The people chanted, “Bring them back! Bring them back! Bring them back!”
The New York Islanders were playing at the Nassau Coliseum last Sunday. (The place now identifies itself with one of those bewildering corporate names, but everybody still calls it the Nassau Coliseum.) The game meant nothing—a pre-season skirmish, a one-time-only tease to the traditional fan base more than two years after the team ran away from its home of 43 years.
But the place was packed and it was rocking, alive with the sing-song “Let’s go, Islanders” pleas that go back decades and the more recent, unrestrained “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” goal celebrations. Hours before the game, the Coliseum’s parking lots had been filled with tailgating customers sporting team jerseys.
“Pretty close to what we had in the playoffs,” said the team’s marquee player, John Tavares, comparing the scene to the 2015 post season. “Through the roof for the warmups. The fans here have a tremendous identity and they don’t want to lose hold of that. And the players recognize that.”
That didn’t stop management from opting for greener pastures—that is, greater potential revenue streams—after the 2014-15 season by packing off to Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center. When Barclays’ developer Bruce Ratner subsequently bid to renovate the Coliseum, he secured the lucrative project by promising six Islander games there per season. Soon enough, that bait was switched and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman repeatedly has declared that the Coliseum is “not an option” in the Islanders’ future.
So what, exactly, was the point of Sunday’s event? To give those old paying loyalists one day of throwback atmosphere? To sell more than 13,900 tickets for an event that typically would have drawn no more than 5,000 or 6,000 on a football Sunday afternoon? To offer a genuine gesture of appreciation to so many abandoned customers?
It would be dangerous to rhapsodize too extravagantly about the Coliseum, opened in early 1972 and forever lacking in frills. It was built with $28 million and, even with its $165 million facelift—the slinky exterior is nice enough and the insides have been cleaned up noticeably—there still aren’t enough bathrooms.
The joint still doesn’t offer what the team wants in terms of modern amenities, more space for the one-percenters to lounge in high-end suites and the kind of luxurious locker room that 21st Century jocks have come to expect. (The New York Giants have a practice site dressing room shaped like an enormous football, pointed at each end and wider in the middle, where 10-yard pass patterns could be executed.)
But Barclays hardly has proven to be a better deal for anyone. The majority of Island residents miss their tailgating ritual at the Coliseum, grumble about the inconvenience of alternative travel by train, hate the obstructed views from hundreds of Barclays seats, mock the arena’s off-center scoreboard. Average attendance last season there was 13,101—well short of Barclays’ 17,732 capacity for hockey and a number able to comfortably fit in the supposedly too-small Coliseum.
The players have been unhappy with Barclays’ below-standard ice surface, and all indications are that new management already intends to leave Barclays more than 20 years shy of the team’s original 25-year lease. The plan is to build a new arena near Belmont Race Track, a mere 15 miles from the Coliseum.
Jilted Coliseum patrons might find some hope in the fact that it took eight years, from the initial proposal to opening day, for Barclays to materialize, so even with a Belmont arena soon approved and in the works, the team could be desperate for a temporary landing spot.
Why not the Coliseum, a building without a bad seat and guaranteed a hard-core spectator following that has been all-in on the identity front? Islander fans, like the original Islanders, are anti-big city elites. And proud to use the Islanders—who had been Long Island’s only big-league professional sports team—as proof that the often nondescript suburban sprawl they call home need not remain constantly in the shadow of the Big Town.
For the ceremonial puck drop at Sunday’s exhibition, it was a nice touch to bring back three members from the Stanley Cup years—Clark Gillies, Bobby Nystrom and, especially, Billy Smith. When the Islanders’ first of four championships, in 1980, was called New York’s first since the Rangers’ 1940 triumph, Smith shot back, “The Stanley Cup is not in New York. It’s on Long Island.”
On Sunday, one of those 13,000-plus Long Island fans left behind a sticker on a bathroom stall at the Coliseum that featured the Islanders’ logo and the appeal, “Bring Them Home.“