A survival guide to your team's nuclear winter
Hello, I just wanted to thank you for saving me a lot of money. My brother and I, lifelong fans and son of a former season-ticket holder, had made a decision to finally purchase a full season of Islander tickets, so we could bring our children to hockey games like our father did with us. However, with your latest wacky development, the departure of Coach Nolan, I appreciate in these tough economic times that you are saving us so much money. Good luck with your horrific, continued downward spiral and the "Lighthouse" pipe dream.
That wrenching epistle to the New York Islanders sums up the feelings of fans who clawed their eyes in disbelief last week when coach Ted Nolan was abruptly let go. Nolan had qualified as a miracle worker for getting a ho-hum team into the playoffs in 2006-07 and nearly making it again last season despite a cart full of injuries. He was widely viewed as being one of the few good things the woebegone franchise had going for it, but alas, he fell prey to the dreaded "philosophical differences" with management. Mr. Wulff's anguish is more understandable when you consider how the Isles have been putting their fans through the emotional wringer for 20 years, as this companion gallery shows.
It's a given in all sports that teams hit dry spells, but fans can find solace and hope in the fact that the age of parity offers quick-fixes for all. The Philadelphia Flyers went from the NHL's worst record in 2006-07 to Eastern Conference finalist last season. Over in the NBA, the Boston Celtics won the championship one year after finishing 24-58. The New Jersey Devils, Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Lakers have climbed out of the ditch in fairly short order after suffering a losing campaign or two. Proud franchises such as the Detroit Red Wings (1967-86) and New York Yankees (1982-95) as well as the Celtics (1993-2001) have hit the skids for longer before returning to their former glory. But championships are the ultimate dream. All a fan really wants each season is an honest shot at being good enough to contend and maybe win it all.
A fan's worst nightmare is when his or her team descends into nuclear winter: a decade or more of mediocrity or outright losing. The misfortune is almost cosmic and often compounded by bad luck. It becomes a vortex of bad management (accompanied by embarrassing front office feuds and soap operas), poor drafts and signings, untimely injuries and bad breaks. As things get worse, top free agents and prospects begin to shun the team as if its uniform transmits the pox, rent-a-players flee town on the first thing going, and that rare star or promising youngster inevitably leaves on his own or is sent packing to save dough. The most mystifying thing of all is how the misery can continue while owners, GMs and players come and go. No wonder so many sports fans believe in curses.
Fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Royals, L.A. Clippers, Arizona Cardinals and Baltimore Orioles know of suffering. The Pirates haven't had a winning record since 1992. The Bengals have had one since '90; the Royals one since '93; the Clippers one since '92; the Cards one since '84, the Orioles two since ''94. Chicago Blackhawks fans, heartened by their team's 40-34-8 record last season and core of excellent young talent, are surely hoping their long national nightmare (one playoff appearance since '98) is almost over.
Oh, those glimmers of hope -- that new deep-pocketed owner, the smart front office hire, the shrewd trades, drafts or signings that produce a marked improvement and perhaps a surprise playoff appearance -- they can be so damned cruel because they raise expectations that are dashed when the blunders and losing continue and the hopelessness returns. Islanders fans surely thought deliverance was at hand when Nolan and GM Neil Smith were hired in the summer of 2006, but Smith resigned a month later due to philsophical differences and the team ended up with its backup goaltender running the show. You can't make this stuff up.
So what to do when you're trapped in sports purgatory? Let's weigh the pros and cons. (By the way, I know there are plenty more teams where the aforementioned examples came from. If you want to vent on the misery mill you've been through, drop me a line via the mailbag and I'll run it in a future installment.)
Stay home. As Mr. Wulff noted, he's in no mood to fork over a couple grand to watch 41 games of Doug Weight and Bill Guerin trying to recreate their magic of a decade ago while young Sean Bergenheim attempts to make up for the loss of Ruslan Fedotenko. Hitting a team in the vault is the biggest gun in your arsenal, but it can crimp its ability to sign and keep players, and if enough fans stay away for long enough, you risk losing the team to another city. (Isles owner Charles Wang has hinted that could happen, especially if the new Coliseum at the Lighthouse project is not approved by Nassau County.) These owner types got you by the short-and-curlies, don't they?
Protest. Detroit Lions fans staged the Millen Man March in 2005 to protest GM Matt Millen's reign of error and the team's streak of five straight losing seasons -- that has now reached seven, with its last playoff win coming in '91. New York Knicks fans have been making their displeasure known about the circus that has taken up residence at Madison Square Garden, but real improvement still appears to be a ways off. When the New York Giants were locked in 16 years of losing in the '60s and '70s, their fans burned tickets in the parking lot. (If things ever go sour again, can you see them doing that at $500 a pop on top of a $12,500 seat license fee? Didn't think so.) Protests may be costly to you and they rarely inspire truly remedial action unless they somehow give management a clue, but they can be cathartic and keep you from becoming a neighborhood threat.
Adopt a new team. Easier said than done. Your best chance of fully doing so for good is when you're (very) young, as kids tend to be natural bandwagon jumpers.
Have a sense of humor. Lord knows it ain't easy to wear your suffering and paper bag as a badge of honor, but Chicago Cubs fans have long embraced the romance of their team's futility, although poor Steve Bartman sure paid a price. Buffalo Sabres fans display an admirable passion in the face of almost certain doom. New York Giants fans probably find it easier now to chortle about The Fumble or Trey Junkin's botched snap, and Islanders fans may yet find Alexei Yashin's old 10-year contract amusing, but at least try to dust off your gallows humor and embrace your team's screw-ups and worst players. Laughter beats tears any day, and cling to the belief that when you're old and wizzened, you'll enjoy telling your grandkids through rattling dentures that you stuck it out until the Maple Leafs finally won Lord Stanley's old bowl for the first time since 1967.
Keep the faith. Just know that something will break right some day, some way, and endure for more than a season or two. It may take a century, but hey, the Red Sox and White Sox have won three of the last four World Series, so anything is possible. Ultimately it all rests with team ownership that is rich enough and smart enough to hire the best and get the hell out of its way. As you can see by all the struggling franchises out there, good enlightened owners and smart front office people are precious commodities indeed.