Since entering the National Hockey League in 1972, there have been few organizations in professional sports franchise history that have experienced the types of highs and lows as the New York Islanders. Introduced to the league largely as a means by the NHL to block the World Hockey Association from encroaching into the New York metro area, the Islanders and their fans have seen it all - from a dynasty to a laughing stock. And up until 2015, all of this occurred under one roof - the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum - or simply referred to as, the Coliseum.
To provide some history, early on the organization faced the types of struggles that are common for a newly minted team competing in an established league. But it didn't take long for the Islanders to transform into a record setting dynasty in the early 1980's, winning four consecutive Stanley Cups and collecting a streak of playoff wins (19) that has gone unmatched in all of professional sports ever since. That success, however, was followed by a bottoming out in the mid-nineties, manifesting itself in the form of a playoff drought, management's decision to unload many of the team's most popular players and a short lived logo change that featured a fisherman holding a hockey stick and way too much teal. Maybe most bizarre (and equally fascinating) during this time, was the attempted sale of the team to Dallas businessman John Spano. Despite the highly publicized undertaking and several months of negotiations that involved both parties and the league, Spano turned out to be a fraud who forged documents to make the team's current owners and the NHL believe he could afford the purchase price. Spano was ultimately sentenced to 71 months in prison. The story was the subject of an ESPN 30 for 30 titled "Big Shot," which included candid interviews with Spano and others that were close to the deal. It should also be noted that in 2006, while still struggling, the team offered a 15 year contract (virtually unheard of it professional sports) worth 67 million dollars to their goalie, Rick Dipietro. It should go without saying that the deal didn't quite work out as the team had hoped.
In addition to serving as home ice for the Islanders, the Coliseum played host to a number of notable musical performances over the years, acting as a popular stop for tours looking to cash in on the roughly 7.5 million people that call Long Island home. It was one of only two stops in the U.S. for Pink Floyd's infamous "The Wall" tour in 1980, David Bowie conducted a live radio broadcast from the Coliseum for his "Station to Station" tour and throughout the years a handful of multi-night stands by the likes of Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley and the Grateful Dead, among others, have graced the stage, spawning numerous live albums and recordings.
Then, at a time when the franchise was once again on the rise, it was announced that the Islanders would be moving to the Barclay's Center, a new, state of the art, arena in downtown Brooklyn, just steps from the Long Island Railroad's Atlantic Terminal. The Coliseum, which is one of the few major sporting arenas that lacks a major corporate brand in its name, was slated to undergo massive (and much needed) renovations that, when completed, would leave the place unrecognizable from its original incarnation. Not just a facelift, but full reconstructive surgery. But with the Islanders gone, the new venue will lack the presence of a major sports team, and instead, will be reserved solely for concerts, the circus and monster truck rallies. So when I heard about the team's plans to leave Nassau County for downtown Brooklyn in 2015, I headed out to take in the sights and sounds of the last regular season game to be played at the Coliseum.
When I stepped off of the platform of the Long Island Rail Road at the Westbury station, a string of idling taxis were parked along the curb, their drivers jockeying for passengers to take to the Coliseum. This would be the last time they'd be doing this for a regular season game, with the Islanders slated to trade in the ragged old Coliseum for the shiny new Barclays Center beginning next season. My driver, who grew up in the area, explained that he attended every single game of the 1972 inaugural season. After witnessing the team finish in last place, with a dismal record of 12-60-6 and setting a record for the most losses in a season, he turned his back on the team and hasn't been to a game since.
To demonstrate what the Coliseum means to fans of the team, as well as the sport of hockey, I shared the van with a group of people who traveled from all over to witness the occasion. There was the twenty-something year old local kid who grew up in nearby Garden City and took a train down from Boston to say good-bye. The middle-aged lifelong fan who flew in from the mid-west to take in one last game in the teams first and only home. And the most curious of all, a couple that came all the way from Winnipeg, the Canadian city in the Provence of Manitoba, directly north of Minnesota. These die hard Winnipeg Jets fans explained that when they heard the Islanders would be leaving the Coliseum at the end of the season, they immediately purchased tickets and booked the trip, not wanting to miss out on experiencing a piece of hockey lore that is a game at what hockey fans refer to as "The Barn," which has historically been praised for its raucous atmosphere and superior sight lines.
As we pulled into the venue, I noticed the Coliseum's outdated sign perched on the side of the Hempstead Turnpike, its screen totally blank, providing no indication to passing traffic that there was even a game being played, let alone the last regular season game ever. I climbed out of the beat up white van and was greeted with what looked and felt more like a football game than a hockey game. Classic rock blared from car speakers and the smell of charcoal lingered in the air from grills of the tailgating masses. A sea of blue and orange flooded the area, with the occasional Islanders flag sprouting up from the horizon.
I passed by clusters of families and friends who gathered around their cars, enjoying the sun and the company of each other as they drank light beer from cans. The Marriott, which abuts the parking lot and looked just as outdated and in need of attention as the Coliseum, had a steady stream of fans making their way out after having pregame drinks at Champions, the memorabilia filled sports bar that sits in the lobby. It seemed as if many people were putting off heading inside so they could soak up the last moments of a Coliseum tailgate, until finally having to hurry to the gates to catch the puck drop.
The saddest thing about the team leaving for greener pastures is that these lifelong fans, whether young or old, would never be able to do this again. Whatever game day traditions existed would need to be augmented, certain things laid to rest. The kids who played street hockey while wearing the jersey of their favorite player won't be able do that outside the Atlantic Terminal subway station. You can't just fire up a grill next to your car that's parked on Flatbush Avenue. Fans that live in the surrounding communities can no longer just jump in the car and drive down the Meadowbrook State Parkway to get to a game. Instead, they'll now have to deal with traffic on the Belt Parkway or, even worse, take a train. It's the type of collateral damage that happens when any team moves to a new location.
That afternoon the Islanders ended up falling to the Columbia Blue Jackets 5-4 in a shootout, and would go on to lose in the first round of the playoffs to the Washington Capitals in a seven game series, placing a final bookend on their tenure at the Coliseum. As a fan, I'm not sure whether I would be happy or sad to watch my team move to a neighboring city. Sure, you can still attend a game easily enough, but you're also constantly reminded of the departure, like having to see an ex-girlfriend walking around town with her new date. Maybe it's better when a team moves to an entirely different part of the country? Either way, the Islanders are now in their second season at the Barclay's Center, with recent reports suggesting it may not be a great fit, leaving the door open for a possible return to Nassau County. But even if that were to happen, and the team did eventually come back to the new and improved stadium, all the history, both good and bad, that happened under the roof of the original Coliseum would be just that - history.