By Daniel Friedman
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If you’ve attended an Islanders game at Nassau Coliseum in the last five years, you’ve heard them before — even if you haven’t heard of them.
The Blue and Orange Army has become as much of a Coliseum staple as cotton candy or Chuck-A-Puck. Its various members congregate in Section 329, located in the upper-left quadrant of the stands behind the Islander net.
“We’re an army, protecting our home from enemies and providing the support our team deserves,” says co-founder Tom Ballantyne. “We’ve brought a whole new element into the NHL with our songs that are usually heard only at soccer games. We live to be loud, support the team, torture opposing fans, and have fun.”
The sound waves they produce reverberate around the building, giving the home crowd and the decibel level a major boost. Their iconic cheers have become the stuff of legend in Uniondale, and because of the Isles’ impending move to Brooklyn, it won’t be long before those borders of influence expand even further.
Years from now, New York sports fans will talk about the Blue and Orange Army the way they do about the Yankee Stadium Bleacher Creatures, Fireman Ed and the Ebbets Field Sym-Phony. Shifting over to Barclays Center will accelerate that process, but even if the Isles were to stay on Long Island, it wouldn’t be long before the Army became more mainstream.
Patrick Lehmann, who started sitting in 329 this year, describes the group as a “community.” Says Lehmann: “You arrive as a stranger and leave singing your heart out about the Islanders with friends. I used to go to games, sit in a random section and then leave. Then I was told about the section through Twitter and decided I’d join them for a game. I haven’t left since. We really are like a big family.”
I’d always been fascinated by them, though at times more curious than fascinated. Fueled by that sense of wonderment, I caught up with Blue and Orange Army co-founder Tom LoFaso:
DF: Give me some background. How did the Blue and Orange Army start up?
TL: We started up with a few of us sitting in Loudville, just starting “Let’s Go Islanders” chants. We eventually met, exchanged numbers and started sitting together in Loudville. Then we befriended a guy we knew as “Westfall,” who sat at the top of Section 329 and started the “Let’s Go Islanders” chant at the start of every game. We then eventually started buying Loudville seats and moving up to 329, just to be loud together. As for the second part of the question we started because while, separately, we were loud, it was never enough to get the crowd going which could turn a game in our favor. We therefore started sitting together because six or seven voices together was a lot louder than one.
DF: Who decided on the name “Blue and Orange Army,” and why?
TL: Honestly, I don’t remember. We originally called ourselves “The Black Hole” because Westfall had a pirate flag with an Islanders logo sewn onto it, and then I got one too. As the group grew, we realized that we needed a better name. I think Westfall, my friend (James) Fess and I came up with the “Blue and Orange Army” which was unanimously liked by everyone more than “the black hole”.
DF: When was the first game you attended as the Blue and Orange Army and what was that experience like?
TL: I think the first game we attended as “The Black Hole” (before we changed our name) late in the 2008-09 season. We all officially started getting seats in 329 at the start of 2009-10. At our first game, we really didn’t have the songs we do today. We had the a Josh Bailey song which we now sing a lot and the “We Are the Islanders” song we sing after goals. We had a blast and some people noticed us.
DF: Why did you choose Section 329? Any specific reasons?
TL: We chose 329 for its rowdy fan history. in the 1980’s and 90‘s, some of the loudest fans used to sit there. Westfall’s dad was an original “329er,” so he’s been sitting there his whole life. He was loud, we were loud. So we moved up there to carry on the tradition.
DF: What were peoples’ initial reactions to you and how have those changed since then (if they have)?
TL: The initial reactions were mixed — some loved it, some hated it. Today, a lot more people seem to like it. It’s pretty cool when people you don’t know come up to you after games and say something like “you guys made the game so much more fun,” “you guys gave awesome support to the team”. We still get people who don’t like us and that’s okay; you can’t please everyone. We’re just trying to have fun and support our favorite team. There’s other ways to support the Islanders if our way isn’t for you.
DF: I have to know, who comes up with the cheers? Is there a lyrics master among you or are those group efforts?
TL: Our cheer-making is really a bit of everything you listed. I’ve written a bunch solo, as have a lot of us and a few we come up with together over time, whether it be talking about them at games or online. If it works and sounds good, we’re all for it; no matter who comes up with it.
DF: Have any of the Islander players or staff ever mentioned anything to you?
TL: Funny you should ask; one of the prospects from Long Island at the scrimmage last week said he’s been coming to game for years and he loves what we do. A few of the current players have said stuff to us at meet and greets or after games in the parking lot, which is cool. Most of the staff knows me by name now and loves what we do. We bring people every game and we’re loud, which helps the team.
DF: Have you grown in number since you started?
TL: We’ve grown a lot. It started with I think seven or eight of us. Now, on a bad night, we’ll have 20-25 people with us and on a good night, we can have 50-60. The most tickets we’ve sold to a game was this year’s opener, when we sold 295. That was insane. Word of mouth has helped us grow a lot, as has social media. We have a Facebook page which now has over 400 likes, a Twitter account with 550 followers and an Instagram account with 450. So we’ve grown quite a bit since the early days and we’re hoping to grow more before the move to Brooklyn. Hopefully, the team will fully recognize us and give us a section in Barclays, where we can sell discounted tickets to fans who want to be loud and sing. We also boast members in a few different countries; Canada, Wales, Scotland, England. I think we even have one or two in South Africa.
DF: Did you adapt your style of cheering from any specific super-fans (i.e. the Yankee Stadium “Bleacher Creatures,” etc) or did you just develop your own? What were your influences, if any?
TL: We’re all huge soccer fans; we follow a lot of different teams in Europe. I’m a Chelsea supporter and we also have people who follow Tottenham, Manchester United and Liverpool, among others. So each of us have adopted songs they sing at games there and added our own elements. Our biggest influence has to be “The Green Brigade,” the main supporter group for Celtic FC in Scotland. We have adopted a bunch of their songs due to all of us supporting Celtic. A few guys over there have taken notice and like it, from what I’ve heard. I’ve also heard rumors of small “Let’s Go Islanders” chants breaking out at Celtic games, too.
DF: What does the Blue and Orange Army mean to you and to your members?
TL: To me, at least, it means the world. I’m a co-founder, so to see something I helped start get bigger and bigger all the time is awesome. I love the guys and girls who sit and sing with us. From what I can tell, the feeling is mutual between everyone. It’s always a big party between friends and that’s what it’s all about. Having fun, meeting new people and growing, all while supporting the New York Islanders.
DF: Are there any specific episodes in the Coliseum stands that you’ll never forget?
TL: The support during the whole season and the playoffs this year. I don’t know if we’ve ever been louder. The night the Isles played the (Pittsburgh) Penguins, where everyone fought and we won 9-3, was amazing. The final home game of this year’s regular season was awesome, with half our section doing “The Huddle” together. Meeting guys from Wales on a school trip, who came to a game to see what is was like, and singing stuff they recognized was awesome too.
DF: If you could send any message to your fellow Islander fans, what would it be?
TL: Whether you like us or not, keep supporting the Islanders. The fans give the team life and give them something to play for. Without them, we are nothing and without us, they are nothing. If you want to check us out, come to a game and sit with us. We have song sheets so you can learn the chants. Everyone who is an Islander fan is welcome.
DF: Where can Islander fans learn more information about the Blue and Orange Army?
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN
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