Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 30, 2015

Silence Descends On Uniondale

It is quiet in the old building now; a lonely hush that fans have known was coming for more than two and one-half years. With that much notice, some no doubt believed that the day would never actually arrive. Surely money or politics or the kindness of the hockey gods would intervene, and the games would go on at the squat coliseum that’s surrounded by acres of parking lots between the Hempstead Turnpike and Charles Lindbergh Boulevard.

But the arena with the unwieldy name of Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum had long since passed its prime. It was the second oldest home to an NHL franchise. Madison Square Garden, its lone elder sibling, just went through a $1 billion renovation; but repeated efforts to win voter approval for public funding of upgrades to the Long Island arena went nowhere. As the New York Islanders 42nd season at their first and only home wound down, even the most ardent of local fans came to accept that the franchise’s final game at the rink whose full name was always foreshortened to simply Nassau Coliseum was approaching.

In October 2012 the Islanders announced plans to move to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the 2015-16 season, part of a transition in the team’s business management from owner Charles Wang, who also finally agreed just last fall to eventually sell his majority stake in the franchise. By the most obvious measure the move is not all that dramatic. It’s less than 20 miles from the Coliseum in Uniondale to the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in Gotham’s hottest borough. Brooklyn and neighboring Queens comprise the western end of Long Island, so the team won’t even be changing its name.

But distance is not always best measured in miles, and in important ways this move is profound. From their inception the Islanders have been a team of the suburbs, a regional counterweight to the urban Original Six squad playing at Madison Square Garden and more recently to the equally city-bound team skating just across the Hudson in New Jersey. Fans traveled to Islanders games by automobile, that eternal symbol of suburban sprawl. They arrived well in advance of game time, and even in the dead of winter the Coliseum’s parking lots came alive with tailgating parties rivaling anything seen on a Sunday afternoon outside an NFL stadium.

In Brooklyn the Islanders will become an urban franchise, just like Manhattan’s Rangers and Newark’s Devils. The Barclays Center sits adjacent to the Long Island Railroad’s Atlantic Terminal. In addition to the LIRR, nine different New York subway lines converge at a major hub deep beneath the team’s new home. Parking in the area is scarce. Urban fans will use urban transit methods to get to Islanders games, and no one will be firing up a grill in the rear car of a 5 Train as it makes its way beneath the East River from Manhattan.

There are 8.5 million potential fans in Gotham, and the population of the team’s new home borough alone rivals that of the two suburban Long Island counties combined. As a city team the Islanders will inevitably direct their marketing to capturing the hearts of city fans. Just as the Nets since their own move to Brooklyn have sought to pry fans away from the Knicks, so too will the hockey team compete with the Rangers for the attention of the city’s tabloids. It is entirely understandable that suburbanites on the Island, deprived of the one franchise that they could call their own, will feel left out.

The Islanders were an instant hit with those fans. After missing the Stanley Cup playoffs their first two seasons, the team made the postseason fourteen consecutive years. Beginning in 1980, they won the Stanley Cup for years in a row; the only NHL franchise other than the Montreal Canadiens ever to do so. Those were the glory days of Denis Potvin at the blue line and Bryan Trottier skating at center. It was the age of Mike Bossy, Bob Nystrom, and Clark Gillies on the wings, and Billy Smith in goal. General manager Bill Torrey, the club’s very first employee, built the franchise through the draft and recruited Al Arbour, whose own playing career had barely ended, to serve as the team’s head coach. With Arbour behind the bench, the Islanders won 19 consecutive playoff series during their dynastic run, a record that still stands. In the four championship seasons the Islanders were 60-18 in the playoffs. Of the sixteen playoff series in those four years New York swept five, while being stretched to the maximum number of games just a single time.

The record has been decidedly less distinguished of late. In total the Islanders have missed the playoffs more often than they’ve made them, and coming into this season they had made just two postseason appearances in the nine years since the 2004-05 NHL lockout. Yet their fans have remained true.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that this was the final time through the schedule at the old place, or perhaps it was the offseason acquisitions of goaltender Jaroslov Halak and defenseman Johnny Boychuk. Whatever the cause, the Islanders started this season playing with purpose. They compiled a 17-7-0 record through October and November, skating to the top of the Eastern Conference.

It was a pace that couldn’t be sustained, thanks to a series of key injuries. But the early record also ensured that the fans at the Coliseum would see one final postseason in Nassau County. A loss in the final game of the regular season dropped the Islanders into a tie with Washington, their first-round playoff opponent, and the NHL’s tiebreaker rules gave home ice in that series to the Capitals.

Perhaps that would not have mattered, for after scoring seven goals while splitting the first two games, the Islanders found the net only eight more times over the final five contests. Down three games to two, they took the Coliseum ice last Saturday for what everyone realized might be the final time.

The place was anything but quiet that evening. Feeding off the energy of the full house, the Islanders jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a goal by captain John Tavares. With the score tied 1-1 midway through the third period Tavares drew the attention of a pair of Washington skaters in the corner. That allowed Nick Leddy to find a wide open Nikolay Kulemin in front of the Washington goal, and the winger quickly drilled a forehand past goaltender Braden Holtby. After an empty netter made the final tally 3-1, the 16,170 in the stands rose as one to salute their heroes. If this was the final game, at least it was a victory.

At least.  For those same fans were watching at area bars or from their living rooms two nights later, when the Capitals rode their own third period score to a 2-1 series-clinching victory in Washington. So it is quiet in the old building now. There are plans for extensive renovations, reducing the seating capacity and perhaps attracting a minor league franchise. There is hope that if all goes well the Islanders might venture out from Brooklyn a few times a year to play at that future version of their old place. But for now in Uniondale there is only a silent sense of loss.

Still for the legion of suburban Islanders fans, that silence is not total. For those who have remained faithful through both dominant dynasty and decades of doubt, the quiet is leavened by the soft sigh of memory. In their hearts those fans will always hear the faint whispers that recall days of glory and years of grit; a reward for their loyalty that is both immune to the passage of time and more permanent than concrete and steel.

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