By Stu Hackel
Some streamed out of the city subway stop less than two blocks away. Some drove over the bridges and tunnels from New Jersey. But most of the 14,689 who saw the first NHL game ever played in Brooklyn on Saturday night arrived on the Long Island Railroad, eager to witness their New York Islanders skate in an arena that someday will be their home for good.
Welcome to the Barclays Center, hockey fans, where the NBA's Nets play and where the inviting, cool, dark concourse and international food choices make the Isles' obsolete Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum seem like something on another planet. Perhaps it's no coincidence that so many have likened Barclays to a massive rust colored spaceship that has landed on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues.
It's sure pretty inside, however, and the sightlines seem mostly good, even for those watching from the soaring upper level, which looks like a mile from the ice. It will be tough to match the 41-year-old Coliseum's intimacy and sightlines, which are among the very best in hockey and the crumbling place's saving grace. But today's sports fan supposedly wants a more complete experience, and from the many luxury suites to the booming sound system to the ubiquitous video screens to the Barclays Center mobile app (providing exclusive video, scoreboard texting and food ordering capability), you can't get much more complete than this.
So like space pilgrims in a sci-fi film, they climbed aboard, an impressive number of them for a preseason tilt. They dressed in every version of Islanders jersey known to mankind. They endured their team's 3-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils with only a smattering of boos. With their attentions diverted by the sleek surroundings, it was easy to forgive new captain John Tavares and his team for an anemic performance and easier to forget that new Devils goalie Cory Schneider recorded the shutout -- he hasn't given up a goal yet this preseason -- because the real star of the night was this odd building where hockey was an afterthought. Its existence kept the Islanders in New York.
Let's back up for a quick tutorial: For years, Islanders owner Charles Wang, reportedly losing over $20 million a year on his hockey team, had implored local government officials to allow him to build a new arena where the old one stands in the town of Hempstead. His grand plan had a modern Coliseum surrounded by housing, hotels, restaurants, retail and office space, an athletic complex, conference and exhibition facilities and even a minor league baseball park. But between political infighting and suburban fears of overdevelopment, he repeatedly failed to win approval.
By 2009, he started flirting with relocation. His team played a preseason game in Kansas City, where the new Sprint Center still lacks a major league sports franchise today. In 2010, over a thousand fans from Quebec City, who lost their beloved Nordiques to Denver in 1995, bussed down to fill the Coliseum for an Islanders game against the then-Atlanta Thrashers to show the NHL they'd love to have either teetering club move north. (The Thrashers did leave Georgia to move to Canada, but are now the Winnipeg Jets.)
The New York Mets talked to Wang about erecting an arena near Citi Field and even about buying the Isles, at least before their own financial problems surfaced. But Wang and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman maintained they wanted a Long Island solution -- until last October when, suddenly, the deal was struck to move the hockey club 25 miles west to Brooklyn. There was one hitch: They can't go until 2015, when the Islanders' Coliseum lease with Nassau County expires.
Rumors persist some sort of accommodation is in the works, especially since Bruce Ratner, developer of the Barclays Center and a Nets part-owner, has won the rights to renovate the Coliseum into a smaller but more contemporary facility. Perhaps, some say, they can play a few regular season games in Brooklyn next season, if not the whole schedule. It's all just talk at the moment, however, and the best the Isles could do now was this lone preseason tease.
"I predicted we'd be here ten years ago," said a guy in the Barclays Center men's room wearing a Matt Martin Islanders #17 T-shirt. "I work in the same building where Bruce Ratner's office is in downtown Brooklyn and sometimes I'd wait to ride the elevator with him. I'd say to him, 'Are you really going to build an arena just for basketball, not for hockey?' and he'd say 'Yes,' but give me a big wink. I'd say, "You're only going to have the Nets there, not the Islanders?' and he'd say 'Yes,' and give me a big wink."
Maybe that's true, maybe not, but Barclays Center was built for basketball and shoehorning an NHL rink into it means a capacity of only 15,813, which will make it the second smallest house in the league, only ahead of Winnipeg's 15,004.
That's significant when you consider that NHL franchises still derive the biggest chunk of their revenue from gate receipts and about two-thirds of teams seat over 18,000 (Montreal, Chicago and Detroit get over 20,000 a game). Winnipeg's solution to this income inequity is to jack up their ticket prices to an average of $97.84, second-highest in the league. Is that a clue to the Islanders' pricing strategy in Brooklyn? Will it also be, by necessity, very steep? No one can say for certain yet.
Squeezing the 200 x 85 foot rink in a basketball building also removes nearly all the seats in the lower sections of the building's West End and creates obstructed views for some of the few who do sit there. The Isles and the arena will likely remedy the obstructions, even if it means taking those seats out of circulation. Barclays Center execs have plans to create an exclusive section for a few hundred on the West End's ice level when the Isles arrive for good. But the sight of big black curtains draping the empty space behind one goal in an otherwise vibrant stadium is certainly weird.
And so is the sound, or lack of it. When Islander defenseman Matt Donovan rushed down the right side in the second period, centering the puck to three charging teammates only to have Schneider thwart them in a quick mad scramble, there was no huge "Oooh!" of disappointment echoing around the arena started by the crowd in that end. There was no crowd in that end.
Still, the West End's audio and visual issues didn't bother the players. Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who spent two periods defending the West End goal, said after the game, "I didn't notice, to be honest with you." He then chuckled and added, "I don't have time to notice." Schneider, who faced the black background for two periods, said it didn't affect his ability to track the puck, either. As for the crowd noise at the West End, he said, "It felt like a normal building in a normal game."
In many ways, it was. The team and arena could have made a huge deal of this debut. Instead, they limited their celebration to a pre-game ceremonial puck drop by Ratner and Wang plus commemorative pins for all. The fans supplied the usual Islanders cheers heard at the Coliseum, the organist played his usual repertoire, the team's dinosaur mascot roamed the stands as usual. Four Stanley Cup banners from the glory seasons three decades ago hung from the rafters beside Nets banners. An effort was made to transplant, not supplant, the Islanders fans' experience, and the fans largely approved.
Naturally, some preferred the familiarity of the Hempstead plains to the grit and glitz alchemy that is now Brooklyn. A segment of fans bemoaned the loss of pre-game tailgating in the Coliseum parking lot. Others, like the older couple sporting Kyle Okposo and Michael Grabner jerseys, were clearly overwhelmed by this slicker environment. The woman sighed to an old friend wearing an Islanders staff ID badge that, "We're just trying to take it all in." She sounded as if they had forgotten this was only a one-timer, that the Coliseum would still be home -- at least for one more season.
But she also sensed this first game was like taking a test drive in a car after it had already been bought.
Former NHL director of broadcasting, publishing and video, Stu Hackel has written about hockey for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, SI.com, The Hockey News, The (Montreal) Gazette, Goal magazine and The Village Voice. He wrote his first hockey stories nearly 50 years ago when he published a newsletter for the Gump Worsley Fan Club.