The marquees dot the night along Broadway, off Broadway, and off-off Broadway. First-run movies vie for attention with the nightwalkers in Times Square. The Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall trumpet ads on radio and billboards and the Yankees are fighting again.
In the metropolis that bumper stickers and Mayor Ed Koch want everyone to love, there are always “tough tickets.” But this spring, this long overdue climax to the season that started last September, the “toughtest ticket in town” is for ... hockey.
From Westchester to the Bowery, Queens to Manhattan, Nassau County to Brooklyn, the Big Appiers are talking and feuding like never before over a game that has been here for more than 50 years. Back in the mid-’20s, New York was home to the Americans and Rangers in the National Hockey League. The Ameres had faded into oblivion by 1943 and in terms of the league championship, so had the Rangers. They had captured the fancy of baseball, basketball and football fans under Lester Patrick and won their third and last Stanley Cup in 1940. Centre stage in the “wonderful town” was taken over by the Giants, Dodgers,
Knicks and Yankees, by acclamation. Now, suddenly, New Yorkers have their imported game back in the spotlight.
Seven years ago, the NHL snaked through the tunnels under the Hudson River and washed up in Nassau County on Long Island. Reminiscent of the laughable, lovable New York Mets of baseball, the Islanders cowered into the venerable homes of hockey and left with a polite 12 victories and a respectful 60 defeats. Meanwhile, downtown, the Rangers contented themselvés with solid attendance figures, the odd flourish by Rod Gilbert, memories of Andy Bathgate, Camille Henry, Gump Worsley and friends, and banked the $4 million the Islanders had to pay them for rudely moving into the neighborhood.
But a funny thing happened while Montreal was winning three Stanley Cups. The Islanders put together a collection of brilliant draft choices and the Rangers were purchased by a freespending corporation. With Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Chico Resch, Bryan Trottier et al, the Islanders reversed the wins and losses columns and finished first this year, a point ahead of Les Canadiens. The Rangers went to Winnipeg and came back with a couple of nou•mm-millionaire immigrants from Sweden and to Philadelphia, returning with Professor Fred Shero. Just a decade later, the Mets seem less “ama-
zin’ ” and the Rangers are still playing in May.
Across from Toots Shor’s looms the “Gaaaden,” Madison Square, a concrete, steel-andglass homage to sport as big business. Its tiled promenade, smooth-gliding escalators, plush lounges and restaurants, padded seats and cathedral-like interior bespeak “foist class.” For hockey it renders pampered 17,000 patrons, beer drinkers in T-shirts tolerated by the corporate executives in their tax-write-off blocks of seats. Yellow cabs stream around its four sides, just out of hailing distance, in the shadow of skyscrapers and the Empire State Building, a relatively safe walk away. It’s a long ride from there, by cab, car or train, to Nassau County.
Through the tunnel, along the parkway or expressway, through the Archie Bunker land of Queens, past the factories and tenements, the trees finally come into view in the midst of the American dream—upper-middle-class suburbia. In a greenbelt past golf courses where the terminal vertical is broken only by exit signs, in a vast open flatness, stands the Nassau Coliseum, home of the Islanders—alone save for thousands of parking spaces for the suburbs’ second cars.
The last time two New York teams contested anything more important than a mayor’s chalice was 1956, when “dem bums” took on the “Bronx Bombers” and a city and family were divided for seven game days in what baseball calls the World Series. Then it was the Dodgers—Reese, Robinson, Furillo—from ramshackle Ebbets Field against the Yankees—Mantle, Ford, Berra—from opulent Yankee Stadium. The fans rattled back and forth between games on a short subway ride, giving the series its name—the Subway Series. The Yankees won.
They’re calling this one not only the Series of the Century, because New York barely noticed the Soviets coming for the Challenge Cup, but the LIRR Series (Long Island Railroad) and the Expressway Series. But the contrast goes deeper. The Rangers, under management dictum, live in the city. They’re the street-wise guys who can be seen in the bars and at Studio 54. The Islanders are the cardigan, mow-the-lawn-onSaturday types, transcendental mediators clapped for by escapees from the bright lights, happily mortgaged and commuting.
“I prefer to be here on the Island,” big-name Clark Gillies, the Islanders’ captain was saying before the series. “I don’t know about all the confusion and fast pace in the city. I’d just as soon leave all that Broadway publicity stuff to the Rangers.” And there has been a lot of that. But in the entertainment capital of the world, it’s just what the struggling and newly expanded league needs. The fun-loving Rangers haven’t hesitated to fill the bill and newspapers with their tasting of the Big Apple. “Sure we love it,” says Don Murdoch, back now after taking too big a bite and having some coke with it. “You know, the toughest part of my suspension (following his conviction in Canada for the possession of cocaine) was being away from my teammates. I’ve never played on a team that is so together. If someone wants to go out for a beer after the game, 18 or 19 guys come along.”
As the semi-final series opened last week to decide which New York team will challenge the Stanley Cup, a lot of Ranger fans came along for a Budweiser on the Island. In the latest chapter of the infinite shrinking wisdom of the NHL, only a relative handful of the legion of New York fans got to see the game. Despite the need to capitalize on the Cinderella inner-city rivalry, the NHL made no accommodation to wrest the television rights from cable TV companies. The game was available only to the 14,995 who braved the rails and expressways and to subscribers of Cablevision. A couple of Bronx congressmen voiced the ire of their constituents to NHL president John Ziegler over the blackout on home TV—but for nought. With tottering franchises throughout the league, why make a big thing out of a big thing? With P. T. Barnum savvy, the Ranger and Islanders not only upped their ticket prices for their captive audience (Rangers from a regular-season top price of $13.50 to $22 and the Islanders from $12 to $18), the clubs are channeling closed-circuit broadcasts of the games into arena lounges for $7.50 in Manhattan and $7 on the Island.
The screams that greeted the teams as they skated out onto the ice for Game 1 reached Cup final decibels. Rival fans and friends jostled, “I thought you was a Ranger fan?” “I was ’til they started chokin’—39 years ago.” Red, white and blue bunting, usually reserved for the World Series, draped the Coliseum’s railings. Banners proclaimed, “This is £ Islander Country,” “Espo [Ranger Phil Esposito] is the town crier” and “J.D. [Ranger goalie John Davidson], do it again.” Just as Ranger Dave Farrish had skated away from his mates during Kate Smith’s warbling of God Bless America in the quarter-finals against Philadelphia, Ranger Dave Maloney whirled away during the last eight bars of The Star-Spangled Banner that opened Game 1, and any Islander fans not ready for battle joined the war chant.
But unlike the talented and wealthy Yankees of ’56, the poor little rich guys
from Manhattan were the underdogs, and the suburbanites worrying about bankruptcy were the favorites. The Rangers weren’t supposed to be there but they upset coach Shero’s old team, Philadelphia, by setting two league records (most shorthanded goals—five— and most goals in a five-game series28). After “packing up our shields, hatchets and spears,” as Ranger Walt Tkaczuk said after the rough series with the Flyers, the Broadway Blues headed for the Islanders, somnambulent after a skate-walk past the Chicago Black
Hawks. It was no contest.
With slick passing plays that harked back to their forebears in the mid-’60s, the Rangers skated away from the Islanders 4-1, outshooting them 14-3 in the second period. Each Ranger shot and goal swung the crowd toward its final bipartisan cheer. And after the game, as the Islanders demurely grabbed for towels and pants at first glimpse of female reporters in their beerless dressing room, amid the consciously and unconsciously unclad and semi-clad Rangers, Anders Hedberg
beamed like a man emerging from a coed Swedish sauna: “Can you believe this?” Down the hall, Islanders’ coach AÍ Arbour couldn’t. “We weren’t doing anything naturally,” he said.
Contentedly puffing a fat cigar and sipping a beer, veteran Ranger Carol Vadnais thought things were unfolding as they should. “We now have a blend of young, middle-aged [25 to 30] and old players. In hockey, you count on the middle-aged guys to be steady, game in and game out, and hope for the occasional big game from the young and old guys. We’ve got it.”
And as the lights went out and the last station wagons headed for the ex-
pressway, the huge Canadian flag of all but a couple of the players’ homeland remained crumpled and snagged in the rafters over the Coliseum’s ice.
The clichés (“it’s a long series,’’“we’ll come back”) tumbled out of the Islander dressing room and they became prose by Game 2 as the Islanders re-won their commuter fans and evened the series with a 4-3 win in overtime. The struggle for the championship of New York, the competition for the fleeting admiration of the brownstone and bungalow dwellers, would last at least a week.
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