April 11, 1997. Uniondale, NY. Hartford Whalers at New York Islanders. The final road game in the history of The Whale.
I was at that game, sitting way up in the 300s of a nearly empty Nassau Coliseum. After the first period, the usher waved me and my friend down a section to get closer to the “action.” The Islanders won the game 6-4, but both teams would finish last in their respective divisions that year. A real “If a tree falls in the woods…” moment*.
I’m pretty sure we all knew the Whalers were moving by that point, although I don’t think their destination was announced yet. Making their victory even more hollow was he fact that the Islanders could easily have been the team that was on the move that year. Even in 1997, the condition of the Coliseum, the years of losing and hostile relations with the few fans that turned up made the team a candidate for a relocation. The Nordiques had already moved to Denver and the Jets had just moved to Phoenix. City shifting was in the air**.
That was 15 years ago, and after a brief flirtation with success, they’ve come full circle. The Sword of Damocles has been hanging over the Islanders for so long, it’s just part of the scenery at this point. Like an extension of the Coliseum Jumbotron.
I don’t know if I’d still be a fan of the Islanders if they left New York. It’s a question I’ve both wrestled with and avoided for a very long time. To be honest, I don’t know if I’d be able to watch hockey at all if it happened. For a while, at least. I just don’t think I could watch new people in a new city cheering MY team that I’ve been following my whole life. I mean, do they even know who Mariusz Czerkawski was? No, I couldn’t do it.
The thought of this makes me sad because I’d be missing games featuring players I’ve grown to enjoy and respect. But if I had to make a prediction, that’s what I’d say. As usual, I’d rather not think about it and instead focus on the now - player evaluations, the draft and watching other teams in the NHL playoffs. And avoiding baseball.
* -One thing I know happened for a fact: Given away at the Coliseum that night were large travel coffee mugs. At the game’s conclusion, a few hundred of them came flying onto the ice. I remember one whizzing past Whalers captain Kevin Dineen’s head.
** - Long forgotten NHL trivia: while marching to their first Stanley Cup in 1995, the New Jersey Devils were extremely close to moving to Nashville. Also, the Edmonton Oilers were very nearly purchased by Rockets owner Les Alexander and moved to Houston in 1998. Seriously, every city in the country was a candidate to either gain or lose an NHL team in the 1990’s.