New York Islanders fans: bloodthirsty, boorish and absent

As I exited from Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Tuesday night after the Penguins dispatched the Islanders 4-2, a security guard playfully urged me and a group of others to hurry up. “Go on you Penguins fans,” he joked, “get outta here.”

I responded in kind by thanking him for the hospitality. He scolded me briefly before I told him I was kidding. “Hey, it’s always fun to come out to the island,” I told him.

I was lying.

I’ve been lucky enough to live in the heart of the NHL’s Atlantic Division since I moved to New York City in the summer of 2010. Although this limits how many Pens’ games I can see in Pittsburgh every season, I still have relatively easy access to Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. and the Coliseum in Uniondale, Long Island. Because of this access and my affinity for seeing the Pens play live, I go to four or five away games every year against the Rangers, Devils and Islanders.

There’s something uniquely enjoyable being a Penguins fan in these venues. Rather than identifying with the majority, I become the enemy with limited or no support from other human beings around me. Sometimes, it feels borderline-dangerous and I’ll admit it’s kind of a rush. A little back and forth with local fans is entertaining and usually it’s just good-natured ribbing from both sides. But when I show up on Long Island to watch the Pens, I have to say that the majority (not all) of Islanders fans are boorish, rude and easy to dislike.

My experience on Tuesday was no different.

I’ve been to Nassau Coliseum to watch the Pens four or five times in my life and each time, I find myself being verbally accosted for no reason other than for wearing a Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin shirt. I never instigate and I never reply. Usually I’m by myself, so getting into an altercation with hoards of “enemy” fans would be unwise. But the main reason I don’t respond is because I don’t want to be a poor representative of Penguins fans. That is a concept that most Islanders fans cannot seem to grasp.

Within minutes of entering the arena last night, I was approached by three full-grown men who felt the need to inform me that many things “sucked.” It wasn’t just the typical “Crosby sucks,” it was “Hey man, you suck–” followed by some language I won’t repeat.

Charming.

This scenario happened a number of times during the course of the evening, in addition to being told to “shut the f*** up” after I cheered for the Pens. I turned the other cheek and smiled because after all, Pittsburgh was winning and nothing else mattered. I’ve come to expect the hostility from fans in the New York metro area (as well as most other pro sports venues that I’ve been to) but the Islanders faithful managed to step it up a notch on Tuesday.

The most disturbing portion of the night happened early in the second period when a Kris Letang shot caught Crosby in the face. Play was halted and the bloodied Penguins captain was immediately led into the locker room by trainers with a towel over his face. As soon as the scant crowd realized who had gotten hurt, it erupted into their loudest cheer of the night followed by a “Crosby sucks” chant.

How winsome.

Now, I realize opposing fans love to hate Crosby. He gets booed in every away arena in the United States (and even in Canada, despite the fact he won the country a friggin’ gold medal in 2010). Is it jealousy or even a form of veneration? Perhaps. On NHL Live last night, Boston Bruins radio analyst Bob Beers said that “everywhere Zdeno Chara goes, he seems to get booed, which I guess is the ultimate form of respect.”

So by that reasoning, Crosby is the most respected player in the NHL.

I’ve never had a problem with booing, it’s kind of a dumb fan tradition (imagine booing vegetables on your plate as a child or booing the staff at the DMV), but everyone does it and it’s harmless. I’ll take a “boo” over mindless cursing and the utterance of homophobic slurs any day.

But there is never an excuse for fans to cheer when a player gets injured.  That’s over-the-line behavior. It’s an abusive mob mentality that perfectly depicts the lack of respect some fans have. I’m sure the cowards who harassed me before the game were among the boisterous thousands who cheered while Crosby, a player with a history of head injuries, lay bleeding on the ice before them. It’s probably not a stretch to presume they’ve never been pelted in the face with a frozen rubber puck going 50-plus miles per hour, either.

I wasn’t the only person who was disgusted by the scene in Long Island Tuesday night:

Seth Rorabaugh — Penguins writer for the Penguins for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Jesse Marshall — Co-owner/operator of Faceoff-Factor.com

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Dejan Kovacevic — Pittsburgh Tribune-Review sports columnist

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Arthur Staple — Islanders writer for Newsday

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Dave Molinari — Penguins beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Josh Yohe — Penguins beat writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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Crosby’s incident wasn’t quite as bad as Eagles fans cheering when Michael Irvin suffered a neck injury during a game in 1999, but both were disgusting. Philly fans already have the reputation for having the worst fans in all of pro sports, but New Yorkers (Islanders fans specifically) aren’t far behind.

I understand that this kind of behavior isn’t happening in the vacuum of New York and Philadelphia. Every fan base in pro sports has its share of bad apples, idiots, slack-jawed ignoramuses and drunken  morons — Pittsburgh included.

So what gives for all the idiocy and ignorance?

Former NBCSports.com contributor and current Miami Heat columnist for the Palm Beach Post Ethan J. Skolnick wrote an article in 2009 entitled “Why do sports turn us into irrational fanatics?” In the article, he interviewed Dr. Richard Lustberg, a Long Island resident who runs the site psychologyofsports.com. Lustberg offered one explanation of why fans act like fools:

“It’s without a doubt one of the great diversions that you can have in entertainment. People take that entertainment and then relate it to their own lives. People can understand getting to the precipice of getting to a promotion, and then succeeding at it or not. The merging that occurs between fans and players is the involvement that takes you away from other issues in your life, but also the understanding that you too have been involved with highs, lows, ups, downs in your life, and that’s how you relate.”

In the same article, Christian End, an assistant psychology professor at Xavier University specializing in sports fan behavior, said the following:

“Groups strive to make themselves distinct from other groups,” End said. “They also want to be better than the other groups when you compare them head-to-head. If they begin to believe that the taunting is having an impact on the game, they sort of take pride in being the best at providing a distraction. That can help them buffer, and make them feel better if the team isn’t as successful head-to-head.”

Take those two opinions, toss in a few decades of losing seasons and you have a valid representation of an Islanders fan.

Watching your favorite hockey team is supposed to be fun. It should be a pleasant distraction to everyday problems. But for Islanders’ fans, the team is just another problem creating yet another need for more distraction, i.e., drinking too much, name calling, etc. The team hasn’t finished above .500 since 2007, which also marks the last time it reached the postseason (they lost the series 4-1 to the Buffalo Sabres). The Islanders haven’t won a playoff series since 1993 and haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1983. In my lifetime (25 years), they’ve been a winning team a grand total of eight times.

Yep, must be frustrating but it’s still no excuse.

And according to End, those fans take pride in being the best distraction since their team is no good. However, they failed at being anything more than background noise when it came to the play of the Penguins. Cheering during Crosby’s injury was distracting for me, but I highly doubt it did anything other than motivate Crosby and the rest of the Penguins. He returned in about 10 minutes he didn’t seem to exhibit any ill effects.

I suppose the cheering may have been more effective if Islanders fans would actually bother to come to the games. If you want to see an NHL game but can only afford to spend less than $20, the Islanders are for you! There’s virtually no local interest in this team. I bought my ticket on Stub Hub the evening before the game and the base price was $9.50.

$9.50.

With additional fees and the other standard charges, the grand total came to $19.50. Only twice have I paid less money for a ticket to a professional sporting event and both of those times were at Citi Field when the woeful Pirates came to town to play the lowly Mets.

Here’s the Coliseum about an hour before the puck drops. Yes, that’s pretty early before the game but there were about 20 fans in the building. The attendance of the hotel bar next door was far greater.

Come early and often! Or, don't bother with either...I guess.

Come early and often! Or, don’t bother with either!

So you’d figure that the Penguins would get a decent draw for away games. They’re one of the best teams in the league and super stars like Crosby and Malkin are major attractions, regardless of whether fans love them or hate them. But here’s a picture I took during the pregame warmups. This was about 20 minutes before game time.

The Islanders can't give away tickets.

The Penguins hold practices in front of larger crowds.

By the end of the night, the total paid attendance was a whopping 11,318. Major high school football games attract higher fan numbers. Last year, average attendance for Islanders games was 13,191 and total attendance was 540,838. The only team with poorer attendance was the Phoenix Coyotes and this year it looks like the Islanders could challenge the Coyotes for the bottom spot on the list.

Long Island used to be the home to a stellar hockey franchise that won four consecutive Stanley Cups in the ’80s. Fans were proud of the team and the team was proud of its fans. They deserved each other.

But now, I dare say that neither side supports the other and any dignity this organization built in the wake of its success has since faded. The on-ice product might be improving with the likes of John Tavares and Michael Grabner, but the fans on Long Island don’t seem to appreciate any kind of talent when it graces the ice of Nassau Coliseum.

Will the Islanders return to form as a playoff contender in the NHL  in the near future? It certainly seems like a legitimate possibility. They have a ton of young talent and the team has looked strong in a number of games this season. But the real question is if a considerate fan base will ever pack the confines of the Islanders’ home arena any time soon. The fact that a resurgence in respectful fan support for a four-time Cup winner can even be questioned is far more devastating than a puck to the face.

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About Pete Dombrosky
Pete is a graduate of Penn State University and a life-long Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates fan. He covered men's hockey, golf, tennis, swimming and the enterprise beat as a reporter at the Daily Collegian, Penn State's award-winning, independent student-operated paper. He currently serves as the Assistant Managing Editor for Thrillist Media Group (www.thrillist.com).

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