It’s 49.5 miles from Elmont, NY, to Newark, and in this small corridor of the United States are three of the NHL’s 32 teams: the Devils, the Rangers, and the Islanders, who will soon be moving to Elmont from their creaky homes. Long Island house in Uniedaal.
With this abundance of hockey — nearly 10 percent of the NHL — the New York metropolitan area should be crazy about hockey. But hockey and the Big Apple and its environs have had a troubled relationship at times, and this was one of those moments.
The Rangers? They have missed playoffs three of the last four years. They last hoisted the Stanley Cup in 1994, ending a 54-year drought and those pesky islanders fans who used to say “1940s!” chanted, drowned out. to commemorate the Rangers’ previous championship.
The Devils? Their legacy can be seen in the rear-view mirror as they have failed to make the playoffs in eight of the past nine years after losing the 2012 final and suffered three consecutive losing seasons. It’s quite a let down for a team that won three Stanley Cups, their last in the 2002-3 season.
The islanders? Not bad. A playoff team the last three campaigns and still holders of an impressive record, they are the last major North American sports team to win four consecutive championships, culminating in the 1982-83 season.
What also made that record extra special is that 10 years earlier, at their inception, they racked up the most losses of any team in NHL history.
Now there is a vast wasteland of broken sticks, dirty towels and unsharpened skates stretching from Long Island to Midtown Manhattan to New Jersey. Take the devils. In their current frustration of nine years, their fans at home have seen them win barely half of their matches – about 55 percent. Not much better on the other side of the Hudson, where the Rangers have given Madison Square Garden fans a win 55 percent of the time for the past four years.
But the Islanders have done exceptionally well at home in the last three playoff years, winning 71 percent of their games. However, it may be a while before they get moving this season – they are playing their first 13 games on the road and won’t be in their new arena until the end of November. The Isles are a pretty good road team, having won about 55 percent of their away games in the last three years. They could end the season strong as 41 of their last 69 games are at home and their fans have already bought 15,000 season tickets.
It must be a strange feeling being a team from New York or New Jersey and being booed in your own bailiff, what happens when this trio visits each other. When the Islanders were founded in 1972 and the Rangers visited them at the Colosseum, the roars for the Rangers were louder than for the Islands. Hockey fans on Long Island, after all, had grown up as Ranger followers. Now Islander fans can’t stand the Rangers, of course. The idea of being booed not far from where you play is unusual. For example, you can’t imagine the Bruins being booed if they went to Wellesley, 26 miles from Boston.
What is it like to perform for all three teams? Eleven players can make that claim, and John Vanbiesbrouck, a goalkeeper, was by far the best.
“It’s certainly strange,” said Vanbiesbrouck, 58, when asked if he was a visiting player just a few miles from his home ground. “Each team handled itself differently.”
He recalled the differences between the arenas – the Nassau Coliseum was “a tough place to play, a very raucous crowd. The Devils didn’t have many fans who were anti-Ranger.”
Vanbiesbrouck, winner of the Vezina Trophy in 1986 as the league’s top goalkeeper while with the Rangers, is now an assistant executive director in charge of global affairs for USA Hockey. He played with the Rangers for most of his career – nine full seasons from 1983. He then played for the Florida Panthers and the Philadelphia Flyers before returning to New York – this time for the Islanders in 2001. He was traded later that season to the Devils, for whom he played for another year.
“I would say the Devils and the Islanders definitely have a rivalry with the Rangers, but not so much with each other,” he said. “Rivalry is built on playoffs and the Rangers have had epic battles in playoffs with both teams.”
The Rangers continue their quest for stability today, with Gerard Gallant becoming their eleventh coach since they won the Stanley Cup in 1994.
The Devils have seen even more uproar: Lindy Ruff, who took charge last season, is the club’s 14th coach since winning the Cup in 2003. His resume is impressive, though.
And the islanders? Although they keep changing hands, they have been the most stable franchise of the three in terms of head coach and building momentum on the ice. Barry Trotz has been behind the bench for the past three seasons – the 16th coach since the team’s last championship in 1983 (Al Arbour, their cup-winning coach who died in 2015, came back twice).
Hockey in the New York area continues to move as the Islanders, who have fled to Brooklyn, are back on Long Island and soon to be in their new home. It is reminiscent of the difficulty the creators of these three teams had in naming their hockey clubs. Let’s face it – naming a hockey team in Metropolitan New York isn’t as obvious as, say, the Toronto team calls the Maple Leafs, or Montreal the Canadiens, or Vancouver the Canucks. The Calgary Flames? Well, they started life in Atlanta and just kept the nickname, Calgary had nothing to do with the burning of Atlanta during the Civil War.
The Devils were actually the Colorado Rockies, a nomadic team that couldn’t get fans in their hometown of Kansas City, Mo., or their adopted home in the west. While planning a move to New Jersey, the question of a name came up. There is a legendary creature that supposedly lives in the New Jersey Pine Barrens called the Jersey Devil. That name was suggested, but Devils property feared the Catholic Church was against it and the idea was abandoned — for a while. Voting was statewide with a total of 11 names up for grabs (including “Patriots”). In the end, Devils got the most votes.
As for the Rangers, the boxing promoter and majordomo of Madison Square Garden in the 1920s was a man named Tex Rickard. So the newly created hockey team became Tex’s Rangers.
The islanders? The owners wanted the name ‘New York’. Everyone wants to beat a team from New York, they explained. Plus, it offers built-in marketing. The people and politicians of Nassau County wanted “Long Island” – after all, they were building an arena for them. Finally, as a nod to Long Island, they became the New York Islanders – maintaining the recognition of the big city along with the Long Island connection.
Now, in late November, they will return to Long Island once their arena is complete. It’s likely that fans will greet them warmly, not the way frustrated Ranger fans treated their heroes in the doldrums of the early 1960s, when one player said of the booing and luging from his suburban home: “Playing in Madison Square Garden is like playing in a road race.”
The irony of playing in the Big Apple environment for hockey players is that, even when they are close to home, they are on the go.