Hockey is a sport rich with tradition. And as historic games from decades past are recounted, it’s often the old and even retired arenas hosting those contests that are reflected on with an equal level of nostalgia.
That’s why when a hockey venue, like Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, hosts its final season there are a plethora of touching memories and stories that come to the forefront.
Playing against the New York Islanders at Nassau before the team moves to Brooklyn for the start of the 2015-16 campaign is a regular season game full of significance for Nashville Predators players and Long Island natives, forward Eric Nystrom and defenseman Anthony Bitetto. For Nystrom, facing the Islanders on Thursday stands as the closing of a chapter that spans two generations, while for Bitetto, the game is a new beginning.
Nystrom grew up on the Island while his father, Bob, won four Stanley Cups with the Islanders as a player in the 1980s.
“There are a couple pictures of me, I could barely even walk, and I was out there on the ice with my sister,” Nystrom said of his first skate at Nassau. “I remember coming with my Dad early in the morning and just me and him would have the ice.”
Nystrom has played in front of his father and family as a visitor on several occasions before, and shown the ability to produce dramatic moments. Losing the chance to play in a venue where his father is held in such high regard won’t be easy, according to the winger.
“It’s a little sad to know what the future holds,” said Nystrom. “I scored in my first game here, that was pretty special. That’s kind of a storybook. I think my first game on the Island, I had an entire section of family here. To score a goal was quite the thrill. Whenever I play here it brings back good memories and a lot of good feelings. I’m happy to be back.”
The impact of four-consecutive championships for the Islanders has expounded outside of the Nystrom family too. Nystrom said there’s reason to believe that the play of his father and the Islanders in the 1980s has led to players like his teammate Bitetto playing in the NHL.
“I think part of it is those teams that won the Cups, the kids that are making the NHL, it’s their parents that lived through that era,” Nystrom said. “That kind of put Long Island on the map as a hockey city. There’s been some great coaches in the youth hockey programs here. It’s amazing to see, we have another Long Island kid on our team, who’s up. It’s great to see Long Island kids making it to the NHL.”
Thursday, Bitetto will be experiencing what Nystrom did years ago: The opportunity to play in front of family and friends at a venue filled with emotions and memories significant to him since childhood.
“I lived 15-20 minutes away from here, so getting to play an Islanders team you watched growing up, it’s going to be a special game,” Bitetto said. “It’ll be special having my family here and there will be a ton of fans. It’s going to be a moment that you dreamt of as a little kid - coming back and playing here. This could be the Preds’ last game in this building, you never know. It’s going to be one that I remember for my [whole] life.”
In years past, Bitetto not only attend games at Nassau as a rival New York Rangers fan, but skated during intermission programs as a youth hockey player.
“I was actually walking over from the Marriott with [Seth] Jones and I said: ‘it hasn’t changed. I remember all this from when I was coming and watching them.’ It’s a special feeling and coming down the same escalator I did however many years ago, it’s going to be pretty special tonight.”
The Islanders and Predators have met on the Island less than 10 times over the Preds 17 years as a franchise, resulting in a long list of meaningful angles when they do. Thursday’s contest will be no different.
The Predators and Islanders first meeting of the 2014-15 season will be a pretty emotional night for both Bitetto and Nystrom, let alone the fact that it’ll feature two division leaders squaring off and Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette’s return (the bench boss spent two seasons as the Islanders head coach from 2001 to 2003).
“It’s exciting that we’re a first place team and they’re a first place team,” Nystrom said. “To be a part of that is great for both organizations...It’s going to be a huge game for both teams.”