UNIONDALE, N.Y.--On the afternoon of May 24, 1980, one could fairly describe the 14,995 frenzied supporters of the New York Islanders in Nietszchean terms. The Islanders, seeking their first National Hockey League Championship ever, led the Philadelphia Flyers by three games to two in their best-of-seven final series. After two periods, final triumph seemed assured: the Islanders were ahead, 4-2, and the beer-soaked corridors reverberated with chants of "We Want the Cup!"
But now the game had gone into overtime. Sudden-death overtime, as it is known in the trade. If the Flyers scored next, the series would return to the Spectrum in Philadelphia, where the Islanders would have to face 17,077 snarling partisans. Throughout their history, the Islanders had come close--and blown it. Choked.
Their fans--having welded emotions and season-ticket dollars to the fortunes of an erratic two-dozen men who would provoke expectations of ecstasy only to deflate them--were "a rope stretched across an abyss."
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In less than two weeks, the 1980-81 National Hockey League season gets underway. The exhibition schedule is already half gone, and opening night at Boston Garden and the Coliseum and the Spectrum and Maple Leaf Gardens and Le Forum quick approaches even as George Brett struggles to hit .400 and the Yankees near yet another pennant. It is a cycle as old as life itself.
But this time around, there is a difference. The defending NHL champions are not the Montreal Canadiens.
Not an easy concept to grasp, particularly for Islander fans. One hot and sweaty day this summer a long-time die-hard rooter from Section 308 was inching down the Long Island Expressway when his thoughts turned to hockey.
"Those damn Islanders," he blurted suddently, violently pounding the dash-board in a ritual he had practiced for five years running. "I can't beleeeeeve they blew it against Toronto."
That was 1978, I told him. The Islanders were supposed to win it all that year. Instead, they had choked in the quarter-finals against the Maple Leafs. The series ended before the usual sell-out at the Coliseum when Lanny McDonald scored at 4:13 of overtime in the decisive seventh game. It was a wondrous sight, to see a sports arena become a morgue.
My friend was silent, and a strange glint came into his eyes. "You're right," he said finally. It had happened before. In 1979, the Islanders had won the regular season title, edging out Montreal on the final night--only to be cut to pieces, horrified but in a daze, sleepwalking over a cliff, as they fell to the suddenly chic Manhattan Rangers. In 1975, 1976, 1977, hopes were raised, then vanquished.
Now it was different.
* * *
That rope was real tight. Is there a God? Existentialists and fundamentalists alike, on that sweet and sticky afternoon, faced themselves and their makers as play continued. It could not go wrong now. Or could it? It always had. Could the Islanders stand success? Could their fans?
"The natural flights of human imagination," wrote Sam Johnson, "is not from pleasure to pleasure but from hope to hope." Said Star Trek's point-eared theoretician, Mr. Spock: "You may find that having is not so pleasurable as wanting."
But there was not time for philosophizing. The rope might break. There was only time to play hockey.
Lorne Henning passes to John Tonelli who passes to Bob Nystrom. They are all Islanders. Nystrom--by reflex--tips the rubber into the Philadelphia net. The net goes taut. It has happened.
Let history judge.