about it. The most interesting feature about the place is the banners signifying the jerseys that have been retired; and the most interesting part of that is that somehow Pat Lafontaine’s jersey has not been retired.

Anyway this is how arenas used to look. The point wasn’t the comfort of the seats or the luxuriousness of the luxury boxes or the quality of the sound system or the width of the concourses. The point was the sports themselves.

Still, this does fog up the nostalgia. Even for Jon, or the father and son sitting behind us (“Let go I-ders!” the little boy shouts in a tiny voice), or the many fans here to watch the gritty Islanders get outclassed by Anaheim, it’s hard to find romance in Nassau Coliseum itself. Jon looks around as the loudspeaker bludgeons us with Bon Jovi and the overhanging scoreboard — which looks like an iPad mini compared to the high definition scoreboard extravaganzas in most arenas — reminds everyone that the Long Island Pet Expo is coming. It’s apparent that Jon is trying to find what Holden Caufield called “a goodbye.” It has been maybe 30 years since Jon has been in this place. And, he suspects, he will never come back. This is definitely goodbye.

“I feel like we are in a ghost building,” he says. “It’s like this place is already torn down, and I’m Ebenezer Scrooge visiting Christmas pasts, visiting a place that doesn’t exist anymore. … It really does feel surreal, like I’m reading a book about someone else, even though that someone else is me.”

Bryan Trottier was his favorite. Of course, everyone loved Mike Bossy, the goalscorer, the hero, the larger-than-life movie star who scored the winning goals in every single game of the 1983 Conference Finals against Boston, the superhero who scored two goals in the final five minutes of a game to reach that mythical 50 goals in 50 games.

But there was something more Long Island about Trots and the workmanlike way he did everything well. He was the guy you counted on for the key pass, the big hit, the last-second deflection. He settled down the chaos. He was the plumber who could fix anything; the electrician who solved any problem. “With Trottier on the ice,” Jon says, “you just felt like the Islanders were going to win. He would find a way.” For a time, after he graduated from Howie no-seats, Jon says he used to have seats near Bryan Trottier’s wife. That, he thought, was just about the coolest thing imaginable.

“Those seats were over there,” he says and he points to a section that looks like every other section. And you are left wondering how Bryan Trottier’s wife didn’t get better seats.

* * *

Those Islanders were so good, but the Stanley Cup run ended in 1983, and the team grew old over the next few years, and then the Islanders became just about as featureless and lackluster as the Coliseum where they played. They went through a series of coaches, tried any number of rebuilding plans, but the Isles have not been past the conference quarterfinals in more than 20 years. This year’s team, with the remarkable John Tavares playing the starring role, might make a run. Then again, they might not.

Jon says that he will try to keep up … but he admits that he might not live up to that ambition. It has been many decades since he loved the Islanders. In so many ways, the games, the Gillies fights, the Potvin clears, the Bossy goals, the Trottier plays, the Howie no-seats, he says all of it does feel like another lifetime. The world moves on, and memories fade, and functional sports arenas built in fields of dust become dust again.

“Let’s go upstairs,” he says after the game ends. “I’ll show you where I would stand when I would get no-seats from Howie.”

So we walk upstairs, up to the place where views are obscured by concrete and sneakers make a sucking sound as they stick and unstick to the floor. Jon sits down on a stair that seems familiar and he looks down on the ice. An usher asks what he is doing. “Remembering old times,” he says. The usher looks at me in a puzzled way. It is like he cannot fathom how anyone could feel nostalgia for this old place. Time has moved on. Soon, the Islanders will too.

I remember the last days of old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the sports home of my childhood. The place famously was a dump. Its most distinguishable architectural feature was that every view of the field was somehow obscured by a metal beam. During baseball season the infield had more bad hops than Red, White & Blue beer. During football season, the grass would die and the players would play on dirt and rocks. The wind blew so cold at night that any person who went to a July game without a coat or blanket was obviously a tourist. It was an unlovable old structure with asbestos and odd wires just dangling everywhere and the smell of stale beer drifting in the wind and the most disgusting bathrooms you ever saw.

I cried the last time I saw a game there. I cried again when they tore it down.

“The arena was so nondescript, so unfamous,” Jon says about his childhood place. “That made it ours, too.”

We go to Borelli’s Italian Restaurant, which has been serving the good people of Long Island since 1955. This is the place for Islanders fans to go after the game, and there are a bunch of them wearing their blue and orange jerseys. A television crew is in here too to ask fans what they think about the Islanders going away. Our assumption is that the fans are against it.

“The sounds, I really remember the sounds,” Jon says, as he remembers Nassau Coliseum one last time. “Sports today are so loud and not in a good way. They’re blaring that music every time the action stops. You get hammered with those speakers all the time. But it’s not real. The sounds I remember were real – the way that people would go ‘Lets! Go! Eye! Landers!’

“The scoring of a goal was like an otherworldly experience. The roar of the crowd. There was nothing like that roar. And then you would wait a few second, and wait, and finally the P.A. announcer would say, “Islanders goal, his 29th of the season and second of the game … No. 19 … (and now the crowd would start going crazy again) … Bryan … TROT-ee-ay!’ And everyone would go crazy again.

“Or, when the other team scored, it would just get so quiet, you could hear the puck hit the pipe from the upper deck, the last row of the 300 section. There was nothing like it in the world.”

I ask Jon why he had not been back for so many years, and he talks about the same things all people our age talk about. Life goes on. Responsibilities take you elsewhere. Time flies by. Also, the team stopped being as good or as interesting. It happens. For a while, you don’t act on the few “Hey, we should catch an Islanders game” impulses. Then the impulses come less. Then a decade goes by. Then another.

A few days after Jon Hock sees his last game at Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum, he sends me an email. And this is what he writes:

“It does all feel like a faraway dream now more than a memory. Maybe because it had the intensity of a dream. I remember Springsteen concerts there, transcendent for sure, but they don’t feel like a dream. They feel like a memory. Islander games feel like a dream.”

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