PHT Time Machine: Remembering the Nassau Coliseum Santa brawl

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Throughout the season we will be taking an occasional look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back at the Nassau Coliseum Santa brawl.

It may not have been as infamous or disastrous as the Cleveland Indians 10-cent beer night or the Chicago White Sox Disco Demolition Night, but the New York Islanders’ Santa Brawl of 2003 is definitely one of the all-time great sports promotions gone awry.

If you tuned into Wednesday’s NBCSN broadcast of the Pittsburgh Penguins-Washington Capitals game you may have seen it briefly recalled by Mike Milbury, the general manager of the Islanders at the time.

We are going to dig in once again here.

The scene: The Nassau Coliseum for the Dec. 23, 2003, NHL game between the visiting Philadelphia Flyers and host Islanders.

The promotion: The Islanders offered anyone that showed up to the game dressed as Santa free admission, as well as the opportunity to parade across the ice during the first intermission. Even though the Islanders had made the playoffs in consecutive seasons (following a seven-year playoff drought) it was still an organization that hadn’t won a playoff series since 1993, was struggling on the ice that year (14-16-2 record on the season), and experiencing a significant dip in attendance (down 14 percent from the previous season).

In short, they needed butts in the seats and this probably seemed like a fun holiday promotion to get a few extra people in the building.

The Islanders expected only about 250 Santas. More than 500 showed up, though some estimates had the number as high as 1,000 Santas.

As tends to happen when a bunch of people show up to the same event dressed as Santa, things quickly devolved into chaos (ever experienced Santa-con? No? Good. Keep it that way).

During the first intermission all of the fans dressed as Santa took to the ice and began their parade. That was when everything hit the fan. A number of Santas removed their jackets to reveal New York Rangers jerseys, the primary rival of the Islanders, resulting in a small, but not terribly violent, brawl on the ice.

The New York Times had an incredible play-by-play of the event.

Among the notable excerpts there, including some quotes from then-Islanders spokesperson Chris Botta…

  • “One Santa even brought a sign that read: ‘All we want for Christmas is a new GM,’ a criticism directed at Mike Milbury.”
  • “Soon, however, there was trouble. A few Santas ripped off their red jackets to reveal Rangers jerseys underneath. That was too much for the many Santas who were Islanders fans. It was as if the clock had turned back two years, and Theo Fleury, then a Ranger, was back on the Coliseum ice doing the chicken dance to mock the Islanders. Some of the Islanders Santas swarmed the Ranger Santas. A youngster in a Santa suit was seen pulling a Pavel Bure Rangers sweater off one subversive Santa.”
  • “The Islanders had budgeted three and a half minutes for the Santa parade. But the Santas were not cleared from the ice until five minutes had elapsed.”
  • “The public-address announcer had a script for the Santa parade, Botta said, but not for what happened after that. ‘He kept saying: All Santas will be escorted from the building.'”
  • “‘The crew assigned to resurface the ice was delayed, but the second period started on time,’ Botta said, who added that he hoped a fine from the league might be avoided. ‘I’m hoping we’ll get a little break,’ Botta said.”

By all accounts, they did indeed avoid a fine.

But the greatest quote from the aftermath came from then-Rangers defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, via Andrew Gross of the Home New Tribune a few days later.

 

“That was the funniest thing ever. At least Rangers fans have the guts to do that. Islanders fans wouldn’t do that.”

Kasparaitis, of course, spent the first four years of his career playing for the Islanders. No mercy in that rivalry.

The Islanders ended up beating the Flyers that night, 4-2, thanks to goals from Arron Asham (a pair of them), Dave Scatchard, and Jason Blake, as well as 32 saves from future Islanders general manager Garth Snow.

Other notable players on the ice that night were Jeremy Roenick (Flyers), Alexei Yashin (Islanders), Mark Recchi (Flyers), and a young Justin Williams (Flyers), the only player from that game that is still active in the league today.

Previous PHT Time Machines:
 Remembering the Jaromir Jagr Trade Nobody Won
• When the Blues skipped the NHL draft

 Expansion teams build Montreal dynasty
 The 1991 Dispersal Draft and Birth of the San Jose Sharks
• The Eric Lindros Trade That Did Not Happen
• The Mighty Ducks and the most insane pregame introduction ever
When the Detroit Red Wings’ Russian Five was not celebrated
Paul Holmgren’s crazy year of Philadelphia Flyers blockbusters

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.