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Greenberg: Farewell to the Island

by Jay Greenberg / Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers go into their final game at Nassau Coliseum Monday afternoon with a 54-54-15-3 regular season record there, a perfectly symmetrical reflection of the mutual pain they and the Islanders have thrust upon each other, plus the respect earned between rivals over 41 seasons of visits.

Paul Holmgren can’t call it even, though. The Islanders, headed to Brooklyn next season, could change their mind and sign a new lease in Uniondale tomorrow, bring back Garry Howatt the day after that, re-invite Holmgren into Billy Smith’s crease next week – in our memory they never age -- and the Flyers President never will be able to square his books.

He has been either a player, coach, front office assistant, general manager, or team president for 114 of the 126 games the Flyers have played at the Nassau Coliseum, and there have been 11 more meetings in the playoffs. But he says goodbye with one mental image of that hard place, hard by the Meadowbook Parkway, burned in his brain that supercedes all others.

“Game 6 in 1980,” he said. “That’s what I think of a lot.

“I think of it every time I go there.”

And he once liked the place, too, actually still kind of does. Built on a $31 million shoestring, opened in 1972 without amenities like a press box or, really an architecturally-distinctive feature, it wasn’t until the rest of the NHL moved into cavernous 19,000-plus pleasure places that as a building, the Coliseum developed any personality, ironically just as the Islanders lost theirs.

Late in life as an NHL arena, the Nassau Mausoleum developed intimacy, both on nights the Isles, having hit hard times, were playing mostly in front of families and close friends, or still was roaring like the old days when rivals like the Flyers and Rangers visited. Since 1993, the year the Islanders last won a playoff series, the Flyers record there is 30-7-3, including a 16-3-0 run from January 19, 2006 to October 26, 2013.

Completing the cycle, the Islanders are moving out as a contender again.

“When I came to the Flyers (at the end of the 1975-76 season) I thought it was a nice rink,” said Holmgren. “The Islanders were an up and coming team who played us good, hard, hockey games with just the odd fight, not a lot of craziness.

“I thought it was great to play there. We would stay at the Holiday Inn on Old Country Road, and the night before the game walk down the street to Mimmo’s to eat Italian food. In fact, we had a big team meal the night before Game 6.”

Bob Nystrom’s overtime goal off a two-on-one, following a 2-goal Flyer third-period rally -- after linesman Leon Stickle missed an obvious offside on one Islanders goal and Denis Potvin had scored another on an arguable high stick -- was much more painful than just a good walk and a good meal spoiled.

“We got a bad break, what can you do?” recalls Bob Kelly, “The longer you play the greater the chances something like that will happen to you”. But at best, the Flyers have achieved magnanimity for May 24, 1980, not really closure. Ed Snider still seethes and Holmgren still mourns.

“I don’t look at like we got cheated,” he said. “Obviously there were a couple things that happened in the game, but I look at it as we lost the Stanley Cup that day in my only chance in a final.

“Waiting for the handshake line, you have to be polite, but I couldn’t watch for long so I went back into our end and turned away. The locker room? It was the agony of defeat like none I ever experienced.

“Tears? Sure. And I wasn’t the only one. I remember the people outside the building celebrating as our bus pulled away.”

Everything else the Flyers ever did at the Nassau Coliseum, good or bad, pales against that beat-up and valiant team going down so hard.

On January 22, 1983, the Flyers went to Uniondale leading the three-time defending Stanley Cup champions by six points in the Patrick Division standings and beat them 1-0 behind a goal by Darryl Sittler and 31 saves by rookie Bob Froese.

“The best goaltended game I’ve ever seen,” Holmgren told Froese on the bus home. Today, Paul doesn’t remember it at all.

He does recall, without a lot of detail, 1987, when callups Tim Tookey and Don Nachbauer coming up huge in the absence of Dave Poulin and Murray Craven, enabling Games Three and Four victories that gave the Flyers a 3-1 lead in a series they would finish off rousingly in Game Seven at the Spectrum.

Those were hugely satisfying, of course, for Holmgren, then a second-year assistant coach on Mike Keenan’s staff, but ultimately the Flyers didn’t put a ring on Paul’s finger that spring, either. There has never been developed a rug shampoo strong enough to remove the tear stains in that visiting locker room at Nassau Coliseum.

Of course, the Flyers hardly suffered alone. The greatest team accomplishment in NHL history -- perhaps in North American professional sports history -- was the 19 straight playoff series victories of the Islanders of Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Potvin, Clark Gillies, Nystrom and Billy Smith between 1980 and 1984.

“They were tough, but in an honest kind of way, and the crowd, too, was not as intimidating as Chicago or Philly or Madison Square Garden,” recalls Mark Howe. “The intimidating part was their team.

“Sometimes they would overwhelm you, but most of the time they were tactical and efficient and with that great power play, found a way to win.”

The Islanders were a year removed – by the Oilers – from that dynasty when Keenan’s young Flyers, a startling President’s Trophy winner in the season following Clarke’s and Bill Barber’s retirement – went to the Nassau Coliseum for Game 3 of the 1985 Patrick Division championship series.

It was last call for proud ex-champions, who had been dominated in two games at the Spectrum, and they threw 27 second period shots at Pelle Lindbergh trying to erase a 4-1 deficit. But they got only two of the goals back and punched themselves out, managing only four shots in the third period as the Flyers, the erstwhile masters of self-destruction, this time announced themselves as the Eastern Conference’s poised new powerhouse. When Ilkka Sinisalo hit the empty net, the only sound in the building came from the Flyers bench. They finished off the series in five, on another goal by Sinisalo.

“”We should have been behind after 40 minutes, Pelle kept us in,” recalls Howe. “We got a good tongue lashing from Iron Mike and we hunkered down and got back to playing with the confidence instilled in us over the course of the season.

“Mike was a big part of that victory for sure. He pushed the right buttons.”

That Game 3 was the Flyers’ finest hour at the Coliseum, if only because success there had become so rare for them. In 1975, the first of the four playoff series that have been played between the teams – any consolation Paul, that the Flyers’ only loss of the four was in that 1980 final? -- the Flyers took a 3-0 lead over the three-year-old upstarts on Reggie Leach’s third-period rainbow over the charging Chico Resch. It landed like a nine-iron shot on a green for a 1-0 win.

In Game 4, the confident Stanley Cup champions roared back from a 3-0 deficit and were one second too late for a sweep; Bill Barber’s apparent goal was ruled to have crossed the line just after the final regulation buzzer. The Flyers didn’t put that series away until Game 7 at the Spectrum and didn’t win another game on Long Island until 1979, when a 5-2 October win was Game No. 13 of an NHL-record 35 straight unbeaten ones.

For the Flyers, one of the proudest things about that streak was that they won in all the tough places. The Coliseum never had the mystique, nooks and crannies of the The Montreal Forum, Maple Leaf Gardens, Boston Garden or Chicago Stadium, nor the flash and celebrity or maybe even the venom of Madison Square Garden.

But it had one of the greatest dynasties sports has ever known and not an ounce of pretense, the kind of hockey rink that Paul Holmgren can respect, even while it haunts him for the rest of his days.

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