A Brief History of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum

The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which is now branded as NYCB Live Arena, is a multipurpose indoor arena, that is better known as the home of the New York Islanders, located in Uniondale, New York.

The arena opened in 1972 and was built on 63 acres of Mitchel Field, which was formerly known as Army Airfield and later an Air Force base. However, now the grounds are used for sporting events, large exhibitions, concerts, and shows.

Islanders Nassau Coliseum
Nassau Coliseum (Spencer Hazen/THW)

Now, the arena still stands after some renovations made, and much has come on and out of the arena since its opening in 1972.

Sports

Most would probably guess that the first event to happen at the Coliseum would have been an Islanders game, but most would be wrong. The arena was the first home for the New York Nets in the then-American Basketball Association – now the National Basketball Association. The first-ever event to take place was a game between the Nets and the Pittsburgh Condors on February 11th, 1972.

Led by Julius Erving, the Nets won two ABA championships in the Coliseum, defeating the Utah Stars in the 1973-74 season for their first championship, and beating the Denver Nuggets in the 1975-76 season for their second ABA Championship, the final championship in ABA history. The following season, the Nets joined the NBA as part of the merger with the ABA. The Nets would play their final season at the Coliseum during the 1976-77 season, before moving to New Jersey, playing four seasons at the Rutgers Athletic Center prior to the completion of the Meadowlands Arena.

The Coliseum also held indoor soccer, as they hosted the New York Arrows, and later the New York Express. The Arrows brought home one championship in their short-lived existence between 1978 to 1984. The Express would end operations from financial struggles after the 1986-87 season.

The New York Sets, a charter franchise of World Team Tennis, played their first-ever match at the Coliseum on May 7th, 1974. In 1976, the franchise captured their first WTT Championship. Later, the franchise would rebrand to the New York Apples, and relocate their home arena to Madison Square Garden.

New York Islanders
New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Although all of the sporting events that took place at the Coliseum were great in their own regard, none of those were as great as the birth of the decorated New York Islanders franchise.

The New York Raiders of the World Hockey Association were intended to play at the Coliseum for the 1972-73 season. However, Nassau County did not see the WHA as a professional league, leaving them to want nothing to do with the Raiders. The NHL quickly responded to Nassau County calling on William Shea to get an NHL team to play in the arena. Long Island was awarded with a franchise in the Islanders, which forced the Raiders to move their play to Madison Square Garden, shadowing the New York Rangers.

The rest is history from there, as the franchise blossomed, maybe quicker than some might have imagined. The Atlanta Flames visited the Islanders on October 7th, 1972, the first Islanders game in Nassau Coliseum. The first NHL goal in the building was scored by Flames forward Morris Stefaniw at 6:56 of the first period, while Ed Westfall scored the first goal for the Islanders, as the Flames won the game 3–2.

Islanders Dynasty
New York Islanders Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, Stanley Cup (THW Archives)

The franchise’s first home win came five days later, on October 12th, 1972, where they defeated the Los Angeles Kings 3–2. Three years later, the Islanders’ first playoff win came on April 8th, 1975, when they defeated the New York Rangers 3–2. They would go on to clinch their first playoff series, defeating the Rangers in a best of three series.

The Islanders began to see great success in the late from that point on, however, they failed to convert on clinching the Stanley Cup for five years straight, including a dominant 1978-79 season for the Islanders. Head coach Al Arbour decided to no longer concern himself with where the team fell in the standings, but more on his team’s energy on how they would perform in the playoffs. In the 1979-80 season, Arbour’s strategy worked as the Islanders brought home their first of four straight Stanley Cups.

Before the playoffs in 1980, Bill Torrey had to make the difficult decision to trade away popular veterans Billy Harris and defenseman Dave Lewis to the Los Angeles Kings for second-line center Butch Goring, who is often referred to as the “final piece of the puzzle.”

Related: Islanders’ Dennis Potvin – Overlooked Greatness

Continued history would be made in the following years, as Bob Nystrom would be an overtime hero on multiple occasions, including Game 6 of the 1980 Final, where he scored the famous goal against the Philadelphia Flyers at 7:11 of overtime, on assists by John Tonelli and Lorne Henning, to bring Long Island its first Stanley Cup championship. Mike Bossy would also score 50 goals in 50 games that year.

Mike Bossy 50 Goals
Canadian hockey player Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders on the ice, February 1982. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

Continuing their dominance, the Islanders claimed their third Stanley Cup in the 1981-82 season. Along the way, the team won a then-record 15 straight games en route to a franchise-record 118 points, while Mike Bossy set a scoring record for right-wingers with 147 points in an 80-game schedule. The record 118 points was enough to claim the Presidents’ Trophy and would sweep the Vancouver Canucks in the first-ever coast-to-coast Stanley Cup Final.

Despite winning the cup for three straight years, much focus was on the Edmonton Oilers and their young superstar, Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky that year had shattered scoring the existing scoring record, however, when the Oilers met the Islanders in the finals, Denis Potvin and company who would lift the cup, as the dynasty was solidified sweeping the Oilers, and winning their fourth straight championship.

The Nassau Coliseum hosted the 35th annual National Hockey All-Star Game on February 8th, 1983. Wayne Gretzky scored four goals in the third period and was honored as the game’s most valuable player.

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Since the dynasty days, the Islanders hadn’t garnered much in terms of success. The occasional playoff clinch would come along here and there. Yet, nothing would come to fruition for the franchise, and they saw their value beginning to decrease on Long Island.

The franchise would select John Tavares first overall at the 2009 NHL Draft, but even he was not enough to revamp the franchise on Long Island, and the Islanders found themselves moving to the Barclays Center for the 2015-16 season.

“Long Islanders love their Islanders,” Revello said. “It’s the only team they still have.”

That love couldn’t keep the team on the Island as voters rejected a proposal to keep the team in Nassau County. That was the impetus for owner Charles Wang to move the team to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the 2015-16 season.

Barclays Center
Barclays Center (THW Archives)

Hockey Sentinel writer Damian Mirkut blames someone else for the loss of his beloved Isles.

One major reason the Islanders will be leaving Nassau County is Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray. Murray who is clearly not a fan of hockey saw the site the Islanders play on as a potential to make more money for the county than the Islanders did. At the time the Islanders were a bad team, unlike the Islanders of today.  Sadly the land the Islanders play on is more valuable than the team to most people, including developers who have been trying to get their hands on the property for years.

According to Revello, the timing of the vote being held in the midst of poor economic times and with the Islanders struggling at the bottom of the league caused the end result.

Related: 5 Forgotten New York Islanders

He also thinks Long Islanders will regret turning down the renovation of the Coliseum.

“People are short-sighted,” Revello said. “Barclay’s Center is more appealing, but it’ll be annoying for Islanders fans to commute 45 minutes from Long Island.”

While the Islanders are saying that they’re leaving the door open for a possible return, Revello is a realist about the club coming back.

“I guess some of the fans are holding onto unrealistic open-ended return,” Revello said. “I’m not optimistic.”

Announced in 2015, the arena would become the home of the NBA G League’s Long Island Nets, where they would debut for the 2017-18 season.

Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum
Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Dec. 1, 2018 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Well, that was then, this is now. The Islanders are making their way back to the now-named NYCB Live Arena: Home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on a part-time basis.

After five seasons of obstructed views at the Barclays Center, Islanders’ current owners, Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky, struck a deal to move the team out of Brooklyn, and back onto Long Island where they belong. The construction of their new 18,000 seat home at Belmont is currently underway after New York Arena Partners (a venture of the Islanders, Oak View Group, and Sterling Equities) outbid New York City FC for a new soccer stadium.

However, Belmont won’t be ready until the start of the 2021-22 season, and the Barclays experiment proved to be unsuccessful. The idea of moving back to the ol’ barn started in the 2018-19 season when they agreed to play 12 games at the newly renovated Nassau Coliseum.

The Islanders’ 103-point season in 2018-19 forced some shuffling of events at the Coliseum, as the Islanders played the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Long Island. After sweeping the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, the Islanders headed back to Brooklyn to play the second round, but wouldn’t move any further.

“The No. 1 thing they say is, ‘Please, Mr. Ledecky, during this period, can you bring the team back to the Nassau Coliseum?’ I think (co-owners) Scott Malkin, Dewey Shay and myself have listened to that, and this opportunity presented itself with the folks from Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment. We decided that it was worth taking a look at.”

NHL.com

For the beginning of the 2019-20 season, the Islanders were scheduled to play half of their home games at the Coliseum, however as the season progressed, more games at the barn were announced. Finally, in late February 2020, Governor Cuomo announced the Islanders can call NYCB Live: Home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum their full-time home until the Belmont arena is ready in the 2021-22 season.

Former New York Islander Butch Goring
Former New York Islander Butch Goring is honored by the team as his #91 jersey is retired and hung in the rafters, Feb. 29, 2020. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The announcement came as the Islanders honored both Jon Tonelli and Butch Goring, sending numbers 27 and 91 to the rafters with the other core members of the 1980’s dynasty team. All 41 home games for the Islanders will be played at Nassau Coliseum, including any playoff games for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Three remaining home games at the Barclays Center were scheduled to happen during the 2019-20 season before the NHL paused its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It remains to be seen if that will happen if and when the season resumes.

Related: Islanders’ Butch Goring – Forever in the Rafters

In order to make this move possible, Governor Cuomo invested $6 million in order to satisfy the NHL’s requirements of a substantial hockey arena.

“We would not be here today without the energy, the commitment, the efforts of Gov. Cuomo,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We wouldn’t be here if Belmont wasn’t coming out of the ground. We wouldn’t be here if the improvements weren’t made for this facility so that the Islanders could play here until Belmont is ready.” ( from ‘Islanders ditching Barclays Center for Nassau Coliseum full-time,’ New York Post, 02/29/2020).

Some improvements to be made to the Coliseum for the remainder of the Islanders’ tenure in the arena include temporary media facilities in the parking lots to accommodate the media, VIP hospitality upgrades, and some accommodated food and restroom facility options.

The Islanders are finally back where they belong on Long Island. Home is where the heart is, and for the Islanders and their fans, that is Nassau County until the conclusion of the 2020-21 season. Fans everywhere are elated at the thought of a proper send-off to the iconic building the team played in for so long, and welcome Belmont with open arms, keeping their heart on Long Island.

Concerts

The Coliseum wasn’t good for sporting events alone. A plethora of big-time performance artists have made their way to Long Island and filled the arena for some historic performances.

Who didn’t see this one coming? Billy Joel has his own “retired number” in the Coliseum. His name hangs in the refers, alongside the great Islanders from years past, and championship banners.

Billy Joel Nassau Coliseum
Billy Joel at Nassau Coliseum, Apr. 5, 2017 (Courtesy slgckgc via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/slgc/33491992210)

The tribute to Joel is for the many sold-out concerts he has performed at the Coliseum. A concert from his 1982 tour at the Coliseum was recorded for a 1983 HBO concert special and VHS release, Billy Joel: Live From Long Island.

Other famous artists have sold shows out at the coliseum too, such as Led Zepplin four nights in a row on their 1975 North American tour, and The Jacksons in 1979 as part of their Destiny World Tour. The Jacksons found themselves back in the Coliseum two years later, as part of their Triumph Tour in August of 1981.

Bruce Springsteen made a number of appearances to perform in front of Long Island, most notably during a three-night stand in December 1980. His performance on December 31st was released in full as Nassau Coliseum, New York 1980 in 2015.

Elvis Presley was one of the earliest performers at the Coliseum. He sold out four concerts on June 22, 23 & 24, 1973. He performed once more at the Coliseum in 1975, despite having more performances scheduled. Six days after his unfortunate death, Presley was supposed to begin a summer tour with Long Island as its first stop on August 22nd, 1977. The tickets had become collector’s items and can be found for sale at a high price nowadays.

Elvis Presley 1970
Elvis Presley, 1970 (Ollie Atkins, chief White House photographer at the time. See ARC record derivative work: Sir James/Public domain)

Both the Grateful Dead and Phish performed often at the Coliseum, and for both bands, they have yielded live albums along the way: Go to NassauWake Up to Find OutDick’s Picks Volume 13Spring 1990: So Glad You Made ItSpring 1990 (album)Spring 1990 (The Other One) by the Dead; and three installments of the Live Phish Series—4–2–984–3–98 and 2-28-03.

Madonna performed three sold-out shows at Nassau Coliseum on her Blond Ambition World Tour in 1990 which totaled an attendance of 51,000 fans with a gross of $1.5 million.

More recently, in 2008, the Spice Girls performed two sold-out shows in February as part of their Return of the Spice Girls tour.

Professional Wrestling

The hockey world and the professional wrestling world have always seemed to cross paths in some shape or form. Maybe it’s because they share arenas, but hockey fans are often professional wrestling fans as well.

The Coliseum hosted the opening leg of Wrestlemania 2 on April 17th, 1986. The plan was to have the ‘Mania at three different venues, and 16,585 fans saw four live matches at the Coliseum with the rest of the event shown to the audience by closed-circuit television. The main event at the Coliseum was a match between Rowdy Roddy Piper and actor Mr. T.

For over 30 years, Nassau Coliseum has been a mainstay for WWE/WWF events, featuring shows such as Raw and Smackdown. This includes the unfortunate event in 1999, where professional wrestler Droz suffered a career-ending injury, untelevised.

History was made on October 2018, when the Coliseum hosted Evolution, the promotion’s first all-women’s pay-per-view event.

The Lighthouse Project

Charles Wang, the former New York Islanders owner, introduced a project that would renovate not only the Nassau Coliseum, but the area surrounding it, turning it into a modern suburban area. The base goal of the project was to re-create the Coliseum into a state of the art arena for the Islanders to play in, but would also include houses, offices, restaurants, and various stores, as well as Long Island’s first five-star hotel. There would also be an athletic complex, conference and exhibition facilities, and a minor-league baseball ballpark.

The projected was proposed to take between 8 and 10 years to complete, at the cost of $3.74 billion. On July 12th, 2010, Town Supervisor Kate Murray announced an “alternate zone” created for the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum property, downsizing the original Lighthouse Project to half its proposed size and making the project. This would make the project “economically unviable for both the developer and owner of the site” according to a Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, spelling the end of Charles Wang’s dream that was the lighthouse project.

The future of the Coliseum remains to be seen. For now, it is the current home of the New York Islanders until the 2020-21 season, and the Long Island Nets, as well as the host venue for various concerts and events.