Friday, October 7, 2011
Born as a result of a hasty effort by the National Hockey League to prevent the rival upstart World Hockey Association from placing a team at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the New York Islanders played their first game on this date in 1972.
The Nassau Coliseum
Located less than 20 miles from New York City on Long Island, the Coliseum originally held roughly 13,000 for hockey and slightly more for basketball, as the arena was also home to the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association from 1972 until 1977, who brought two ABA championships to New York behind the play of "Dr. J" Julius Irving.
Dr. J, Julius Irving
Some of the other teams to have called the Coliseum home have been the New York Arrows of the Major Indoor Soccer League (1978-1984), the New York Express, also of the MISL (1986-1987), the New York Saints of the National Lacrosse League (1989-2003) and the New York Dragons of the Arena Football League (2001-2008).
The Coliseum saw it's seating capacity expanded in the early 1980's to 16,250 for hockey and up to 18,100 for concerts. The arena has also hosted some of the World Wrestling Federation's biggest events as well as boxing and NCAA basketball regional round games.
In addition, some notable concerts have also been held there, including David Bowie, Queen, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and was one of only two venues in the United States to host Pink Floyd's live show of "The Wall".
The motivation to quickly create the Islanders came about due to the new WHA planning on placing it's flagship franchise, the New York Raiders, in the brand-new Coliseum, a plan which was met with rejection by Nassau County officials, who wanted nothing to do with the new league which they did not consider to be major league. With the only way to legally keep the WHA out of the Coliseum being to place an NHL team there, and despite the fact the New York Rangers did not think highly of a competing team just 19 miles down the road, a hastily awarded team was given to Long Island in November of 1971, along with a second new club, the Atlanta Flames, to keep the league balanced.
While the plan cost the Islanders a $4 million territorial rights fee paid to the Rangers, it cost the Raiders even more, as they were forced to play in Madison Square Garden as tenants of the Rangers! Needless to say, the Rangers were less fans of the Raiders, who belonged to the rival WHA, than they were of the Islanders, who at least were members of the same NHL.
The WHA's New York Raiders
The unfavorable terms of the Raiders lease was a burden on the club, and when very few fans showed up to buy tickets, the original owners defaulted before the first season was even complete. WIth the league now owning the club, it was then sold to a new owner for the second WHA season and renamed the Golden Blades.
Andre Lacroix of the short-lived New York Golden Blades
The Golden Blades saw as few as 500 people show up, and 20 games into year two, the franchise once more became property of the league, who moved them to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a suburb of Philadelphia for the remainder of the 1973-74 season where they had to play in a tiny arena (capacity 4,416) so awful it has achieved legendary status as the visiting teams not only had to put on their gear back at their hotel, but also skate uphill for two out of three periods thanks to a slope in the ice surface! Following the conclusion of the season, the franchise was moved to San Diego, California, seemingly as far from New York as possible! The formation of the Islanders had ultimately had the desired effect the NHL had hoped for.
The Islanders started slowly, preferring to build their club through the draft and passed on the temptation to sign veteran players, especially in light of the rapidly increasing size of player contracts due to competition from the WHA. The first year Islanders were led in scoring by Billy Harris, who managed 28 goals and 50 points in 78 games. For comparison, Phil Esposito led the league with 55 goals and 130 points.
The Islanders lost their first game at home 2-3 to the Flames on this date in 1972, but won their second game 3-2 over the Los Angeles Kings to earn their first victory in front of their home fans in their new arena.
It was not something the fans should have gotten used to however, as the Islanders dropped their next four games at home before a tie with the Chicago Black Hawks ended their inaugural homestand with a 1-5-1 record. For the remainder of the season, they would win 9 more games at home and only 2 on the road. Losing streaks of 12, 8, 7 games, as well as another winless streak of 12 doomed the Islanders to a distant last place with a 12-60-6 record for just 30 points, 18 back of the California Golden Seals and 35 back of fellow first year club the Flames!
However, their roster included not only Harris, but center Lorne Henning (63 games), wingers Bob Nystrom (11 games) and Gary Howatt (8 games) plus goaltender Billy Smith (37 games) who would remain with the team and achieve the heights of hoisting the first of four consecutive Stanley Cups just seven years later.
The Islanders hoist the first of four consecutive Stanley Cups
Bill Torrey, general manager of the Islanders tells his version of the competition with the Raiders and the rise of the Islanders. "The WHA originally wanted to get into the Nassau Coliseum but once the NHL made the commitment to put the Islanders there, I sensed we were in a situation that my club would be a target for the new league. The WHA put a team in New York at Madison Square Garden. THe Raiders wanted to weaken us as best as they could. I let them do it in a way. There were six or seven players that signed with the WHA that I had offered two-way, short-term contracts. I had a hunch they wouldn't accept my offer, but that was okay because I felt by building with younger players that we would draft, the Islanders would develop quicker and be better off in the long run.
At the time, the NHL was a two-division league. There really wasn't much chance for us to finish anywhere but where we finished, be it with a handful of wins and points. That wasn't important at the time. The WHA signed three or four players who I didn't care about and a couple of others who would have helped our organization. Still, we established a policy where our drafts, in '72, '73 and '74, would be all great ones. WE had a chance to let our future players mature faster. In the short term, it was tough. But in the big picture, things worked out well for us."
Their last place finish in 1972-73 allowed them to select franchise cornerstone Denis Potvin with the first overall pick in the 1974 NHL Draft. The following year the Islanders picked Clark Gilles fourth overall and Bryan Trottier in round two and the Islanders had the foundation for their dynasty of the early 1980's.
Time has passed the Coliseum by however, as it is now the second oldest building in the NHL with the lowest capacity (not to mention the lowest average attendance) and is viewed as an unsuitable building in the modern NHL, mainly due to it's lack of private suites and other modern features which provide essential money making opportunities for the club. Despite repeated attempts to replace it, none have come to fruition and the club is in real danger of having to relocate in the coming years.
Today's featured jersey is a 1972-73 New York Islanders Craig Cameron jersey. The first season of play for the Islanders saw them wear what would become the jersey the club would return to over and over again, despite a number of attempts to change to something different.
The orange numbers were unique to the first year Islanders jerseys, as they would be changed to white for the 1973-74 season and remain so on their dark jerseys ever since. The white sleeve ends and lace up collar would remain for the first five seasons before both disappeared in 1977-78, the same season names arrived on the back for good.
Our video section today takes a look at the history of the New York Islanders.