When I was a kid, back before I'd ever attended a professional hockey game in person, I had one of those Panini sticker books, with pictures of players from every NHL team, as well as the home arena for each franchise. For every cool-looking building like Chicago Stadium or Maple Leaf Gardens, there were seemingly two or three nondescript barns in the middle of a parking lot. To my 5-year-old eyes, Edmonton's Northlands Coliseum was interchangeable with, say, Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum or Minnesota's Met Center. And so when I attended my first NHL game, sometime around 1991 or 1992, at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, I remember thinking, "This is what an NHL arena is supposed to look like."
The Coliseum, as I realized as I got older, had all sorts of flaws. Sometimes its quirks are sort of charming, like the way the main TV camera is way off-center. Others are harmless, like the way the back row sits atop a metal platform that makes it possible to squeeze in more seats. And some -- like the fact that a single concourse serves the entire seating bowl -- are downright irritating. The Coliseum is ugly and aesthetically boring, and a coat of paint can't hide that it's a relic of the early 1970s. But still, I never stopped thinking about its aura.
The seating bowl hugs the outline of the rink just right, with the Islanders' banners looming especially large in such a cozy building. (It has the second-smallest capacity in the league.) Yes, the building once housed a basketball team -- plus an Arena Football League franchise that it heavily promoted in the aughts -- but for decades, the Coliseum has been first and foremost a hockey arena.
The Islanders knew better than anyone that they couldn't play at the Coliseum forever, no matter how much history it had (mostly from back in the early' 80s when it earned the nickname Fort Neverlose). Plans to keep the team in Nassau County didn't pan out, however, and three years ago, owner Charles Wang signed a lease for the team to play its home games in Brooklyn's Barclays Center beginning in the fall of 2015. Which means this spring -- however long it lasts -- is the Isles' last in the old barn.
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I'm not an Islanders fan, but a couple weeks back, as I walked around the arena for perhaps the final time, I tried to picture the frenzied crowds that watched a dynasty that won four straight Stanley Cups and a ridiculous 19 straight postseason series. I thought about my own experiences there, as well. I walked through Section 328, where I saw the Islanders play the original Winnipeg Jets with my roller hockey teammates on stick day back in 1996. I walked through Section 216, where I saw the Islanders and Sabres play on the night my grandfather died in 2001. And I walked that crowded concourse, where I have vague memories of hearing the crowd roar after a goal as I arrived late for my very first game. (I'd never heard noise like that before; it terrified me.)
I grew up in Queens, which has its fair share of Islanders fans. But on Long Island -- which is to say, in Nassau and Suffolk counties -- the Isles are a source of civic pride, a team suburbanites have been able to call their own for more than four decades. Their fans have literally left their mark on the arena: High above the rink, on a speaker hanging from the rafters, someone has scrawled: "LET'S GO ISLES!"
The Islanders' fan base can be among the most enthusiastic in the league, at least when the team gives it something to cheer for. One wall of the concourse this season is decorated with photos of fans holding up signs on which they've written their favorite Islanders memories. My favorite was a guy wearing a jersey and a backward ball cap, whose placard read "First Game, 1996; Ziggy Palfy's Hat Trick + Derek King's Broken Face." It's such a perfect hockey answer, though I looked it up and found the Islanders actually lost that game. The New York Times' headline the next day read: "King's Jaw Is Shattered As Isles Keep Suffering."
Indeed, the Islanders' fan base has suffered a lot over the past two decades. They last advanced past the first round of the postseason back in 1993, when they upset the Pittsburgh Penguins to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Or to put it another way, Nassau Coliseum has gone the entire second half of its life without the Islanders winning a playoff series.
A statistician who's worked at the Coliseum since 1982 has been selling T-shirts for charity this year that read "It Happened at the Coliseum" on the front, with a bunch of notable moments, names and cheers listed on the back. It's impossible not to notice that only two lines -- Al Arbor's ceremonial 1,500th game behind the bench, and fans' current celebratory chant of "Yes! Yes! Yes!" -- refer to anything that's happened since the 2004-05 lockout. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise, not for a once-proud franchise that had seen its reputation take so many hits, from an ill-advised logo change to the John Spano debacle to Rick DiPietro's toxic contract. Islanders fans are hoping that this last year will finally be the one in which they again enjoy some spring success.
The Isles spent time atop the Metropolitan Division earlier this season, and with a young, well-constructed team led by all-world talent John Tavares, it was only natural to imagine how the arena would rock if the Islanders made one last Cup run before moving two counties to the west -- one that harkens back to an era when they were the most feared team in the league.
In recent weeks, though, the Isles have cooled off, and the battle for first place turned into a battle for second place, with the rival Rangers claiming the division crown. A deep run is still a possibility, but they won't enter the playoffs with the type of momentum they'd been hoping for.
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Next year, the Islanders will share Barclays Center with the Brooklyn Nets, and their new home is an upgrade in many, many ways. The concourses are wider, the scoreboard is bigger and the food is better. Moving to Brooklyn is something of a compromise, since Barclays' location isn't ideal for fans in Nassau and Suffolk counties. But the building itself is state-of-the-art, the kind of arena teams are desperate to call home.
Barclays Center is not meant for hockey, though. It was built for basketball, and squeezing in a hockey rink means placing the playing surface off-center. The scoreboard in the center of the arena, therefore, will hang over one of the blue lines, and fans on the west side of the area will have terrible, obstructed views. (The Coliseum offers mostly excellent sightlines, a byproduct of its small size and a design that had hockey in mind.) Because of the funky configuration for the sport, Barclays could wind up with an even smaller capacity for NHL games than the Coliseum. The Islanders have played a preseason game in Brooklyn in each of the past two years, and both times, I spoke with fans who couldn't believe how bad their views were, despite the "limited view" warning printed on their tickets.
The Islanders will bring their banners with them to Brooklyn, but Barclays Center will still belong to the Nets, and it will be difficult for the team to shake the impression that they're second-class citizens in their own building, even if they're the more successful tenant in the standings.
The Coliseum, meanwhile, won't be torn down; rather, it'll get a makeover and could even host some Islanders home games in the future. But Nassau Coliseum as we know it is about to go away. It might be outdated, but it belongs to Islanders fans, many of whom are too young to remember the franchise's glory days, but bleed orange and blue all the same. It might be a dump, but it's their dump. Unlike Barclays Center, with its bells and whistles and high-def screens, the Coliseum was a place for hockey.