While the Islanders prepare for the move to Brooklyn next season, the team is celebrating their old barn by bringing back several former greats for special nights. But for many of the past players, things will never be the same without their home in the Hempstead.
In the months remaining before the NHL’s most reviled arena gives way to what will be its most unusual, the Islanders continue to celebrate their 43 years at Nassau Coliseum. With on-ice ceremonies featuring alumni greats, promotional giveaways, jersey revivals and a “Tradition on Ice” commemorative logo on their jerseys and at center ice, the club has been honoring its four consecutive Stanley Cup championships and today’s young rising stars. The Islanders are bound for Brooklyn – New York City’s largest borough – and the Barclays Center next season. That’s 25 miles west of their current locale but a light year away from their suburban enclave in the Nassau County town of Hempstead. That’s where politicians, voters and team executives couldn’t agree on a plan to revive the old barn and keep the franchise in place. Fans were relieved the team wasn’t headed far away, but hearing the news still shocked many in Isles country, whose distaste for the city parallels their antipathy toward the rival Rangers. The club’s traditions and identity were formed at the Coliseum, which still has some of the best sightlines in the league and retains an intimacy modern arenas lack. “One of the things great about the Coliseum was we never got too banged up,” said former Islanders all-star winger Clark Gillies.
“The boards had so much give to them. It was like getting hit up against the ropes in a boxing ring. We never suffered too many shoulder injuries during those four Cup years.”
But decades of neglect and advances in what teams and fans require from their arena made it obsolete long ago. “You would load 16,500 in there and it would get very loud, it would send chills down your back,” Gillies said. “But having been there as a spectator, you really have to work on your timing as far as going to the bathroom or getting a beer. You could miss half the game.” Saying goodbye isn’t easy, however, especially for former players who felt so connected that they put down roots on Long Island after they retired. “It’s heartbreaking to me to see it happen,” said Bob Nystrom, whose overtime goal in 1980 against the Flyers gave the Islanders their first Stanley Cup. “It’s a great building. It’s had its time, and I certainly understand that it has to be refurbished, but for me there are just tremendous memories here.” Nystrom spoke prior to the Dec. 6 contest when he was honored pre-game and fans received a Nystrom mini-locker. Gillies, Billy Smith, Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier have also had mini-locker nights. In addition, the club will honor Pat LaFontaine March 24, a healing of sorts with their former star and, briefly, senior advisor to owner Charles Wang in 2006. Another night to honor team legends comes April 4 when “Decades Night” celebrates the careers of Ed Westfall, Garry Howatt, Butch Goring, Pierre Turgeon and Shawn Bates. Additionally, the current players will don replicas of the notorious 1990s era “Fisherman” sweater (suddenly popular again) for pre-game warmup Feb. 3. They will be signed by the players and auctioned for the team’s Children’s Foundation. On April 11, the final home game, they will wear replicas of the Isles’ first sweater, with orange numbers, also to be auction items. Meanwhile, the logistics of the move to Brooklyn are underway. Constructed as a basketball-only arena, the Barclays Center must shoehorn the ice into the available space. The scoreboard will hang over one of the bluelines, not center ice, and about 400 upper level seats have partially obstructed views. Even stranger, the rink eliminates most lower bowl seats in the building’s west end. And since there’s already no seating in the middle level behind the west end goal – that’s where the main entrance leads to a large opening in the arena seating area – there will be a noticeable absence of fans at that end. “Because we have a relatively unique building for hockey, it also lends itself to opportunities,” said Brian Basloe, an executive vice president for the Barclays Center’s suite and ticket sales. They plan to create a “West End Zone” for those fans seated in the lower bowl at that end of the building, giving them some unique experiences to make the sparsely occupied area more attractive. The price for the obstructed view seats will be deeply discounted. The smaller capacity of the arena (15,795, the NHL’s second smallest after Winnipeg) will help retain some of the Coliseum’s intimacy. It also allows them to raise all the seats by the glass a few feet to give those in premium seats a premium view of the game (and those fans will have access to the arena club and unlimited free food throughout the game). Plus, they are looking at creating something special in that open mid-level area behind the west end goal. Still, there will be inevitable adjustments for the Islanders and their current fans, who historically have formed strong bonds. “Most of us came from small towns, so we really identified with the community,” Nystrom said in December. Always proud they were not part of New York City, the Islanders will soon be in the midst of it. This is feature appears in the Feb. 16 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.