With the reality that the New York Islanders have played their final game at the Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum starting to sink in for fans, players, and media, there has been an outpouring of emotion in the days since the Islanders were eliminated in Game 7 of their playoff series with the Washington Capitals.
For many, there are memories at the Old Barn that stretch back over Islanders history; past the return of playoff hockey in 2013, past Shawn Bates, past John Spano, past David Volek, past the Cup years, all the way to October 7th, 1972.
My father and aunt grew up in Bellmore, Long Island, in Nassau County. My grandfather was born in the Bronx, but like many from the city, eventually moved out onto the Island. Having been born and raised just outside of Milwaukee Wisconsin, I really only was able to get a sense of what Long Island is like through what my family told me. Of course, like any kind of familial reminiscing, you see things from rose-tinted glasses.
Things like Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” took on somewhat of a significance to me, because they came from a place that I’d never know, but my Dad and Aunt knew so well. Yes, it was incredibly simplistic and probably irrational, but isn’t that what it’s like for us all, in trying to find out where we came from?
I cannot lay claim to having been a stalwart Islanders fan from the beginning, considering that I didn’t show up in the world until 13 years after the old barn hosted it’s first hockey game. Hockey was also a sport that, I am ashamed to say, I did not care for much for a very long time. There are no professional franchises in Wisconsin, and so if anything, there is more of a love for college hockey than anything else. The Blackhawks and Red Wings were as good as it got for Wisconsinites, at least until the Wild brought hockey back to Minnesota.
So when the switch flipped in my head about five years ago, and I said to myself, “Let’s see what this hockey thing is all about,” there was a choice to make; what team was right for me? Well it was obvious wasn’t? This terrible team from Long Island, playing in a dump of a building, and working on a long stretch of irrelevancy that showed little signs of changing anytime soon. Hey, it could only go up from here right? (He said at the time, hoping that decades of Islanders history would be proven wrong)
Fast forward to December, 2014. I’m scanning over the schedule for the rest of the year for the Islanders. What am I looking for? The best game to go to for my first time at the Coliseum. It has to be during a down time for work, preferably spring break. We also have to make sure that it’s a weekend game, it fits in with the other schedule activities for the trip, etc etc. But finally, I pick the perfect date: April 4th, the Buffalo Sabres come to town to take on the Islanders. Also, that game would be the second to last game on Long Island. Not quite as emotional as the last, but still I’m hoping there will be some juice in the barn.
At the time, I was concerned that the game would be relatively meaningless for the Islanders: in December they were competing with a handful of other teams for the best record in no just the Eastern Conference, but the entire NHL. Who knows, maybe the division would be clinched by the point I arrived in April?
Of course, as the second half of the season played out, it became clear that not only would the Buffalo game not be meaningless, but it could very well hold serious playoff implications for New York. As game day came closer and closer, there was a chance that I could see the Islanders clinch a playoff berth, something that many fans haven’t been able to see in the decades since the Cup years.
Walking into the Coliseum for the first time, I reveled in how gloriously uncommercial it was. Yes there were advertisements plastered across the outside of the building, but they appeared more out of necessity than as some grand corporate promotional push. The small concession stands, the concourse downstairs, incredibly quaint by modern arena standards, the “lived in” feel of the building itself; it all felt homey.
No one ever would argue that the Coliseum had been kept in good shape, or that it outstripped newer barns in a cosmetic sense. But, frankly, I didn’t care in the least. To be able to see a hockey game where there was nothing in front of me but a sea of Islander orange and blue, well that was something special.
And then there were the fans. All 16,170 of them, cheering, clapping, shouting, screaming, laughing, and by game’s end crying. When Kyle Okposo scored the first goal of the game, the Coliseum crowd absolutely exploded with an intensity, that while I had hoped for, I didn’t necessarily expect. There have been plenty of sporting events that I’ve had the pleasure of attending where it has felt like the PA has had to wring any kind of enthusiasm out of a crowd, imploring, begging them to make any kind of noise. That was not a problem on Long Island on April 4th.
When the final horn sounded, everyone started to file out of the rink of course. But unlike your average regular season game, there were many, many people who stayed around to take a final look at the barn they had spent so much time in. There were fathers taking pictures with sons, grandfathers with grandchildren, fans who had driven hours upon hours to take in the scene at the Coliseum one last time. The ushers kept trying to get people to leave, to little avail. We were determined to soak up every last moment in the old barn, and leave when we were good and ready.
Yes, the Islanders may be moving on to a better facility, truly first class amenities, and the “big leagues” of Brooklyn. And if I had to predict their success, I would say right now that Islander hockey is going to be a huge hit in the city, and the fan base is going to grow by leaps and bounds. But Brooklyn is not, and will never be Long Island. I saw the closeness, the emotions, the bond that the New York Islanders shared with their fans: it really was something special and I am so very thankful I had the chance to see it, even if just one time.