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The Islanders-Rangers Rivalry

The story behind the area's only true sports blood feud


The rivalry has had a memorable history since that early spring night back in ’72—moments that haven’t always been confined to the playing surface.

There was the now-infamous “Double-Chili” night at the Coliseum back in 1979 when a Wendy’s promotion promising free bowls of chili to fans if the Islanders scored five goals against the Rangers turned into a late-game announcement of double-chili if the Isles hit for 10. They hit that mark and the Islander organization regretted it a few weeks later when fans at the Garden littered the ice with bowls of chili during a Rangers win. Rumor has it that then-Islanders coach Al Arbour and GM Bill Torrey were furious over the promotion and heads rolled in the marketing department shortly thereafter.


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The Garden faithful were apparently so proud of themselves with the chili toss, they upped the ante later in the year and flung about a dozen fish heads at reviled Islander goaltender Billy Smith during the National Anthem. When the lights came on after the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Smith was actually sitting inside the goal for fear of what might come hurtling out of the stands next.

1940!

In 1940, the Rangers beat the Toronto Maple Leafs four games to two to win the Stanley Cup. It would be the last time any Ranger would sip champagne from the greatest trophy in pro sports for 54 years. For an “original six” team in the NHL, it must have been tough to see the upstart Isles, a part of the NHL expansion in the early ’70s, win their first cup in 1980.  So when the teams met up the following season and the Islanders were steamrolling to their second consecutive championship, a chant was born.

Not an uncommon sight at an Islanders-Rangers game—Islander Chris Luongo and Ranger Adam Graves drop gloves and go at it on Sunday, April 16, 1995, at the Nassau Coliseum (AP Photo/Kevin Larkin).

Not an uncommon sight at an Islanders-Rangers game—Islander Chris Luongo and Ranger Adam Graves drop gloves and go at it on Sunday, April 16, 1995, at the Nassau Coliseum (AP Photo/Kevin Larkin).

At any Islanders-Rangers game for the next 15 years—and even when they weren’t playing each other—Isles fans began to remind the Blueshirts how long it had been with rhythmic, unrelenting calls of “1940!”

All things come to an end, though. In 1994 the Rangers swept the Islanders in the playoffs on the way to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years.

“As Game Four ended at the Coliseum, the Rangers had a comfortable lead and the Islanders fans began to leave. Who would blame them?” says Botta. “And in the final minutes the Rangers fans began to head down to the glass. They took over the building.”

And who can forget Denis Potvin’s infamous hit on Rangers star Ulf Nilsson during a February 1979 game at the Garden that broke the Swedish center’s ankle. More than 30 years later the “Potvin Sucks!” chant, heard regularly at the Garden, now almost seems trapped in the arena’s musty air. Keep in mind Potvin retired more than 20 years ago.

If Parise’s goal put this rivalry on the map, then the Potvin hit on Nilsson provided the tipping point.

Later that year the two teams met in the semifinals and the heavily favored Isles seemed poised for a shot at their first Stanley Cup. The Rangers had other plans.

“The 1979 semifinal upset by the Rangers is a very vivid memory of mine,” recalled Pat Calabria, a former reporter for Newsday who covered the team during that time. “The Islanders played so tight and actually never led in what became a 4-2 Rangers series win. I remember this image of Denis Potvin slumped against the side boards after [the Isles] were knocked out, and I recall asking him the following year, after they did win the first of what would become four straight Cups, what he was thinking at that exact moment in the Garden. He responded by telling me, ‘Then, I was thinking of now.’” Calabria, now VP of institutional advancement at Farmingdale State College, adds, “I have very fond memories of the games between the two teams in those days. It has truly been a remarkable rivalry.”

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