Butch Goring’s penultimate game as coach of the Islanders—a dreary Thursday night duel with the Carolina Hurricanes—was difficult to watch. Unfortunately, it was far superior to Goring’s final game, a 6-0 home loss Saturday against something called the Tampa Bay Lightning, which had the NHL’s worst record until the Isles lost to it. Goring was fired Sunday morning. Not that Butch Goring was ever a great coach, but surely he deserved better, as a key part of the Islander dynasty that won four straight Stanley Cups from ’80 through ’83, than to be fired with 17 games left in a meaningless season. Hard to believe this is what’s become of the Isles, once perhaps the greatest team in hockey history, winners of 19 straight playoff series, a feat unequaled by any team before or since. Now look at ’em: about to miss the playoffs for the seventh straight year, dead last in a 30-team league in both standings and attendance. Like Ranger fans have always said, the Islanders suck. But they don’t suck because of Butch Goring, that’s for sure.
At the Nassau Coliseum during the Carolina game, packs of children ran through the otherwise empty arena corridors, milling around by the concession stands and talking with the hot-dog grillers, who seemed to welcome the conversation as something to relieve the boredom. Inside there were vast prairies of empty seats. You half expected to see tumbleweeds rolling down the stairs. The official attendance in the 16,000-seat building that night was put at 9200, but there’s no way more than half the seats were filled—4000 is probably the correct figure. It felt like a minor league game—say, the Austin Ice Bats vs. the Macon Whoopees: The goal judges sat out in the open, Carolina’s spare goalie sat in the first row of seats because there was no room on the bench, and then there was what was happening on the ice.
The Islanders don’t have a whole lot of players that even an avid hockey fan has ever heard of, and it shows. In the first period, Carolina went up 3-1 on three goals in which the scorer had ages to choose which corner of the net he was going to shoot the puck into. This was the Isles’ most memorable shift: Zdeno Chara, all 6-foot-9 of him, hits the Carolina blue line while trying to beat the puck into submission and loses it off the end of his stick. Mariusz Czerkawski takes the loose puck, passes to Claude Lapointe, and puts himself offside. Lapointe has to wait for Czerkawski to get back onside, so he plays it over to Brad Isbister, who tries to drop it back to Roman Hamrlik on defense in the Islander zone. But the pass is off line, and the disk skitters all the way back to goalie Rick DiPietro, who must leave it behind his net for Chara. The Islanders have now retreated some 150 feet without the other team so much as having touched the puck. At this point the Czech pylon Chara tries to start anew, but he lays his pass right on the tape of a Carolina player, whose screaming slap shot Di Pietro somehow stops. Incredibly enough, this is the Isles’ first line! In an NHL watered down to nothingness by expansion, the Islanders’ roster stands out as perhaps the most nondescript the league has ever seen.
The game ended at 3-1, but it was as listless and awful as a slow-paced scoreless tie. It’s amazing that the Isles could have been even worse a couple nights later. But they were, and Butch Goring became the fifth coach fired by general manager Mike Milbury (including Milbury himself, twice) in his six years as GM.
The real tragedy here is that the Isles probably have more fan-activist groups than any other NHL team in America, and, boy, are they suffering. Just listen to Steve Ellers, president of the Save the Islanders Coalition (STIC), a 500-member group that has spoken out against the mismanagement of the team loudly and intelligently since 1995. “We got hundreds of e-mails over the past few weeks,” he said on the night Butch was fired, “and only about 2 percent of them said Goring should go. The vast majority want Milbury out. With Milbury, it’s just the same bullshit year after year. We’re basically sick of looking at him for six years, not being able to do anything with this franchise.”
Milbury makes the late, demented Leaf owner Harold Ballard look like Bertrand Russell. He publicly insults his players (“Hello—this is not Val d’Or,” he once said about Roberto Luongo, one of a half dozen promising young goalies he’s discarded, “it’s the NHL”) and their agents (he said that Ziggy Palffy’s agent was “depriving a village of a good idiot”)—not the best motivation tool. Islander fans grew so outraged they took to chanting “Mike Must Go” in organized protests at the Coliseum this season, a throwback to when Milbury also served ineptly as the bench coach. Yet somehow he survives.
Maybe it makes sense, though, in the context of the Islanders’ recent ownership history—six sets of owners in as many years, including a group nicknamed the Gang of Four; a “billionaire” who turned out to be flat broke and is now serving jail time for bank and wire fraud; a pair of businessmen who fought with Nassau County and the Coliseum management company, then tried to get the building declared unsafe in a maneuver that got laughed out of court; and now Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar, local software millionaires whom fans welcomed when they bought the team last year. But the honeymoon is over; at a “town meeting” with Islander fans last month, Wang told a loudmouthed season-ticket holder to “shut up and sit down,” which didn’t go over well with a lot of Isles supporters, and now there’s this Goring-Milbury thing. “It was like they spat in my face last month when they said Milbury was staying,” Ellers said of Wang and Kumar. “And when they did this to Goring today, it was like they stuck a knife in my back.”
For those to the west of the Nassau County line, the Islanders have always been an impossible team to like. Back in their dominant days, in the ’70s and ’80s, it was hateful that a team representing the suburbs could lift the Cup. But, over time, players like Trottier, Bossy, Potvin, even that hack asshole Billy Smith—and later Lafontaine—had to be respected. They were a great organization, and their rivalry with the Rangers was the best in sports; you actually took your life in your hands when you went to an Islander-Ranger game, and that was fantastic. But now the Isles suck, and it’s just plain sad—for hockey in general and for their fans in particular, who are reduced to offering mordant criticisms of Oleg Kvasha and hearing them echo across the Coliseum’s somnolent, vacant interior.