I’m very happy this morning for one reason: hockey season starts tonight. In fact, I’m wearing my Islanders sweatshirt—a Christmas present from my wife two years ago—right now.
It isn’t that I don’t love other sports—clearly I do. There are few things I enjoy more than walking into a packed gym for a college basketball game on a winter night and my wife almost never complains when I say I’m going to a baseball game because she knows a couple of hours sitting in the press box keeping score (as I have done at every game I’ve attended since the age of 10) relaxes me.
I love the aesthetics (and the access) of golf, even if trying to play the game has been one of my great frustrations in life. I very much enjoy college football—although I’m appalled by the length of games—and I’m okay with watching the NFL on Sundays. It doesn’t excite me the way it excites most Americans, perhaps because I know too much about its underbelly, but I still enjoy it.
I grew up playing tennis—never very well—and covering Wimbledon was one of my great thrills. I don’t cover tennis anymore for two reasons: there’s absolutely no access to players, at least not the kind of access I crave, and I’ve had to make practical decisions on what I have time for and don’t have time for.
I’d love to cover more swimming, but no one cares about it except in Olympic years and, sadly, Michael Phelps, who I’ve known since he was 16, is represented by agents who are so incompetent and arrogant it just isn’t worth the time or heartache to try to pin down serious time with him. I hope that doesn’t happen with Katie Ledecky. We’ll see.
For me though, hockey is unique. I cover it on occasion for The Washington Post and—without fail—whatever I write about the Capitals angers their fans. I’m too optimistic; too pessimistic; I know nothing about hockey; how dare I even set foot inside Verizon Center.
Hockey fans are like soccer fans: unless you devote yourself entirely 100 percent of the time to their sport, you aren’t welcome. I started going to hockey games when I was 7, when my dad would take me to New York Rovers games in Madison Square Garden.
Not the Rangers, the Rovers. They were an Eastern Hockey League team that played in the Garden on Sunday AFTERNOONS. That was key for me because no way were my parents letting me go to Ranger games, almost all of which were played on Wednesday and Sunday nights.
Sadly, the Rovers folded after playing one season in the Garden. When I was old enough to ride the subway on my own, my parents occasionally let me go to Sunday night games because they started at the (then) early time of 7 o’clock and I was almost always home before 10. In those days, the Ranger games were on TV on WOR-9 on Saturday nights and on radio only on Sundays. In fact, the games, which were on WHN-1050, weren’t broadcast in their entirety.
Marv Albert would do a pre-game show, then throw back to country music until the last six minutes of the first period. Then it was back to country music until the last six minutes of the second period and—finally—we’d get to listen to the entire third period. You can’t make this up.
When the Islanders came into existence in 1972, I’d just bought my first car for $300—a 1967 Pontiac Catalina. I was already a fan of the Jets and Mets, who had provided me with real thrills with their championships in 1969. Little did I know that the next 47 years—and counting—would produce one more title (1986, Mets) combined. I jumped on the Islanders bandwagon because I could drive from Manhattan against traffic to games in The Nassau Coliseum and get very good seats cheap ($6). The bandwagon was pretty empty: the Islanders were 12-60-6 that first season, which, at the time, was the worst record in hockey history.
I was hooked. Of course Bill Torrey and Al Arbour built a dynasty and, by the time I’d gone to work at The Post right after college, the Islanders were THE team in the NHL. That was when I really got lucky: By then, the Capitals, after breaking the Islanders record for futility in their first season (8-67-5) had become reasonably good and were starting to make the playoffs regularly.
Bob Fachet was the Caps beat writer—a very good one in fact. But he was the ONLY guy on staff, other than me, who liked hockey. The two columnists were Ken Denlinger and Dave Kindred, both very much mentors of mine. They both despised hockey. Denlinger once walked into the newsroom on a November morning and declared, “I have now built an insurmountable 1-0 lead on Kindred in hockey columns this season.”
George Solomon, the sports editor, needed a second hockey writer during the playoffs. This was when we covered sports both local AND nationally and acknowledged that teams outside the D.C. area existed. I put my hand up. I was single, loved hockey and had no problem with the notion of coming back from The Final Four and heading right back out to the hockey playoffs.
And so, for eight straight springs, starting in 1980, I was the No. 2 hockey writer. That meant covering the Islanders regularly—almost like a beat writer. In fact, I remember walking into the locker room one year and hearing Bob Bourne across the locker room saying, “Hey, we must be playing big games, Feinstein’s here.”
I loved that.
What I loved even more was that the Islanders were as good a group to cover as they were to watch in those days. For the record, Billy Smith was a genuinely nice guy off the ice.
Seriously. This was during the stretch when they won four Stanley Cups (1980 to 1983); lost in the finals in 1984 and, even as they started to age managed to torture the Caps with come-from-behind playoff wins in 1985 and 1987—the last gasp coming on a 7th game, fourth overtime goal by Pat LaFontaine at 2:17 (going on memory) in the morning at The Capital Centre.
A year later, I stopped working fulltime at The Post to pursue writing books. Coincidenally, the Islanders plummeted into irrelevance. They managed to make the conference finals in 1993 but until last spring they had not won a single ROUND in the playoffs since that run. They were owned for a while by a guy who posed as a multi-millionaire and got away with it for a while before landing in jail for fraud. The Coliseum fell into disrepair and the new owner couldn’t make a deal with the town of Hempstead or Nassau County for renovations—largely because the owner wanted not just renovations but a huge shopping and hotel complex.
So, the team is now in Brooklyn—which is heartbreaking—but I’m still wearing the sweatshirt. I get the hockey package so I can watch them play every night. The only times I yell at the television set are during football games involving Army and Navy and during Islander games. Last season, according to my wife, hearing me shouting one night, my five-year-old daughter turned to her and said, “Daddy must be watching the Islanders.”
Besides liking the game, I have always found there is a unique bond among hockey fans. Part of that is because there are relatively few of us in the U.S. Hockey’s a niche sport here—just check the TV ratings. My friend Tony Kornheiser likes to say there are 18,000 hockey fans in every city and they all go to every game. For years, I’ve wanted to write a hockey book of some kind. My publisher and agent run screaming from the room whenever I bring it up. If I could just get all 18,000 fans in every city to buy it, I’d be fine.
During my research for the book I’m currently writing on the Ryder Cup, I got to know Chandler Withington, who is the golf pro at Hazeltine National Golf Club. Withington is one of those guys you like instantly and he was very helpful to me throughout the process.
We talked a lot about golf, the club and the matches. But we bonded through hockey. He’s a lifelong Rangers fan; I’m an Islanders fan. When I arrived at Hazeltine on the Sunday before the matches began, I knew I was going to meet Chandler so I could see all 18 holes on the golf course in detail—since the course was empty. I wanted to know the history; which holes had been renovated, which ones were going to create the most drama.
When I parked my car, Chandler came to pick me up in his golf cart. I was wearing my Islanders sweatshirt.
“You gotta be kidding,” he said, pulling up.
“Wore it just for you,” I said—which I had.
The Islanders and Rangers open the season Thursday night in The Garden. There is no doubt one of us will be hearing from the other soon after the game ends.
John Feinstein’s most recent book is, “The DH,”a mystery for Young Adults, 10-and-up. His book, ‘The Legends Club,–Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano,’ and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry,’ has spent five months on the New York Times bestseller list. He still wants to write a hockey book someday.