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Why the Fisherman flopped — and now is an Islanders hit

Maybe it all would have turned out differently if the Islanders had won a playoff series. Maybe all it would have taken was just getting to the playoffs. Maybe it was all down to the disastrous record and pair of last-place finishes over the two seasons the Islanders used the infamous Fisherman as their primary logo.

Certainly the losing had at least something to do with the backlash back then.

“One of the truisms in sports is that you should rebrand when you expect that you’re gonna go in a winning direction,” Nick Hirshon, a journalism professor at William Patterson University and author of “We Want Fish Sticks,” a book that chronicles the failed rebranding, said in a phone call with Sports+.

The Islanders rebranded off a 15-28-5 lockout-shortened season in 1994-95. That was already one box they failed to check. The rest would come soon enough.

New York Islanders players during a stoppage in play at a game at the Molson Centre in 1996-97.
The original iteration of the Fisherman sweater, from the 1996-97 season.
NHLI via Getty Images

That is part of the reason why it might be surprising to anyone around between 1995 and 1997 that the Islanders have wholeheartedly embraced the Fisherman as their reverse retro look this season. When the NHL first introduced the retro concept in 2020, the Islanders steadfastly avoided it, instead going with a navy blue sweater that was basically the same as their regular jersey.

This time, they took the plunge, and the buzz was immediate. The sweaters quickly became ubiquitous around the UBS Arena concourse. The Isles are an organization based just outside of one of the league’s biggest media markets, but one that struggles to get attention. This got attention.

Players hailed it. So did the marketing team.

“I like the throwback stuff,” Zach Parise said in October. “I like the different looks, the different colors. Not the change, but just for a different look. It’s always neat for the fans.”

Why, though, has there been such a change in attitude about this logo, once associated with the dark days of the franchise?

The cover of the book "We Want Fish Sticks"
Nick Hirshon’s book chronicles the disastrous rollout of the Islanders’ Fisherman logo.
We Want Fish Sticks cover

“When the Islanders first unveiled the Fisherman logo in 1995, there were lots of mistakes made,” Hirshon said. “There wasn’t a lot of research done, there were no focus groups or interviews with fans to determine whether they wanted to part from the original logo. They didn’t have a really good ambassador for the rebrand. In most of the ads at the time, they had either [general manager] Mike Milbury or [owner] John Spano, who turned out to be a con artist and had to give up the team. And they really didn’t focus as much on the team, like Ziggy Palffy, who was incredibly popular and still is with the fan base.

“I think one of the reasons is with the passage of time, a lot of the younger fans who don’t remember the Fisherman logo from its first run in 1995-1997, they just view this as a cool retro design and they don’t associate it with the losing of the 1990s or any of the other negative media attention that it received: ‘We Want Fish Sticks’ chants and all that.”

Hirshon points to how the Kings rebranded after trading for Wayne Gretzky in 1988 as what a successful effort looked like. Gretzky arrived at his introductory press conference wearing silver and black, new colors for a franchise that previously had draped itself in the same purple and gold as their co-tenants at the Los Angeles Forum.

With Gretzky, the Kings — who had made the playoffs in the two previous seasons before acquiring No. 99 — became perennial contenders, making it as far as the Stanley Cup Final in 1993. Silver and black are still the primary colors of their logo set.

“People are more receptive to something like that because the team is doing good, so ‘I guess I’ll go out and buy the new jersey and I’ll associate it with all these positive memories,’” Hirshon said. “I think it’s that, I think it’s also remembering that changing a jersey or a logo is just one step in a more comprehensive rebranding.”

New York Islanders' Josh Bailey and Mathew Barzal celebrate with teammates after Bailey scored a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022.
The Islanders are wearing the Fisherman jersey as a reverse retro look for six games this season.

The Islanders, at the time, also introduced Nyisles as their new mascot and included elements in their game presentation meant to emphasize the Fisherman brand — a foghorn as the goal horn and fog-like smoke emanating from the Nassau Coliseum scoreboard. With the team struggling, though, and Spano soon being chased out of ownership due to fraud, that all became part of the running joke that was the franchise.

A wholesale rebranding effort would not be greeted happily now. But as a nod to the past and a jersey that they’re wearing six times this season — the final two occasions are coming Saturday against the Hurricanes and Jan. 28 against Las Vegas — the Fisherman comes off as cool.

“[Fans] just see it as, “Hey, this is something that’s cool and old, it kind of fits in with the nostalgic kind of direction that a lot of sports teams have been going in the last few years,’ especially with 1990s designs,” Hirshon said. “For a lot of people like myself, they grew up in the ’90s and now we’re getting nostalgic: ‘Yeah, remember that?’ It’s now old enough that we kind of pine for it again.”

How has Pelech’s injury impacted matchups?

New York Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock (6) and New York Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech (3) chat during a game between the New York Islanders and the Chicago Blackhawks on November 1, 2022.
The Islanders’ dependable top defense pair of Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech (right) has been broken up due to Pelech’s injury.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Adam Pelech continues to skate with the team in his recovery from a head injury, but it has been a little over six weeks since the star defenseman went down against the Blues following a hit into the boards by Robert Bortuzzo.

Though the focus lately has been on the Isles’ offensive struggles, losing Pelech on the back end has caused major issues. The 2022 All-Star forms a steadfast pair with Ryan Pulock that eats up the largest bulk of minutes against opposing top lines when both are healthy. Without Pelech, Pulock has skated with whomever Pelech’s replacement has been on a given night — lately Parker Wotherspoon, though Dennis Cholowski drew in for Wotherspoon against the Bruins on Wednesday. That has been Lane Lambert’s way of protecting Wotherspoon, Cholowski or Robin Salo, all of whom have gotten a chance at that spot. But it means the Isles have needed to go with another pair — which has almost always been Scott Mayfield’s — against opposing top lines.

Steven Kaye/New York Post

A couple things to take note of here. First, the graphic dates back to Dec. 23, Wotherspoon’s debut. Second, we looked at which pair played the most, but that doesn’t mean one pair played exclusively against one line. Third, remember that on the road, the Islanders don’t have last change — and therefore don’t have as much control of matchups.

The last two caveats apply in particular to the Calgary game, the only one we looked at in which Mayfield wasn’t involved as the primary matchup against a top line. Aho and Mayfield played roughly five minutes against Nazem Kadri’s line that night and were on the ice for two goals against — Pulock and Wotherspoon just happened to be on for slightly longer, with the former being on for a goal against as well.

Still, there are some takeaways here, the biggest being that Lambert still is sheltering Noah Dobson. Against Washington on Monday night, for example, Dobson played just 3:22 total while Alex Ovechkin — Dylan Strome’s left wing — was on the ice. Mayfield and Romanov were on the ice for 11:54 and 10:04, respectively.

When Lambert and GM Lou Lamoriello talk about Dobson taking the next steps defensively, they mean being able to trust him in spots like this. Right now, he isn’t quite there yet. Neither is Aho, who was demoted off Mayfield’s left side following a series of poor performances out west.

Washington Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov (9) plays the puck forward against New York Islanders defenseman Noah Dobson (8) during the second period at UBS Arena on January 16, 2023.
The Islanders haven’t trusted Noah Dobson with a promotion to date.

So lately, the Isles have been left with Mayfield and Romanov as their de facto top pair, and the results have been mixed. Minnesota’s top line of Kirill Kaprizov, Sam Steel and Mats Zuccarello had a strong night against them, as did the Capitals’ Ovechkin-Strome line. Mayfield and Romanov did hold their own against a heavy Stars top line of Jason Robertson, Tyler Seguin and Joe Pavelski — Robertson scored, but during a rare shift against Wotherspoon and Pulock — as well as against Montreal’s top line, centered by Nick Suzuki.

That alignment has the added disadvantages of splitting up Romanov and Dobson, a well-balanced pair that the Islanders want to make work, and limiting Dobson’s five-on-five ice time, which was down 1:16 per game from last season going into Wednesday.

Still, it might be the best solution they have right now. Which only makes it all the more imperative to get Pelech back and correct the order of things.

Five hits from Bruins 4, Islanders 1

1. William Dufour struggled in his debut, turning the puck over two separate times that led to goals. But the Islanders put their 20-year-old prospect in a position to fail. Asking him to make his NHL debut on the top line against the Bruins and then nailing him to the bench after he struggled is a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that stinks of desperation.

2. Ditto for the recent deployment of Semyon Varlamov, who allowed four goals on 1.86 expected goals-against on Wednesday, per Natural Stat Trick. The NHL is a results league, and that is on Varlamov, just as Dufour’s performance is on him. But not giving Varlamov a single game on the homestand until the last and then expecting him to beat the best team in the league — in only the second game he’s played in a month — does wrong by the player.

Semyon Varlamov #40 of the New York Islanders defends the net against David Krejci #46 of the Boston Bruins during the second period at UBS Arena on January 18, 2023 in Elmont, New York.
Trying to stop the NHL’s best team in only his second game in the last month was not a winning formula for Semyon Varlamov.
Getty Images

3. When every single penny of cap space matters, keeping Simon Holmstrom on the roster to be a healthy scratch instead of sending him to AHL Bridgeport — even if only for the day — was another head-scratcher.

4. Prior to any roster moves made Thursday, the Islanders had $3.36 million in cap space and were on pace to have $6.88 million by the March 3 trade deadline. Can they afford to wait that long to make a move? It is becoming hard to see how.

5. For all the well-deserved hand-wringing over the power play, the Islanders had just five high-danger chances at five-on-five on Wednesday, per Natural Stat Trick. It was the fourth time in their last seven games they’ve been held to five or fewer high-danger chances, and during the five-game homestand, they scored a total of eight goals.

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