With the Islanders and Bruins knotted at a goal apiece during a second period stoppage in Game 4 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series at Nassau Coliseum Saturday night, Ralph Macchio and Bobby Nystrom — one of the Island’s 1980s pop culture exports and the man who has been known as “Mr. Islander” ever since he scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal on May 24, 1980 to give the Islanders the first of their four straight championships — were pictured on the scoreboard exhorting Islanders fans to get even louder in an already raucous arena.
It was a fun, organic and decidedly Long Island-centric moment, one which could not possibly be topped in these playoffs. At least until one-plus games and two nights later, when Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy opened his mouth and complained about the lack of penalties being called on the Islanders.
“It’s a very well-respected management and coach staff over there,” Cassidy said Monday night after the Islanders scored three power play goals in four opportunities and edged the Bruins, 5-4, in Boston to take a three games to two series lead. “But they sell a narrative over there that they’re the New York Saints rather than the New York Islanders.”
Any coach putting his sour grapes into words is going to draw the attention of his opponent’s fanbase. But Islanders fans — and indeed, Island residents with even a casual knowledge of the area’s past and present pro sports teams — were far more focused on the nostalgic history conjured up by Cassidy’s comments, because the New York Saints were a National Lacrosse League team that shared the Coliseum with the Islanders from 1989 through 2003.
(Other former Islanders co-tenants, in case Cassidy is looking to further wax nostalgic before or after tonight’s scheduled Game 6 at the Coliseum: The New York Arrows of the Major Indoor Soccer League, the New York Sets of World Team Tennis and the New York Dragons of the Arena Football League)
And at the National Lacrosse League offices, Cassidy’s quote presented a golden opportunity to publicize not just the league — which is planning to resume play in December after being sidelined by the pandemic last winter — but also the Saints’ successors as the Coliseum’s lacrosse tenant, the New York Riptide, which was founded in 2019-20 and will be the main pro sports occupant at the Coliseum once the Islanders’ season ends and they begin play at UBS Arena in the fall.
National Lacrosse League deputy commissioner Jessica Berman — a Brooklyn native and longtime Islanders fan — said she and her co-workers watched the “…flurry of emails and texts — hey did you see this?” arrive Monday night and Tuesday and wondered just how long the moment could last.
“Organic, viral moments that are not orchestrated or contrived are really hard to come by,” Berman said this afternoon. “And so we were watching closely and seeing if it was going to build its own momentum. And as viral moments often do, it began to snowball and build and that created an opportunity for us to look at it as a moment in time to reach a new audience and most importantly to invite New York Saints fans back to the NLL.”
With its physicality in a confined space, indoor lacrosse — or box lacrosse — and hockey are a natural pair. Four current NLL teams share an arena with an NHL franchise. In one of the multiple amusing ironies brought to light over the last two days, former Islanders captain John Tavares’ uncle, who is also named John, is the NLL’s all-time leading scorer and the current coach of the Buffalo Bandits.
And if the Islanders win one more game, they’ll advance to the NHL semifinals against the defending champion Lightning, whose coach, Jon Cooper, played Division I lacrosse across the street from the Coliseum at Hofstra University and graduated just as the Saints began play in 1989.
“It’s a big opportunity for us, particularly because we have the highest crossover in our fanbase with hockey,” Berman said. “It’s one of those moments in time that really gives us an opportunity to do some targeted outreach and storytelling and marketing.”
The moment shows no signs of ending anytime soon. Rich Lisk — who is the executive vice president of GF Sports, which operates the Riptide — put his phone on mute earlier today to ask Brett Malamud, the Riptide’s manager of marketing and social media, about the uptick in interest regarding the Riptide.
A few minutes later, Malamud reported back the answer: Activity on the Riptide’s social media platforms is up 285 percent this week.
“In just the last two to three days, we’ve garnered 211,000 hits on Twitter,” Lisk said. “We got over 110 new followers. We’ve had over a 516% increase on the average website views and 510 new people were directed to our website via Google
“So thank you Bruce.”
Cassidy’s Saints comment also fast-tracked Lisk’s plans to embrace the Riptide’s predecessors. Lisk said he hopes to bring back former Saints players as ambassadors in hopes of both educating newer fans about the history of box lacrosse as well as to connect with longtime Saints fans.
The surge in Saints popularity has Islanders fans and others inquiring about purchasing original Saints jerseys. Even before Monday night, Lisk was working with the NLL to secure the rights to produce Saints throwback merchandise in hopes of hosting a turn back the clock type of night.
The response to Cassidy’s quote served as another reminder of the unique fan base the Islanders and Riptide share. While Island residents are fiercely proud of their lone big four pro sports team, they also embrace and are protective of the lower-profile teams that call the area home and give the Island an identity separate from that of the big city located just a few miles west.
“They’re Islanders fans, but hey, wait a second, you said something about a team that used to be here, the Saints,” Lisk said. “I pictured this in my head the other day, this big fan of Long Island wearing all the colors of them and the hats and all the stuff, and putting their arms around everything around Long Island and (saying) ‘Yo, wait a second, this is ours. I don’t care who you are. If you’re the Dragons, Riptide, the Saints, the Islanders — don’t talk bad about any of our people.’”
As for the guy whose catty comment single-handedly renewed the interest in the New York Saints? In the most hilarious irony of the week, Lisk’s first job in sports was with the Trenton Titans of the East Coast Hockey League in 1999.
The Titans’ coach? Bruce Cassidy.
“I’m going to send Bruce a bunch of the merchandise and see if he’ll wear it for me,” Lisk said with a hearty laugh. “I’ll send him a jersey and a hat and a shirt and see if he’ll wear it.”