Invitations were distributed a few months ago for the latest pre-game gathering of Islanders alumni, but this time would be different.
Second-year Islanders majority co-owner Jon Ledecky didn't just send invitation letters to the usual dozen or so former stars. That's the way it had been done for decades by previous management. The inspiration now was, if you even donned an Islanders sweater for just one game, you deserved to be there.
Literally, if you were even just once an Islander, you are always an Islander.
(Okay, except for maybe Kirk Muller).
So there they were on Saturday - not just Trots and Clarkie and 18 and Bobby Ny, but also Jude Drouin, Bryan Berard, Stevie Thomas, Scatch, Mark Parrish. For guys with brief stints in Uniondale like Mike MacWilliam (6 games) and Ray Giroux (16), you can imagine how wonderful it made them feel.
And Aris Brimanis? That exceptionally good man played 74 games for the Gritty-Gutties between 1999 and 2001. Aris doesn't just deserve a comped weekend in New York; he deserves a medal.
Ledecky, Scott Malkin and everyone in the Islanders organization really got this right. The current team beat San Jose on Saturday and looked pretty darn good doing it. But what they did by welcoming of all their former players home looked so good on the franchise.
"Since he and Scott Malkin took over, Jon Ledecky has been incredible in building a strong relationship with the alumni," said Nystrom, Mr. Islander. "Ownership has created a genuine connection with us. To invite everyone who has ever been an Islander meant the world. It was first-class and we had the greatest time."
Each and every one of the hundreds of former players was told that if they could get to New York, the Islanders would take care of the rest. The Islanders wanted to focus on this being a special weekend for all alumni. The former players' families were included, an especially gracious touch. Keep in mind, many of these players' children were too young to see them in the NHL, to see them wear the Orange and Blue.
There would be complimentary hotel accommodations, a reception on Friday night on the hotel rooftop, brunch in Battery Park and a pre-game, on-ice recognition on Saturday, suite tickets for the game against the Sharks. As an added bonus, John Tavares and Anders Lee performed like Trots and Jethro, and Josh Bailey scored a goal that led to a lot of spilled beers in the alumni suites.
After the game on Saturday, the alumni gathered at the hotel bar, and an Islanders staff member handed over a credit card. It's possible the final tab was larger than the marketing budget for any Islanders season in the late '90s. Actually, maybe even bigger than the player payroll after Ziggy's salary was dumped.
Sure, not everyone could make it to New York last weekend. Many live far away, have families to look after, jobs to do. Many coach their kids' youth hockey teams. It seems almost every former NYI goalie is an NHL broadcaster (Weekes, Hrudey, Heals, Noodles), while around half the beloved '92-93 team works in the league. Several sent their regrets, but were touched by the invitation and thought of being remembered.
And then there was Petr Mika, the right wing from Prague who played three games with the Islanders during the 1999-2000 season and has been back home in the Czech Republic for more than 15 years. Mika saw the generosity in the Islanders' invitation and, looking at his wife and child, quickly decided he wasn't going to miss the opportunity to be an Islander again.
"I loved talking to the guys who played before me, with me and after me," said Mick Vukota, who stood up for his Islanders teammates for more than 500 games between 1987 and 1997. "Stories were told and we had a lot of laughs. But one of the things I'll remember most about last weekend was Petr Mika. He was so proud, introducing his family to his life as an Islander. You could not wipe the smile off Petr's face."
That's what the weekend was all about - a weekend that will have a positive effect on the Islanders franchise for many years to come.
Glad to see Nikolai Kulemin doesn't always get a free pass into the lineup. See, Doug scratches veterans, too!
As many fans noticed, John Tonelli was not at the event on Saturday, and has declined other appearance requests from the Islanders over the last decade or so. Will share what I can in a future column. There is no major controversy and JT is as rock-solid as ever.
Defenseman Ryan Pulock's deficiencies in the D part of the job description are a real problem. Although Luke Richardson knows his stuff, perhaps a regular diet of private instruction from Ken Morrow could help.
You see the outstanding alumni event the Islanders presented on the weekend, see what the team is capable of with their best players leading the way, see a fanbase that embraces a team with a passion that's hard to describe to anyone who doesn't live it. You can't help but think…man, Elmont. A true Islanders arena. A frickin' train station next to it. Make it happen.