If we sat watching the squiggly, scrambled TV signal long enough, occasionally images would snap into place. It seemed crazy, but it wasn’t. Without watching the scrambled signal, I would have no idea what Mike Bossy looked like in his white sweater.
The tiny glimpses helped fill in the pictures in my mind’s eye as my dad and I listened to the New York Islanders games on the radio. So it is through the haziest of images as a 10-ish-year-old boy that I watched my hero Bossy get his remarkable 50th goal in 50 games, and all the other milestones from my childhood. Home games were never broadcast on free TV, and we never had cable, so I only knew the Isles road blue uniforms. SportsChannel carried the home games at the time, and you could tune into a scrambled version of the telecast on a UHF channel. My father and I sat in the living room night after night and listened to games and watched the scrambled signal like crazy people. But it wasn’t crazy. Children will do anything to get a little bit closer to their heroes. And good fathers are patient when they try.
I’ve interviewed the richest man in the world, some of the most powerful. I’ve attended the Olympics and shared elevator rides at Rockefeller Center with a who’s who of celeberties. To this day, the only person who gives me the butterflies of a little boy is Mike Bossy, the Islanders greatest goal scorer. I’ve never met him, and I’m not sure I want to, because I probably would horribly embarass myself. I’ve written four books and thousands of stories, but writing about the Islanders, and the closing of the Old Barn, intimidates me. So please indulge me.
So many words have been splilled about the political tragedy, the death of the community, the end of such a beautifully innocent time, I can’t add anything to that. The Islanders were the greatest team, maybe ever. Fully 16 players — the same 16 people! — won the four Stanley Cups together. That will surely never be repeated. And those who lived on Long Island expected to bump into players pumping gas or buying groceries. In the millionth example you’re heard about recently, the Islanders leaving for Brooklyn shows yet again that small town America is dying, and with it, small town communities.
I grieve for Long Islanders, but I am not one of them. My story is the story of Islanders fans everywhere else who are sad today. I lived close enough to the Islanders that my local papers covered them, but far enough away that I was a loner. Most local kids were Rangers fans. Often, it was just me and my dad screaming together. That distance — the scrambled signals, the reliance on radio and my imagination — only made the mythology more powerful for me.
Who knows why someone falls in love with botany, or dogs, or James Joyce, or a hockey team. But I know it has a lot to do with the phrase, “My favorite childhood memory.” Ask someone to share their favorite childhood memory, and you’ll unlock the key to their heart. Mine was the invincible Islanders.
My earliest memory was a homework assignment my dad gave me to watch the team play the Maple Leafs in 1978 and tell him what happened — he was traveling and couldn’t watch. The Islanders lost a game 7 heartbreaker, and I had to tell him why. Who knows: That might be why I became a reporter. To this day, the sight of the Maple Leaf crest gives me a little chill.
But soon after, the Islanders couldn’t lose. When they won their first cup, I was standing on a Little League field during batting practice, dying to get reports about sudden death overtime I knew the Isles had won because our center fielder, a Flyers fan, had smuggled in a transistor radio, and I saw him throwing it disgustedly across the field, signaling Bobby Nystrom’s golden goal.
Series after series, cup after cup, they kept winning. Even when it seemed all hope was lost, they won. And they won in style. The all-time winning streak was a last-minute comeback. The 50-for-50 Bossy quest involved a near miraculous end-of-game scoring flourish. The Islanders were my Greek mythology, or my comic book hero. Often tested, but never failing.
Of course, that’s not real life. When Wayne Gretzky finally slayed them, and back problems slayed my hero soon after, I had just become interested in girls, and then driving, and then college. Soon enough, I was watching the Islanders on satellite TV from Seattle. I was living and dying on blogs like Lighthouse Hockey. It was much, much easier to be a fan from 3,000 miles away than it was growing up in New Jersey. But, I don’t have to tell you, the Islanders were far from Greek warriors at this point.
Last night, the curtain fell on the Nassau Veterans Memorial Colesium, but we all know Fort Neverlose closed a long time ago. My parents old TV set is long gone. Things are different now. We are all far more sophisticated sports fans. I watch games on my phone during press events (only when necessary). I wouldn’t even know where to find scrambled signals. I can’t imagine sitting in a living room for several hours listening to the radio.
Today, when I think the Old Barn is no more, I have to catch my breath. I’m having trouble concentrating at work. A real part of my childhood is gone now. A curse on those who made it so. My heart aches for those who lost even more than I did over this.
But myths don’t die, as long as there is someone around to re-tell them. Heroes don’t die. They live in our hearts, helping us be brave in our own lives. And as anyone who has watched City Slickers knows, the bond between father and son over sports is among the most powerful and magical forces on Earth. I am incredibly lucky that I accidentally chose such worthy heroes, and got to share them with my father. These things will live forever. They might be a bit hazy, like a scrambled TV signal. But I promise, every once in a while, the images will snap back into focus. And you will smile. We will all smile.