A year ago, the New York Islanders’ final season in the Nassau Coliseum was winding to a close. One of the team’s last games in its original home was against the Detroit Red Wings — a Sunday matinee, on March 29, 2015. This writer was in attendance, and sat down afterward to record his thoughts on the game, and moreover, the bond between the Coliseum, the Islanders and their fans. (Note: this story was written toward the end of the 2014-15 season. It is not a reflection of the NHL today. It should be read with that in mind.)
If Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum really is on its last legs, it sure is standing tall. All year long, that old barn in Uniondale has defied its age, its spirit surging even as the church bells toll, and it is now perched on tiptoe, arms stretched skyward, head thrown back for one last collective roar. It is a youthful posture, one bursting with life and yet still full of potential, turning back the clock to 1972 when The Coliseum was opening its doors for the first time. And when those roars come raining down from the rafters, the sun seems to be just now rising above the arena. The days feel young, not numbered.
This all serves to make the Islanders’ relocation to Brooklyn next season even more painful for the team’s longtime fans. The Isles aren’t going far, but they’re leaving a place that seems like it still has so much left to give, and headed someplace else that seems like it won’t give enough. In The Coliseum, the Islanders are home; next season in the Barclays Center, it may feel like they’re always in someone else’s.
This team was born in Nassau County and raised in that popup barn off the Hempstead Turnpike, the franchise coming of age as most of its original fans were doing the same. In the process, The Coliseum became a symbol for both the team and its early supporters – a symbol of frustration, a symbol of success, but most of all, a symbol of togetherness. There is genuine love in that building, the elusive kind of love that escapes both description and reproduction: just as it evades definition, so too will it evade the moving trucks that bring this team from Uniondale to Brooklyn. And so it isn’t the loss of its team to another city that seems to pull at the heartstrings of this fanbase – it’s the loss of its team’s home.
This year’s Islanders plan on extending their lease here, at least by a month or two. From the drop of the puck in October, they’ve been one of the best teams in the NHL, ensuring a playoff birth in their final season in Uniondale. It’s hard to dismiss the force of destiny when it comes to this team in this year, and if there’s any pixie dust still lingering in the rafters from the Isles’ dynastic run in the early 80’s, it may well come floating down to the ice this spring. If it does, let’s just call this whole thing off and hand them the Cup today.
Before we get to rip the wrapping off the playoffs, though, there’s a season to be played out over the next two weeks. Entering play Sunday morning, the Islanders trailed Pittsburgh by two points for second place in the Metropolitan Division with six games to go. Sunday afternoon brought the Detroit Red Wings to town for a matinee affair, with both teams trying to shake off some late-season doldrums before the real games begin in April. It was the Islanders’ third-to-last home game of the regular season, and, with ticket prices set to skyrocket in the playoffs, one of the last chances to see this team play in The Coliseum for an affordable price. So we went. My mom, my sister and I – and a Red Wings fan who we banished to the opposite end of the arena and pretended to have never met.
Driving to The Coliseum isn’t quite like driving to any other sports arena in the United States. Where most professional teams are located within the big cities they call home, the Islanders are located in the middle of nowhere. It’s certainly part of the reason the fans here are so passionate – this team is really theirs. Where one can reasonably claim to be a Rangers fan from basically anywhere in the Tri-state area, Islanders fans are confined to a narrow strip of land where people have funny accents and live in towns like Ronkonkoma and Wyandanch. It fosters an Us-Against-Them mentality, and the diehards in Nassau County have long enjoyed playing the obnoxious upstart.
There isn’t a grand approach to The Coliseum like there is when walking toward Madison Square Garden or taking a cab to Yankee Stadium. It doesn’t beckon from far away or glitter on the horizon. The first thing you see, in fact, upon your arrival, is the Marriot Hotel that sits next door. Only when you look across the vast parking lot do you catch sight of The Coliseum, which seems to have fallen out of the sky and taken haphazard root in the concrete.
We made the mistake of leaving the car in the Marriot parking lot, so we had a longer walk than necessary to the arena. Along the way, I asked my sister if she thought we’d see a Rangers jersey in the crowd; a better wager, as it turned out, would have been “how many.” Before we even entered the arena, we caught sight of a middle-aged man wearing an old Brian Leetch sweater, who must have had nothing better to do on this Sunday afternoon than come out to Uniondale and root against the Islanders. Rangers fans support their team with ardor, but nothing makes them smile like antagonizing their rivals from Nassau County.
Nassau Coliseum: Aged or Ageless?
The Coliseum is at once withering away and roaring to life. The structure itself is pockmarked with flaws, but the irresistible atmosphere almost shrouds them from view. It envelops you with such thoroughness that you don’t so much see, or think, in The Coliseum as you do feel. But above all else, the place is real. It does not try to be something it’s not. Where modern arenas tend to present a hockey game as part of an entertainment package, one show within many others, The Coliseum has just one attraction on hand. The place can be a circus, to be sure, but there’s only one tent.
To step into The Coliseum is, in many ways, to step into a time machine. It’s an arena frozen in time. And so you forgive its many modern shortcomings because this is simply how things were when the building was built. The wooden backs of the chairs, the lack of luxury seating, the “Megatron” that my Mom was probably squinting at to read – it all feels right. And another differentiating point between The Coliseum and stadiums of today? There is not a bad seat in the house.
Quick story: when I was nine years old, I saw the Buffalo Sabres play the Isles in The Coliseum with my sister, my mom and my grandfather, the latter two of whom are longtime Islanders fans. I hated the Islanders at the time simply because I loved the Rangers, and thought this was some kind of unbreakable vow, so I planned to root hard for the Sabres. The Islanders, winning by a goal late in the game, iced the contest with an empty-netter, and as the place exploded I found myself impulsively rise to my feet and cheer along with the hometown crowd. It was a visceral reaction and I remember feeling guilty, confused and roused all at once, like that first time you high-five the class troublemaker in kindergarten. I know that was wrong, but it sure felt good.
Ever since then, I have harbored a profound attachment to The Coliseum for it provided one of my first authentic moments as a hockey fan. And I feel a certain familial connection to the team, as my Mom’s Dad was part of their ownership group when the Islanders won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980-1983. So when it was announced a couple years ago that the Islanders would relocate to Brooklyn in 2015, leaving The Coliseum for good, I felt like the NHL had made a massive mistake in letting the move pass. It was celebrated as a win for the Islanders and their fans – the team, after all, could have ended up in Kansas City or Quebec – but I thought it was a devastating blow to the very pulse of the organization. The Coliseum might be a skeleton at this point, but beneath its creaky old bones is a heart that still pumps with vigor.
To visit the Coliseum on Sunday afternoon was to be proven both drastically wrong and unflinchingly right. On the one hand, the Islanders simply have to leave. On the other hand, how can they? For though it’s no secret that the team deserves better digs than the Coliseum, they’ll all tell you after a win, man, it doesn’t get much better than this. But walk out to the concourse between periods, and rethink the value of the “atmosphere” as you wait in line for twenty minutes to use the restroom. Reconsider the importance of the “energy” as you bump shoulder-to-shoulder in L.I.E. traffic between gate six and gate seven. It’s easy to romanticize The Coliseum based on its history and its old-school charm, but does its intimacy really excuse its general inadequacy as an NHL arena?
“YES! YES! YES!”
At the drop of the puck, the crowd instantly came to life. Above us in Section 329, a horde of fans rose to their feet; they would not sit for the rest of the game. Over the course of the afternoon, the fans in “Loudville,” as their section is known, emerged as the emotional leaders of the arena, leading the crowd the way John Tavares leads his teammates on the ice. When things grew quiet, they would unleash a patented quintuple-clap, and spur the fans into a chant of “Lets-Go-Is-lan-ders!!” When their attempts weren’t met with sufficient enthusiasm, they would simply take over themselves, belting out songs like European soccer fans. All the while, Tavares was mirroring their role back down on the ice, at times creating for his teammates, at others simply controlling the game himself.
It was the Red Wings who struck first, scoring twice in the first two minutes of the game. Just like that, before many in the crowd had taken their seats, the Islanders were down a pair of goals and seemingly on their way to an eighth straight defeat at The Coliseum, an unnerving trend for a team usually so successful on home ice. With the fans shocked into silence – even Loudville paused for a moment or two to gather its bearings – I glanced over at my Mom, whose head was already clutched tensely in her hands, and wondered what we had come here for.
Three minutes later, Brock Nelson reminded me. Receiving a cross-ice pass from Lubomir Visnovsky in the high slot, Nelson took his time and wristed one past Petr Mrazek to quickly pull the Islanders back within one. The place erupted, as per usual, though I think the fans’ excitement was only partly due to the goal itself. The rest was found in the opportunity to celebrate the goal, which, in the Coliseum this season, has become a phenomenon unto itself.
After the horn blares, and the goal song runs its course and the fans whoop and shout, the organist plays a series of notes so that the rink can catch its breath. Then the real show begins. In a delirious ritual inspired by WWE icon Daniel Bryan, the fans thrust their arms over their heads, pumping in perfect unison, and shout “YES! YES! YES!” The invitation to join is anyone’s to accept, and I found it impossible to stand idly by while everyone around me indulged in such wonderful insanity, in such unadulterated fun. My sister had surrendered to the moment too, while my Mom, at this point, was pumping her arms with such ferocity it’s a wonder they didn’t come soaring out of her sockets. And across the way, I may have even caught sight of our friend from Detroit, swept up in the atmosphere and enjoying the ride, a magic carpet almost unfurling at his feet.
A Team Becoming a Family
The rest of the first period played out as wildly as it began, the Islanders storming back to take a 3-2 lead only to see the Wings tie it up 50 seconds thereafter. Before the ten-minute mark, the two teams had combined for 6 goals…on just twelve shots. It would be a day to remember for many in The Coliseum, but certainly one to forget for the goaltenders.
The first intermission offered everyone a chance to catch their breath. We reconvened with our friend for a beer outside Section 212, and he had already begun to sense the special vibes swirling in the Coliseum air. “I’m so happy I made it to a game here,” he told us, his respect for the sport’s history coming to the fore. “This place rocks.” His is a credible opinion when it comes to the game of hockey, and, more specifically, the arenas in which it is played. A Michigan kid to his core, he was raised on the Red Wings of the mid-to-late 90’s, who turned Joe Louis Arena into something much greater than itself – into Hockeytown. It’s a moniker attributable to the team’s great run of success, to be sure, but also to the rabid fan base that fueled it. And so when our friend says a building “rocks,” he means it.
The Islanders picked up where they left off in the second period, scoring just 16 seconds into the frame when Frans Nielsen snuck a low-angle wrist shot over Mrazek’s shoulder. That spelled the end for the Czech netminder, who was pulled in favor of Jimmy Howard after allowing four goals on 11 shots. It’s one of those games that Mrazek would rather just wash down the drain and forget forever; selective memory is an inclination all the best goalies share.
Speaking of goalies – though maybe not the best ones – Isles’ GM Garth Snow had to smile when Nielsen slipped in his team’s fourth goal of the night. Sandwiched between Nelson’s tally and Nielsen’s were goals from Ryan Strome and Kyle Okposo, all four of whom were drafted and developed by the Islanders’ organization. Tack on three assists for Tavares and one for Travis Hamonic, and eight of the Islanders’ first 11 points Sunday afternoon were recorded by homegrown players. It was a continuation of a season-long trend: of the leading scorers on this team, the first seven – seven – are products of the draft or farm system. Say what you want about Brooklyn, but these Isles are tied inextricably to Uniondale. They grew up here.
Islanders Fans: A Different Bunch
A shorthanded goal by Cal Clutterbuck – could Cal Clutterbuck have been anything other than a hockey player?? – pushed the Islanders lead to 5-3 just four minutes into the second period. All of a sudden, that hairy start was all but forgotten and the fans began rejoicing in their team’s rediscovered mojo at home. They chanted, they high-fived and they danced in the aisles, but perhaps most of all, they roared with bloodthirsty delight anytime an Islander barreled into the opposition. Isles fans are a pugnacious type, quite different, I’d guess, than your average Red Wings fan. There’s a cultural explanation for this, but perhaps it is best unraveled anecdotally: In 2014, the Coliseum hosted a charity hockey game between the NYPD and FDNY, and a legitimate brawl broke out on the ice. Everyone’s response? Only in Nassau County, only at The Coliseum.
The typical Islanders fan, it seems to me, loves the team first and the sport second. That’s uncommon among hockey fans, a group that takes pride in its wholesome appreciation for the game. But Islanders fans are different. Hockey wasn’t something to be cherished here before Mike Bossy, Brian Trottier, Denis Potvin and the rest of those legendary Islanders came along in the 1970s. Whereas fans in traditional hockey markets – Montreal, Chicago, Boston, etc. – learned to love their teams because they loved hockey, Islanders fans learned to love hockey because they loved their team. That’s a huge distinction. And it makes sense.
When it comes to professional sports teams on Long Island, the Isles are it. So when the NHL decided to drop a team here in 1972, everyone eagerly climbed aboard and decided to figure out the particulars of the game later. But one thing everyone could immediately relate to? Some good old physical contact. And that DNA remains in Islanders fans today. It was distinctly evident in the fan sitting to my left Sunday afternoon, who inched to the edge of his seat anytime an Islanders player came within the vicinity of the opposition. When Matt Martin buried a helpless Red Wing into the boards midway through the third period, this guy sprung to his feet and hollered “YEA!!!!! THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ‘BOUT!!” Entertained by his bloodlust, I piled on and shouted “Kill him!! Rip his head off!!!!” The fan to my left laughed. He liked this.
The Final Act
The Red Wings are a playoff team and they responded to their sudden two-goal deficit in kind. Beginning late in the second period, they began monopolizing the puck in the offensive zone for long stretches of play, throwing shots to the net and swarming Howard’s crease for the droppings. The sustained pressure gradually turned a giddy Coliseum crowd restless, inciting all kinds of critiques from the many coaches in the crowd. Of constant target were Josh Bailey, who has one goal in his past 10 games, Okposo, whose return to the lineup has coincided with the team’s worst stretch of play this season, and Brian Strait, who was mostly yelled at for just not being all that good. One fan behind me also took particular issue with the play of defenseman Travis Hamonic, who, in his estimation, was getting pushed around along the boards. “He’s big, but he plays small,” he complained. “He’s 6’4 but plays like he’s 5’10.” Whether or not the fan was right – and he was wrong about Hamonic’s height – I could only think about how he had captured the essence of The Coliseum in reverse. This arena is small, but, man, it plays big.
Detroit’s persistence paid off when Pavel Datsyuk tucked in a power play goal late in the frame, pulling the Red Wings within one. From that moment on, the Islanders grabbed hold of their 5-4 lead and hung on for dear life. “Get it out, get it out!” the hometown fans yelled during the third period, urging their team to move the puck out of the defensive zone and away from danger. Whenever they did, though, the Red Wings quickly re-gathered in the neutral zone and stormed back Halak’s way. It was fun hockey to watch for a relatively neutral bystander, but flat-out torture for my Mom. We were there, ironically, because she suggested we go, and late in the third period it seemed she’d have rather been drifting on a blow-up raft in the Arctic Sea. So much for a fun family outing to the Coliseum.
With the clock winding down and the fans sensing victory, the tension in the building gave way to excitement. The cheers grew louder with each Halak save, and at one point, with about a minute remaining and the Isles under siege, the crowd erupted in a spontaneous chant of “D-FENSE!! D-FENSE!!” I suppose it was fitting – the team really was making a goal-line stand. The final 30 seconds brought the entire arena to its feet, the fans rising as one to propel their boys to the finish, and it was then that I grasped the special dynamic of this final season at The Coliseum: for all the talk about yesteryear, these fans are living for right now. Sure, they’ll cheer the old stars, and they’ll celebrate the past championships, and they’ll even buy the commemorative t-shirts, but their fervent gaze is fixed on today. Sentimentality? These fans don’t have time for it.
The Islanders held on for the 5-4 win, moving into a tie with the Penguins for second place in the division. The two are likely to meet in the first round of the postseason, and Holy Tavares, won’t that be something. Until then, though, the Isles have five games remaining in the regular season, two at The Coliseum. If they take care of business, they’ll lock up home ice advantage in the first round, and good luck to whoever strolls into that barn on the first night of the playoffs.
The sun had set by the time we left the building, and the parking lot was mostly empty. I glanced back at The Coliseum as we walked toward the car; it looked lonely in the dark, like a fairground after the show has moved on. It’s hard to imagine the show never returning.
This year though, the show’s just beginning. And it may be the best one yet. Meanwhile, with death starting The Coliseum in the eye it refuses to blink, because, my god, these Isles are good, and who would want to miss a second of that?
Will Burchfield covers all things ‘New York Islanders’ for thehockeywriters.com. A 2014 graduate of Boston College, he has extensive writing experience both online and in print.