April 2007 / Buffalo Sabres vs NY Islanders playoffs
Beasts. Everywhere. It’s a good thing I have my trusty guide with me. We step out of our vehicle and onto the dilapidated lot in Uniondale, Long Island. Nassau Coliseum stands like some archaic ruin, except the ancient Roman and Greek ruins are far better managed. My guide carries our hidden snacks and drinks in her deep-pocketed coat. The rain bleats down like the hammer of Colin Campbell on hockey infractions. Even the parking lot emanates some sort of undercurrent of menace. Something lies beneath the surface, under the shoddy gravel and potholes, but I’m not quite sure what it is.
As we enter the hockey building, it is clear I’ve fallen within the digital ether and landed square into a jungle of beasts. The air at the entrance is smoky, acrid, and one can hear the thumping of chests. They are coming closer. I am a far cry from the streets of New York City. I am even further from my Hockeybuzz. I hide my notebook and stop jotting notes. That would scare the delicate rabble, who’s palate have not tasted introspection or observation…and more apt to be slinging back Coors Light and $5 hotdogs. No, these things would destroy their delicate equilibrium of malls, Billy Joel songs and pizza shops. Their only experience of a hockey insight is a semi-animated mummy named Stan Fischler who’s grinning visage and curious babble is about as useful as an old drunk who’s face flat on the floor of a bar.
We get to our seats high in the corner. I mutter to my guide about cheap tickets. She mutters to me that I should make more money. I take out my notebook to jot down that I shouldn’t hire my fiancee as a guide. I pause to look around me. I notice quite a few Buffalo Sabres fans. Some wear the Buffalo slug proudly on their new jerseys. Others wear older jerseys. All are quite excited. Perhaps they know something we don’t. One 19 year old kid is just talking, and has some middle-aged drunk come up to him, screaming at his face that he’s going to throw him down the stairs. He is still jabbering as another man pulls him back be his belt. This is even before the puck has dropped. Some Islander fans seem disturbed. The Buffalo fan get quieter, subdued. Perhaps that middle-aged man pulled off his own skin to show the flaming skull beneath. Perhaps he saw something in that man’s eyes that bothered him. I make note to ask the Buffalo fan what he saw…but then, it is time…the team enters the ice.
Buffalo and Islander fans are still cheering and jeering after introductions. In an acute good show of timing, it is when they want to have a moment of silence. Some are still going back and forth at one another during that moment of silence until fans shout to shutup. They do, and at the moment of silence, suddenly a voice cries through the din…
“The Rangers suck cock!”
There is a nervous laughter. The tension and fan prostrating is cut by the recalling of who the Isles enemy really is. After all, Buffalo is a team who has been in the Islanders shoes. Ownership in question, empty seats only a few years back. They went young, and Lindy Ruff has them play a fast aggressive game. This year has been their year, as it begins to all come together for them. Buffalo plays the game the Isles are trying for. They are the new NHL through and through. But, they’ve been doing it longer and held onto their future. So that future is what cuts through the Islanders defense like a hot knife through butter all game long.
Islander fans and Buffalo fans jeer and cheer as the 1st period ends with a very even game. The Isles play well, and both push and prod one another with nothing to show. The 2nd period has the Isles back on their heels. Bad penalties and a high sticking major even further skew the situation. The Isles equalize with a last push to at least keep it a game. It gets dicey between Buffalo fans and Islander fans in that 2nd period.
Between the periods, I climb down to visit the locker-room area. As a member of the press, I shout at the Isles security to get out of my way. I show them my hockeybuzz blog printed out.
“I’m a Doctor of Hockey journalism, man!” I shake the hockeybuzz page in front of his face and catch Ted Nolan just before he is to enter the locker room.
“Teddy,” I catch his attention. Ted nods to security and they let my through.
“Christ, I could use a smoke,” Ted breathes.
It’s a good thing I have my trusty cigars with me. I have Padrons, Opus, even a Trinadad Funadore contained in my Otterbox in my coat pocket. I hand him a Trinadad Funadore…one of two handed to me by Fidel Castro himself.
“My god,” Nolan’s eyes widen.
We light up our Funadores.
Nolan looks at me and says, “I don’t even bring up the sacred sticks like these out here on Long Island”
I nod. We both know that would scare the delicate rabble, most of who’s lungs and palate have not tasted the Opus X, Rising X. Or the Padron 1926s. Or the Punch Punch. No, these things would break their spine, and shear their soul. There only experience of a “good smoke” is the Garcia Vega collection they gave out when their wives launched their progeny into a doctors sweaty grip.
We smoke quickly as the time beats down, like a chubby Long Island house wive on a Nachos Grande.
“Can you guys keep this up?” I ask Nolan slyly.
Nolan looks away thoughtfully.
“We are playing beyond our level” he admits. “Another year, and we can make some changes and get some pieces in place. They are, well mostly, playing their heart out.”
I look at Nolan.
“Maybe fans should appreciate that most of all after years of coming up short in the heart department, whatever way the chips fall, Teddy.”
He nods, stubs out the cigar and goes into the locker room to try to get them back in line. I exit the locker room area, handing the quarter smoked cuban cigar to the bewildered security guard.
“This will change your life” I tell him as I climb back up into the seats.
The third period, Buffalo skewers the Islanders. Cuts them deeply with slashing offense. The defense of the Islanders could not out physical them for the most part, nor stuff them on their speed. Instead they had to swipe at the puck. But Buffalo expected this, having seen this in the 2nd period. They had their defensemen pinch top of the zone. When swiped pucks would then go up the boards, they pushed back on net. The Islanders own offense was also predictable at this point. Pure dump and chase. Except the Islander forward would just get pinned behind Ryan Miller until the puck was eventually cleared. The Islanders are on their heels the entire period. The crowd is getting ugly. Buffalo fans are just being how they were earlier. But Islander fans are the ones getting hot and riled now.
Then, the call. The refs let infractions many go for both teams all night. But the call on Randy Robitaille is mindboggling. Fans are outraged. After the 2nd period goal call, which they never were given the benefit of seeing on the big screen, this is the final straw. Debris goes onto the ice. From up high bottles don’t make the ice and actually hit fellow Islander fans. It’s more then ugly, it’s just pure unreason.
I turn to my guide and motion for us to get out. Security is all over our section because Islander fans just won’t leave Buffalo fans alone. All they are doing is watching the game. But their jerseys must bely some sort of subversion to humanity as per the guttural ravings of drunk fans in Isles jerseys. The precarious teetering of sanity has tipped. Fans have gotten lost in the bad vibrations. The undercurrents have sneaked out and lie plainly on the ice in bottles, towels, and garbage.
It’s all out there now. It’s amid all that debris on the ice. Everyone can now see it. The insecurity of Islander fans who have lost their grip on the reality of a successful step forward this season, losing all sense and sensibility in a game they were outmatched. Buffalo responded to game 2 by forcing the Islanders to play better in their weakest point..their defense. The Islanders can reflect and respond in game 4. But Islander fans and the hockey world can hopefully reflect more wisely in the face that was left peering under the ruins of an Islanders loss. The face of themselves.
I wish I could speak more, but alas, the beasts have found me. My time is short. My notebook shakes in my hand. Don Cherry himself may smile upon me, but even he would quaver with the fear of where I now dwell.