The moment news broke that the New York Islanders were upping sticks from suburban Nassau County and moving to Brooklyn, my Twitter feed went into overdrive. This is not normal. Sure, with this year’s NHL season threatening to disappear altogether as the lockout drags on, there’s not much to discuss in the hockey word. But I don’t follow many other hockey fans nor, to be frank, do I know many. Yet the Brooklynization of Long Island’s only major sports team got a whole crop of people I do know excited: journalists, designers, over-educated dweebs—in other words, our zeitgeist’s Brooklynites. New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas summed up the mood with this tongue-in-cheek quip about the Islanders’ new grass-fed regimen; another reporter suggested the team switch its name to the Brooklyn Locavores.
As a diehard hockey fan in a city full of, well, non-hockey fans, it’s hard to express the depths of dissonance that the Islanders’ move represents. This is not just another version of the move that’s already transpired: the migration of basketball’s New Jersey Nets across two rivers to the Barclays Center, a new stadium that’s the joint product of a Russian oligarch’s wealth and an exercise in glossy, corporate advertising masquerading as a bid for urban authenticity. The Nets are a middling franchise that, until this year, played out in the existential and literal swamps of New Jersey’s Meadowlands. They were irrelevant, signified nothing and therefore, with Jay-Z leading the baptism, could be easily rechristened into Brooklyn’s ballers.
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The same is impossible for the Islanders. Hockey, for all the belittling mockery it gets from those who follow more popular American sports, draws its energy from passionate, hardcore fans. And while the Islanders have been truly abject for many years, they still have a small, dedicated fanbase in Nassau and its environs. Their whole ethos is unutterably rooted in Long Island. And, yes, I know Brooklyn technically is on Long Island, but the commuter rail ride that separates the Barclays Center from the Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders’ current decrepit home, may as well be the fathom of a whole ocean.
The Islanders made their legacy with a string of four successive Stanley Cups in the 1980s. They were Long Island’s pride, a feisty team of the suburbs that for years outperformed their hapless city rivals (my team, the New York Rangers). Attending a Rangers vs. Islanders game at the crumbling Nassau Coliseum is the closest thing in American professional sports to the intensity of a derby match in European soccer: a delicious atmosphere of menace and hate hangs over the stands which are almost always split evenly between home support and visiting Rangers fans (the same is not true for the Rangers’ home, Manhattan’s perennially sold-out Madison Square Garden). Fights, of course, routinely break out. The train to Nassau may have just been like any other out of Penn Station, but to the mind of this fanatic, I could have just as well been slipping to the other side of the Berlin Wall.
Once, as an adventurous high schooler at the Mausoleum—an easy jab Rangers fan often make—a rotund Islanders fan shook a bag of rice at me (I’m Indian and look it) and told me, in perfect Longislandese, to “getouttaheeeere”. That he was walking around with this rice prop actually made a kind of sense: the Rangers’ first round draft pick that year was a young Indian-Canadian.
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I’m sure most Islanders fans aren’t racist cavemen and, in general, hockey isn’t known for having the most sophisticated followers. But I’m also sure there are plenty of Islanders fans out there who feel weird about moving to the city, so long the bastion of their hated foes (to even set up shop in Long Island, the Islanders franchise had to pay the Rangers a $4 million territorial fee). Brooklyn will remain Rangers country—a good number of Rangers season ticket holders and blue-seat diehards come from non-gentrified neighborhoods like Bensonhurst and Canarsie. But the other options, as attendance plummeted and the Islanders’ bid to build a new stadium in Nassau failed, were worse: relocation to some distant town like Portland or Quebec City.
The Islanders will stay the “New York Islanders.” They’ll arrive at the Barclays Center in 2015 probably a much better team than they are now, with a stable of blue-chip prospects developing in the next few years—though, if there’s one team that knows how to screw up a rebuild, it’s them; they’ve been in rebuild mode for almost two decades. Maybe in a generation’s time—their new lease at the Barclays is set to last 25 years—they will have taken over Brooklyn, and fashioned a new identity as the city’s other NHL team. But I’m not convinced. As a childhood friend, Brooklynite and loyal Rangers fan assured me over email today: “They’re not getting a multi-million dollar, Jigga-led marketing makeover, and now it’s going to be easier to go to their games and mock them.” Hey, you Isles, bring it on.