What’s missing from the Rangers and Islanders Rivalry
Growing up on Long Island in the 1980s surrounded by petulant Islander fans in a time where the team clad in blue and orange were winning championships and the Rangers were the epitome of futility, was a very difficult experience. Any time I had the nerve to wear something Rangers related, I got heckled, chastised and bullied.
True story: One day in gym class in high school, we were playing dodge ball. I had a Ranger T-shirt on. Once the game started, everyone on the other team aimed for me because of what I was wearing. It certainly felt that I was the only Ranger fan in my grade band. At least, the only one brave enough to wear any Ranger gear. I developed an unbridled hatred for the Islanders and especially their fans who haunted all of us Blueshirt Faithful with the dreaded “1940” chant. I’m sure that I am not the only Ranger fan who grew up on Long Island who felt this way.
The Islanders Rangers rivalry was a powder keg from its inception in the early 1970s. It turned vicious and violent back in the 1980s. Stories of Islander fans getting pummeled in the infamous “blue seats” are as common as a Mike Bossy slap shot goal. Stories of Denis Potvin getting an ear full from Ranger fans as he walked from the team hotel to the Garden are well known. All of this bad blood and hatred came to a head in the spring of 1994 when the Rangers humiliated the Isles in a four game sweep on their way to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years.
After that, everything changed. All of a sudden, I could walk around town inundated with Ranger gear unmolested and with complete impunity. All of a sudden, the Islander franchise fell into an incredible streak of sheer incompetence and comic relief that lasts to this day. The Rangers putting an end to the 1940 jinx coupled with the elongated bad play and misfortune of the Isles have made many Ranger fans become, dare I say, sympathetic towards their suburban neighbors.
Ranger fans, for the most part, do not take all that much pleasure any longer in seeing the Islanders flounder and struggle. The Islanders on-ice and off-the-ice issues have been well documented in the New York sports scene. We even saw ESPN do a 30 For 30 documentary on former Islander would-be owner and con-man John Spano and how he lied his way into almost owning the Islanders. I won’t mention any specific names, but I have even seen some Ranger fans loosely rooting for the Isles. All of this apparent good will before 1994 would have been unheard of. Any and every bad occurrence that happened to the franchise from Uniondale (and now Brooklyn) was pure gold for Ranger fans.
The two teams will play for the first time in the 2018-19 season at the Barclay Center on November 15th, an arena in which the Rangers have yet to come out victorious. In my view, this game has very little juice to it. Long gone are lightning rods like Denis Potvin and Sean Avery and Theo Fleury and Eric Cairns and so many others who helped make this rivalry the most ferocious in the NHL. It’s an early season game and both teams are trying to figure out who they are. The Islanders lost their captain and best player, John Tavares, to free agency while the Rangers are in the midst of a rebuild or a retooling depending on how you look at it. Neither has serious Stanley Cup aspirations and to be quite honest, it would be a surprise if either of these meandering franchises qualified for the playoffs in the spring.
Regardless of standings and rosters and regardless of the point of the season in which the game was taking place, Islanders versus Rangers was always a hot ticket. The games were intense, passionate and bragging rights were of utmost importance to these two entrenched fan bases. If you checked the secondary market for tickets at Barclay’s for the upcoming contest, I am sure you can find hundreds and hundreds of tickets available and not just up in the nose-bleeds. Again, a plethora of available seating for the frozen version of the battle for New York was unheard of when the rivalry was at its zenith.
There are several benign reasons as to why this rivalry, which was the most fierce in the NHL, has lost so much vigor and luster. The two most obvious reasons are the sky-high ticket prices effectively, pricing out a good number of the riff raff who would emulate animals at a zoo instead of fans at a hockey game. The other innocuous reason is all the increased security that has inundated sports arenas and stadiums all over the world.
Now, the biggest reason in my view as to why this rivalry now resembles a Sunday social instead of a back-alley brawl, is the fact that these two franchises have not met in the playoffs since that magical spring of 1994. The NHL playoffs are where new rivalries begin and where current rivalries escalate. In recent years, the Rangers have had multiple playoff wars with Washington, Pittsburgh and Montreal. While the Islanders miss the playoffs more than they qualify and when they do qualify, they are usually gone by round two. I miss the old rivalry even though I’d have enough anxiety before a game to light up all of Manhattan. I think, overall, hockey in New York needs an Islanders versus Rangers playoff tussle.
As stated earlier, chances of one of these teams making the 2019 playoffs are slim, so the chances of both franchises qualifying are slimmer than a Victoria Secret model. Baring anything unforeseen, we’ll have to wait for the spring of 2020 for these two formerly bitter rivals to reignite that passion that causes more vitriol at a holiday dinner than a political debate. These franchises met in the post-season eight times between 1975 and 1994. They have not met since. It’s time, folks. It’s time!