By Bobbie Dittmeier
Believe it or not, there were many similarities between Nassau Coliseum and the old Yankee Stadium.
Both venues were the homes of dynasties. The Yankees, of course, had all those championships at the old place, while the Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups (and almost a fifth) in the early 1980s, winning 19 consecutive playoff series along the way while playing on Hempstead Turnpike in Uniondale, Long Island.
Both venues were the homes to some of the greatest players in their sport. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and on and on and on for the Yankees; Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin and Billy Smith and many others for the Islanders.
The old Yankee Stadium in the 1970s, '80 and again in the late '90s and early 21st century, was the place New Yorkers went to enjoy their baseball down and dirty. Its corridors were narrow, its bathrooms were small, its floors were sticky, and the upper deck, which housed more seats than the lower two combined, hung over the field and intimidated opponents. Despite the inconveniences, the fans were always watching, always paying attention to every detail and responding to each one. And it got loud. Very loud. Just ask anyone who witnessed Aaron Boone's home run in 2003 or Scott Brosius' in 2001, or Chris Chambliss' in 1976. It was only about the baseball.
So it was with the Coliseum. No room to walk, long lines for bathrooms and concessions. No amenities of any kind. The only reason anyone went there was for the hockey, because, frankly, there was nothing else. Its floors were sticky, too, like glue in some places. So you roughed it. You squeezed into your seat and strategically timed your trips to the bathroom -- or to the port-a-potties outside.
Because the fans were all in the same boat -- a sinking boat, it often seemed for a long, long time, as nefarious owners came and went, the property manager continued to onerously squeeze every dime out of the joint and the politicians gave the team every reason to leave -- they were frequently in unison.
During the first intermission of what turned out to be the final Islanders game at the Coliseum, a 3-1 win on Saturday against the Washington Capitals, a large crowd shuffled slowly toward the outdoor beer garden (picnic tables, a beer stand and, of course, the port-a-potties), and it made one wonder if a soccer-like tragedy might be in the making if things turned out poorly. Someone said, "It would be good idea if they had a second door." To which someone else replied, "There have been a lot of good ideas they haven't done here." Everyone within earshot laughed, knowingly. They all knew they'd been screwed. But they'd all been screwed together, and they loved their team. That brought them closer.
The seating bowl at the Coliseum (which is supposed to be refurbished; we'll see about that) is steep and very close to the playing surface. The third level leans toward the ice, offering fabulous views, the best in hockey by virtually every account. Because all the seats are so close and the roof is low, the Coliseum -- like the old Yankee Stadium -- was loud. On Saturday, it was possibly louder than it had ever been -- louder than when Bob Nystrom scored for the first Cup, louder than when Mike Bossy scored twice late in a game to get 50 goals in 50 games, louder than when Shawn Bates scored on a Game 4 penalty shot against Toronto in 2002.
On Saturday, the fans seemed to be a little on edge, a little tentative. No one knew what to expect. The Islanders were without three of their top five defensemen, and it didn't look good going in. A car that read "Nassau County Fire Marshal" was parked outside, which was probably a good idea since it really was up in the air as to whether the joint would be torn up or burned down if the Islanders lost. But the narrow corridor that rings the Coliseum was mostly empty as gametime approached. All the fans were in their seats -- they weren't going to miss a thing.
They were there to see a hockey game, down and dirty. Islanders fans are experienced -- they've been doing this for a long time. The franchise is 43 years old. It has four Stanley Cup banners hanging from the Coliseum rafters -- or used to. Maybe they've been taken down already.
John Tavares scored early for a 1-0 lead and the place went nuts. But then the period wound down to the Islanders' Danger Zone -- the final minute of any period -- and the Capitals scored to tie it. In the third, with less than 10 minutes to go, Nickolay Kulemin scored, and folks who didn't know each other -- but really did -- exchanged high-fives and hugs. An empty-netter sealed the deal and the Coliseum rocked one final time.
The Islanders, seriously shorthanded in talent thanks to some hits from the Caps and the Penguins near season's end, had somehow played the game of their lives in the last home contest. Everyone danced and hugged and reveled in the moment, not knowing whether or not it was the end of their building and their beloved team as they knew it. (Just a couple of nights later, they fell to the Caps 2-1 in Game 7 in Washington.)
A personal aside: I grew up on Long Island and I am 52 years old. I was 10 and I had just learned how to pronounce Tkachuk and Giacomin when the Islanders entered the NHL. They practiced down the street from where I lived. I frequently rode my bike there to see them. They were a community team, right there in your own backyard, unlike the city teams. They were a throwback: The people of Brooklyn saw their Dodgers on the streets, in the churches, in the stores. Long Islanders saw their hockey players in the malls, in the restaurants, on golf courses or maybe on the water if they were lucky enough to know a season-ticket holder who invited some of the players on their boat. My father and I each hoisted the Stanley Cup over our heads in front of the canned hams at Farmingdale Meat Market, courtesy of John Tonelli and a secret the store's owner shared with my mother earlier in the day -- that the trophy would actually be there. I heard similar stories after the Rangers won the Cup in 1994, when I lived near their practice rink in Westchester County, north of the city (but, you know, that's only happened once in the past 75 years).
The Islanders are headed to Brooklyn next season (possibly ironic, since many fans have roots in the borough). But I worry. I go to the new Yankee Stadium and it's like going to the U.S. Open -- a lot of rules, many restrictions, too much formality, far too many expense-account folks who aren't really there for the game, and if you boo they look at you like you're a Martian. I worry that Barclays Center might be similar, that it will be more about being seen and doing business in its fancy-dancy restaurants than it will be about watching a hockey game.
Hockey is unique in that people either get it or they don't. There are very few casual fans of the sport, and the game is best when it's down and dirty, because as hockey fans know, it is a down-and-dirty game. So we say goodbye to the Old Barn, a place where the hockey was only about the hockey, and the banners hung proudly.
Bobbie Dittmeier, a Long Island native who was listening on the radio when the Islanders recorded their first big win, a 9-7 barnburner in Boston in 1973, is a Sports on Earth contributor and an editor for MLB.com.