A Long Islander's first visit to Nassau Coliseum involves a face-off against the Winnipeg Jets and a rookie called Teemu
Long Island. December, 1992. It had been quite a few years since the New York Islanders were world beaters. And although I was in existence during those Stanley Cup–winning years, I was too young—and too much into playing baseball—to be aware of the feats my hometown hockey team was accomplishing.
And perhaps it was for those reasons that I don't remember ice hockey ever being that popular on Long Island. I'd never see kids playing hockey in the street, or hear them talking about it at school, or see anyone at all wearing a jersey. I hadn't even watched more than a few minutes of a game on television. But that all changed in sixth grade, when I met a new friend.
He was the youngest of six brothers, all of whom played ice hockey. And as our friendship grew, I found this incredible new sport slowly but surely pulling me away from the only sport I'd ever really loved; the one I was sure I'd play for all time. And knowing the almost mythical figures and history of the game were housed just a few hours away, in Cooperstown, only bolstered that commitment I'd already made inside.
But so strong was the attraction to this new sport that by the autumn of 1992 I was begging my mother to take me to an Islanders game—even pointing her to a coupon in the local newspaper for a discounted rate toward a select number of home games.
Eventually she'd oblige, and we'd soon receive two tickets in the mail which read:
AT NASSAU COLISEUM. NEW YORK ISLANDERS vs WINNIPEG. SAT. DEC. 12, 1992. 1:05 PM.
Now, the Coliseum isn't exactly stunning these days (although there are some encouraging renovation plans in the works), and in comparison to Yankee Stadium or Shea Stadium, venues I was much more familiar with, the Coliseum wasn't stunning back then, either. However, despite the difference, and despite the moderate crowd and a rather embittered home-team fan sitting behind us yelling Get up! at an Islanders defenseman who fell to the ice without provocation during first-period play, there were some things to be excited about.
Three young players were in the middle of very successful rookie campaigns. For the Islanders, Darius Kasparaitis and Vladimir Malakhov—two brightly shining Russian defensemen who'd come to play on the NHL stage—were establishing themselves as such, and later that season would help their team make an exciting run into the playoffs, ousting the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins on the way to the Conference final. And for the Jets, there was a Finnish right winger called Teemu Selanne.*
My knowledge of hockey had only begun to accumulate in the months leading up to that Saturday afternoon, and despite the meticulous and energetic efforts of my friend and his brothers (which, along with playing roller hockey at a nearby park, also included intense competition on Sega's NHL ‘92), I still had much to learn about the basics of the game. As for the subtleties, it turns out it was a golden time for an introduction.
The first Soviet players had recently started to join the NHL—a few, including Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov, having to defect in order to do so. Shortly thereafter the Soviet Union would dissolve, allowing teams who'd earlier taken a chance drafting Russian-born players the opportunity to sign them to contracts and bring them to North America, as well. And although long before the 1990s players from other parts of the world, such as Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, had been present in the NHL, now a much larger number had entered the league (along with Selanne, the Jets had another Finn [Teppo Numminen], two Swedes [Fredrik Olausson and Thomas Steen], and four Russians [Sergei Bautin, Evgeny Davydov, Igor Ulanov, and Alexei Zhamnov] on their roster that afternoon). Many members of this new collection would enter the smaller rinks of the NHL and astonish with their speed, skill, and open-ice acuity.
Consider Teemu. That afternoon at the Coliseum he was the definition of outstanding. Whereas the North American style at the time may have generally been more linear and straightforward—skate up the ice on the right wing, come back down the ice on the right wing, knock over anyone who gets in your way—Teemu was finding seams to move through, left, right, or center. He stood out plainly. Each time he accelerated out of the zone to join a rush, or swept across the neutral zone from a different angle, or broke away from a defender at the blue line, the crowd reacted with a troubled excitement—aware of the scoring chance he'd inevitably generate. He'd rarely need to deke a defender. At most, the Finnish Flash wove through them. And more often, he simply took the puck wide and skated right around them.
The rookie's incredible introduction had lasted three months, in fact. Teemu scored 11 goals in October, then 6 in November, and 11 more in that month of December, eventually leading to the record-breaking season total of 76 (Mike Bossy's rookie record of 53 goals having stood for 15 years). And much less mentioned than his supreme goal-scoring and skating abilities, Teemu was also an adept passer of the puck. He added 56 assists to the box scores that year, for a rookie-record total of 132 points (Peter Stastny held the former mark at 109). It would place him in a tie for 5th in NHL scoring with the Islanders' Pierre Turgeon. Only Mario Lemieux, Pat LaFontaine, Adam Oates, and Steve Yzerman had more points. No one had more goals (Mogilny tied the mark with 76).
That afternoon at the Coliseum he would score one of those goals—his 23rd of the season—and add an assist in a 4-3 overtime win for the Jets, and I'd go home a Teemu Selanne fan.
And more than that, the incredible experience of that first live game would further cultivate the hockey fan inside of me, and would contribute to the step back from playing baseball and the switch to playing ice hockey full-time. I'd begin in high school with a county recreational league (playing on a line with that same friend who introduced me to the game), and eventually would play four years at the college level, embracing hockey culture and the speed, dynamics, and timing of the game—and thoroughly enjoying the challenges of each new season.
All the while Teemu kept playing, too, enjoying uproarious success with Winnipeg and then Anaheim, scoring at least 40 goals in five different seasons—and at least 50 goals in three of those five. He'd also be named an NHL first-team all-star twice in that time, and would tally 4 goals and 6 assists at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, helping the Finnish hockey team earn a Bronze medal.
A year later my college hockey days would wind down, and in the following years so would the playing days of some NHLers I followed. But Teemu continued. He'd play for San Jose, Colorado, and then Anaheim once more, winning the Stanley Cup with the team in 2007 (individually going 48-46-94 in the regular season and 5-10-15 in the playoffs—at age 36, mind you).
And now that the 43-year-old has announced he will indeed play another season with Anaheim, I'm elated.
He needs 25 goals to reach 700 for his career; 45 assists to reach 800. I know you'll be keeping track in Anaheim. And I'll be cheering him on from New York.
Here's to the man.
*Honorable mention to Alexei Zhamnov, who went 25-47-72 (16 PPG) in his first season with the Jets that year.