NEW YORK — Years before the Islanders existed, and decades before Charlie McAvoy was born, the seaside town Long Beach, N.Y., was a Blueshirt stronghold.
Scores of Rangers players in 1960s and ’70s, including Jean Ratelle and Brad Park, lived and raised their families along the southern edge of Long Island. It was near enough for a reasonable commute to Madison Square Garden, close to what then was the club’s Skateland practice facility in New Hyde Park, and distant enough for husbands, wives, and kids not to be minced up by the hustle and bustle of the big city.
McAvoy’s father grew up adjacent to Long Beach and was always a Rangers fan, so Charlie really had little choice in declaring allegiance. It was all but genetic. He was a Blueshirt through and througher. One of his first pairs of hockey gloves, a cut above toddler size, were striped in Ranger red, white, and blue.
“Yeah,” McAvoy said, breaking into a broad smile, “I kind of grew up into it.”
Now an emerging star on the Bruins blue line, McAvoy, 21, had some two dozen Long Beach locals, family and friends included, in the Nassau Coliseum stands Tuesday night when the Bruins put a 5-0 smacking on the Islanders. A good number of them figure to make the trip across the Hudson River on Thursday night when McAvoy and his Black-and-Gold brethren face the Devils at the Prudential Center in Newark.
The visit to Uniondale, where the Islanders opened for business in 1972, had McAvoy contemplating his express track to the NHL. In only his second regular season, he sounded almost in disbelief when he considered that, as a kid, he was a frequent visitor to Nassau Coliseum. Tickets were cheaper than they were for Ranger games at MSG, and he could walk right up to the visiting team bus in the vast oasis of a parking lot and ask NHL players for their autographs.
“It’s just crazy,” said McAvoy. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot here, just reflecting a little bit. It’s kind of one of those things where I go back to my town and there are so many kids that play hockey — so many people love the game, it really is a good hockey town — but why me?
“Why am I more fortunate than other people to make it and to be able to live this dream? I am truly blessed and just so thankful for the opportunity.”
He is living the dream, and he is well aware of it. Had he remained in school, McAvoy today would be on the Boston University campus, living in a high-rise along the Charles and readying to play in the Hockey East semifinals on Friday afternoon.
Instead, he skates with a Spoked-B on his chest, partners regularly with Boston captain/legend Zdeno Chara, and routinely logs the most playing minutes of anyone in the lineup. He is dead center on target to become the club’s next franchise backliner.
So, why him?
“I don’t know,” he said, chuckling slightly and shaking his head. “I just worked really hard. I have great guidance. My parents, my family, just great people in my life who taught me how to behave in a certain manner.
“If I really wanted something, I had to work really hard for it. You know, blue collar, and nothing’s ever going to be handed to me. So maybe that allowed me to work harder than other individuals.”
Upon arriving on Long Island on Monday night, McAvoy darted home to Long Beach, visited family, and made his way to his favorite Italian spot, Gino’s, for a plate of chicken parmesan. Had the stay been longer, he would have been sure to hit the Laurel Diner, a favorite haunt in town, for breakfast or lunch.
The Long Beach house he grew up in was but a 20-minute car ride to Nassau Coliseum. Trips to MSG were longer, and usually by train.
“Forty-five minutes,” he recalled, “and it spits you right out at Penn Station. That was more of a trip to see the Rangers. It was always cheaper at [Nassau Coliseum] and less time. As a kid, I just loved hockey, so I would go watch anything.”
Street hockey games in Long Beach, McAvoy recalled, had pals wearing sweaters for both the Rangers and Islanders. But mostly Ranger blue prevailed.
“For the most part,” he said, “most of my best friends were Rangers fans. So we had the allegiance together. But there were kids I grew up with who were Islander fans, too. It was kind of just like a weird split.
“But it was no skin off us, because the Islanders were always losing for the most part, so I was like the fan of the team that won — at least won more than the Islanders did.”
The entire Metro New York area has hit lean times. The Rangers went 54 years without a Stanley Cup before winning in ’94, and are now a quarter-century beyond that title. The Islanders dynasty quickly crumbled after they won their last of four consecutive Cups in 1983. The Devils haven’t been to the winner’s circle since 2003. All in all, an aggregate of nearly 76 years of frustration for three NHL franchises.
Meanwhile, the Bruins are on the cusp of another 100-point season and very well could lock down a playoff spot before wrapping up a four-game trip Monday night in Tampa. The Rangers fan in the No. 73 Boston sweater is a big part of their success.
Coming from here, a place so big, where buildings pierce the sky and reach for the moon and stars, McAvoy really isn’t sure why it all fell right him.
“I don’t know,” he mused, “but at the end of the day, I just thank God I made it.”