Gilles Villemure may have fired the first shot in the now 37-year-old Islanders-Rangers rivalry way back in 1972. The former Rangers goaltender had just beaten the Islanders 6-0 in the second half of a home-and-home and, seeing as the Rangers had won the first game by that same score, he had a few choice words.
“Just like a tennis match, six-love, six-love,” said Villemure. “How many times do we play these guys?”
And thus, the NHL’s version of the Hatfields and McCoys was born, ushering in by far the hottest hometown rivalry this area has had since the Giants and Dodgers bolted for the left coast more than 50 years ago.
No need to go over the other matchups—they simply don’t compare. If you haven’t attended a Rangers-Islanders game at either Nassau Coliseum or Madison Square Garden, and you call yourself a New York sports fan, shame on you. You’ve missed out on some of the most intense, entertaining and downright nasty encounters you’ll likely ever witness. And that’s only referring to what goes on in the stands.
The passion exhibited by fans on both sides of this rivalry is simply unparalleled in the world of sports. For Long Islanders, these annual clashes have been as nasty as Buttafuoco/Fisher, as intense as Baldwin/Basinger, and even more entertaining than the Lohans. Former players remember the rivialry with awe and sometimes exhaustion.
“When I got to the Islanders, I was only 19,” says NHL Hall of Famer and Islanders legend Bryan Trottier, who currently serves as executive director of player development for the Islanders. “It was a year after J.P. Parise’s goal, and I got caught up right away in the rivalry. The fans—or the teams—just never wanted to lose to the cross-town, upstart rivals. You feel it in the air. You feel rivalry.”
And perhaps the best part of this metro-area mayhem is this: As of the 2008 season, after more than 36 years of battles, the two teams had a regular-season record against one another of, get this, 100-100-19. Incredible to imagine that after more than 200 games, the bragging rights that they battle so intensely for actually belong to…no one.
How about the playoffs you ask? Just about as indistinguishable here, as the Isles hold a slim 20-19 advantage, having won five of the eight series the two teams have played.
The two teams have three games scheduled in an 11-day stretch later this month (Dec. 16, Dec. 17 and Dec. 26) so if you really want to get into the spirit of the holiday season in a vulgarity-filled, New York kind of way, buy a ticket.
This year, it may take on a little more significance as team owner Charles Wang has threatened to move the Islanders to another city if his Lighthouse Project is not approved.
So what exactly is it about the sight of these two teams sliding around a 200-foot-by-85-foot sheet of ice that makes otherwise docile people turn into absolutely unhinged lunatics?
“It’s a classic case of little-brother syndrome,” says 43-year-old George Lee, of Massapequa. “We [Islander fans] kind of followed [the Rangers] around at first and got kicked in the ass a lot, kind of put in our place. Then we grew up and started kicking back, till we started kicking their ass.”
And unlike other New York rivalries, the Islanders-Rangers games actually mean something big in the standings. They play in the same division, unlike the Yanks and Mets, or Jets and Giants, who are not even in the same conference. Sure, the Knicks and Nets are in the same NBA division, but with both teams rarely close to one another in the standings, the games often mean very little.
“Regardless of what the non-hockey media—and even the hockey media—will say, no matter what the standings, no matter whose future is brighter, these games never fail to make hearts race,” says Chris Botta, who worked for the Islanders in many capacities from 1988 to 2007. He is currently the managing editor of the popular hockey blog www.islanderspointblank.com. “The rivalry has men, women, students looking at their clocks, waiting for 7 o’clock and the game to start. There is nothing else in New York sports that rivals these games.”
In attempting to recap the insanely colorful history of these emotionally charged match-ups, fans on both sides of the feud seem to have almost no trouble instantly recalling their favorite moments.
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Billy Horan, 51, of Flushing, Queens, recalls the day the Islanders truly put this rivalry on both the NHL and New York sports maps.
“That opening round playoff series, Game Three at the Garden back in 1975,” says Horan with instant clarity. “The Rangers were supposed to roll over the Isles and here was the decisive third game heading into overtime. I actually walked around the block in between the third period and overtime and rubbed a rabbit’s foot on a lamppost. Just as I sat back down, 11 seconds in, the Isles dumped it in off the draw, Jude Drouin threw it out in front and J.P. Parise tipped it in and the Islanders had beaten the Rangers. The nobodies from Long Island just beat the vaunted Rangers. Unreal. This rivalry was born that night.”