Longing for the GLORY DAYS

After years of decline, there's hope for Islanders organization


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UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- They are the evidence of past glories, fading memories and of what once was on Long Island.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/11/2011 (4156 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — They are the evidence of past glories, fading memories and of what once was on Long Island.

Four Stanley Cup championship banners hang side by side in the rafters of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, while facing them are 15 other banners from conference, division and regular-season titles compiled during a dominant run in NHL history.

And, just for the record, the most recent is dated 1987-88 — the last time the Islanders captured the Atlantic Division.

Indeed, it seems for as rich a tradition the Islanders carved out during those glory years — seasons symbolized by Mike Bossy going top shelf, of Billy Smith hacking down opponents in his crease, of Denis Potvin rubbing out forwards, of the grit of Bryan Trottier, Bob Nystrom and Clark Gillies and of Butch Goring in that goofy old helmet of his — it is also a history that now haunts a franchise both celebrating its 40th season and fighting for survival.

“There’s a lot of things going in the right direction here now, but they need a new building,” said Goring, the pride of St. Boniface and a TV analyst on Islanders’ games for MSG Network. “The franchise itself is strong. (Owner) Charles Wang very much wants to keep it here and he’s doing everything he can to make that happen. I believe that at the end of the day and because this franchise has so much history, the National Hockey League is not going to let it go anywhere.

“This is still a great franchise. It stumbled, for quite a while really, but it’s on an upward trend.”

A quick glance at the standings — where the Isles are last in the Atlantic Division with a 3-4-2 record — would have some debating that, but Goring’s point is held by many in the NHL who pegged this a dark-horse squad to push for a playoff spot in 2011-12 when the season launched. It is a club built around young stars like John Tavares, Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo and Travis Hamonic, of St. Malo, among others.

Most importantly there is also a sense that, after years of decline, there is at least a draft-and-develop blueprint being followed by current GM Garth Snow. That certainly wasn’t always the case under Mike Milbury, who made big splashes in free agency and some iffy trades — Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen for Oleg Kvasha and Mark Parrish? Zdeno Chara and a draft pick (which turned out to be Jason Spezza) to Ottawa for Alexei Yashin? — and was either boom or bust during his days as GM.

“Garth Snow has done a great job of assembling a group of young guys,” said Goring, who was fired as head coach of the Islanders by Milbury in 2001. “In the past, they would deviate. Milbury, in particular, was very radical from one day to the next. You never knew whether they were going to be an old team, a middle team, a young team. Draft picks? Free agents? You never knew what was going on. Now they’re sticking to their game plan and being patient and there’s no panic.”

The same can’t be necessarily said about the Isles until the building issue is resolved, however. There is certainly history and tradition here, but Nassau Coliseum lacks a lot of the bells and whistles of the new NHL facilities. It is simply an aging, decrepit 1970s building occupied by a 21st-century business.

And while the lease still runs through to 2015 and the optimists have their fingers crossed something will get done, there are also rumblings about moving into the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn or even to Quebec City. As NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said last week in a radio interview with ESPN: “The team needs a new building and there has to be concrete plans on the horizon that’s going to get it done, otherwise we’re going to have a problem.”

And so while the glory years are represented in the rafters above them and the future remains uncertain, players like Tavares and Hamonic can focus only on the here and now. Short term, that means pushing for a playoff spot for the first time in five years. It’s baby steps for a franchise that once left significant footprints.

“We’re all committed to Long Island,” said Hamonic. “We love Long Island. We’ve got some of the best fans in the world here and everybody supports us. For us, that’s a non-issue right now.”

“It’s been tough,” added Goring. “But let’s face it, when you don’t make the playoffs it’s tough to maintain anything positive. But now’s the time to enjoy this team again. Somebody will figure it all out. It’ll get done. It has to.”

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter:@WFPEdTait

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