"We want Fishsticks!"
Ah, the celebrated war of words between Islander fans and their Ranger counterparts. The level of passion exhibited on both sides is nearly unparalleled in the world of sports. True, there are more famous rivalries: Yankees-Red Sox, for instance, gets far more media attention. Ditto Leafs-Canadiens. I'm not qualified to speak about those rivalries and their intensity. But I cannot recall ever experiencing on a first-hand basis anything like the pure vitriol that exists whenever the Blueshirts visit the Coliseum.
The Islander brass LOVES when the Rangers come to town because they know that these games will be automatic sell-outs, occasions which are few and far between in the venerable old building. The crowd is split evenly and the chanting for one team almost never outshines the other. I have screamed myself hoarse numerous times at these games. Whatever happens on the ice cannot match the intensity the fans bring with them.
I witnessed this famous brawl back in the late 90's between the teams from my ice level seats. The Islanders had just scored to make the game 3-0. Mad Mike Milbury, for reasons that are unknown to me to this day, called a time-out to talk to his team. This action prompted a seething reaction from the Rangers, who felt they were being "shown up". The feeling of tension in the building was palpable. Every person sitting in a Coliseum seat knew that Armageddon was close at hand.
John Muckler sent out Darren Langdon (one of the most underrated fighters in the history of the sport), Jeff Beukeboom, Bill Berg, PJ Stock and another large defenseman whose name escapes me at the moment. Milbury, displaying a level of naivete that was shameful in it's enormity, countered with Trevor Linden, Ziggy Palffy, Mariusz Czerkawski, JJ Daignault and Zdeno Chara....with the exception of the big Slovak, they were hardly an intimidating bunch. It should be noted that the Islanders primary enforcer, Gino Odjick, had been ejected earlier in the game when his jersey came off during a fight with Langdon (the controversial Rob Ray rule).
The puck dropped and the Rangers attacked. Berg, a chippy player who was not normally known for dropping the gloves, went after the Islanders captain Linden. Beukeboom took the easy route by grabbing a seriously overmatched Daignault and forcing him to his knees while Langdon quickly separated Chara from the scrum. Stock latched onto to Czerkawski and proceeded to pummel him unmercifully. Tommy Salo, the Islander's goaltender, left his crease and tried to save the pacifist Pole.
Then all hell broke loose.
Dan Cloutier, a goalie of questionable skill in every area except fisticuffs, screamed down the ice and jumped the unsuspecting Salo. It's tough to hurt a goalie during a fight due to the 30+ pounds of padding they are dressed in, but Cloutier gave it his best shot. Punch after unanswered punch rained down on Salo, who did the smartest thing he could and turtled up against the onslaught.
Cloutier, finished with his blitzkrieg triumph, then proceeded to challenge the Islander bench, knowing full well that not one player would be allowed to engage him due to the hefty suspension and fine that would result. The Islander players, handcuffed by the rules, hurled invectives at the smug goalie. It was a cowardly gesture by Dan on the level of the beating that Mick Vukota gave religious Jeff Bloemberg after the Pat LaFontaine incident at the Garden years earlier.
I took complete leave of my senses and screamed through the glass at Cloutier, attempting to answer the call that my team was prevented from responding to by demanding he meet me in the parking lot after the game. Fortunately, he didn't pay any attention to me. The proposed showdown would've likely resulted in jail time for him and a lengthy hospital stay for me. I then boldly looked around for any fan in a Ranger jersey upon whom I could vent my rage (the nearest one was one of my best friends who, year later, would be in my wedding party). Fortunately, through the grace of God, I returned to the world of reality and took my seat.
I look back on this story and laugh at my behavior. Fighting is a completely foreign concept to me except for defending those that I love. Still, I never felt so alive as I did during those matches between my beloved team and their hated enemy. It is what makes sports so essential to us, the fan. For three hours, we're entitled to forget our problems and create a fantasy world where a hockey game between two local teams represents the absolute zenith of importance in the history of Mankind. When else in our pedestrian lives do we ever get to give our emotions such free reign? This outlet is to be cherished.
The Islander-Ranger rivalry will always mean much more to supporters of both teams than it ever will to the players. It is a celebrated tradition that I hope never ceases to exist.