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“Say something,” my dad uttered with a nudge.
I couldn’t. I was 7-years old. Paralyzed in awe. The game was still going on on the ice, but all my young eyes were trained on were the larger than life numbers sewn on the back of Mario Lemieux’s jersey.
It was Jan. 17, 1989 and I was fortunate to be sitting six rows from the ice at Nassau Coliseum — Section 113x, Row F, Seat 4 — right near the railing by the Pittsburgh Penguins’ tunnel. It was my first live hockey game and the Islanders and Penguins players were larger than life in person, not quite the tiny comets screeching across the screen of our 27-inch standard definition TV at home.
Lemieux had to leave the ice at one point during the game because of an equipment issue. The tunnel hood was up when he skated off, but when he finally emerged a few minutes later it was rolled back. Play was still going on so No. 66 had to wait by the door until the next whistle.
And there, mere feet away, stood Lemieux, who was in the middle of a ridiculous 85-goal, 199-point season, which would win him his first scoring title and second straight Hart Trophy.
Nope. I just couldn’t. The whistle blew, the door sung open and Lemieux was back into the game where he would finish with a pair of assists during a 5-2 loss -- a loss that still causes me to curse Mikko Makela’s name for scoring an empty-netter to put the game out of reach.
That was my first memory of not just Nassau Coliseum, but live hockey. Growing up and living on Long Island for most of my life, the Islanders were the only team in town. That won’t be the case any longer. It’s on to bigger things next season in Brooklyn at Barclays Center.
(Some will argue Brooklyn is technically a part of Long Island, but how many strip malls do they have compared to out here?)
But Islanders fans and Long Island hockey fans know it just won’t be the same. Yeah, the Coliseum didn’t have those fancy concession offerings or bars or restaurants that other arenas around North America have; and yeah, the place is a dump, but it was our dump.
Modern amentities were foreign to Nassau Coliseum. The seats were cramped. You might have a bigger screen in your living room than the one on the scoreboard hovering above center ice. There was a chance you’d get a loose arm rest with an exposed nail sticking out of it. The concourse? Ha! You needed sharp elbows if you wanted to make your way through the crowd unscathed.
But I’ll be damned if there was a building in the league with better sightlines.
There wasn’t a bad seat in the house. Whether you were in the upper or lower bowl, you felt closer to the action. And when it got it loud — oh boy — you had to look up to the rafters to make sure there weren’t any pieces of the building about to fall down.
Before the Islanders made it back to the playoffs in 2013, I had told friends and fellow writers for years that once the team returned to the postseason, Nassau Coliseum would eminate sounds not heard since Shawn Bates’ penalty shot in 2002. The excitement in warmups before Game 3 in that Penguins series was palpable. It was like that again during the Washington Capitals series.
When times were good — and Islanders fans had to deal with not-go-good times for far too long (Thanks, Milbury!) — it was truly an incredible atmosphere to watch a game. The YES! YES! YES! chant went over so well this season that the players started doing it on the ice after goals and during post-game celebrations. Finally, no victory night was complete without the Let’s Go Islanders! honks via hundreds of cars leaving the Coliseum parking lot afterward.
It remains to be seen if that noise will make the 29-mile commute to Brooklyn. The Islanders have only played there twice — two sleepy preseason games against the New Jersey Devils. Barclays Center, as you may have seen, is designed quite differently than the Coliseum. Some views are obstructed. The scoreboard hangs over one of the bluelines. There’s a large, open area behind one net. It will take a while for everyone — players, staff, fans — to get used to the new home, but eventually, with a winning product on the ice, the process should be sped up.
Nassau Coliseum isn’t dead. It will just be re-born in a few years under Bruce Ratner’s development. Maybe a AHL team will be the anchor tenant at some point, but don’t hold your breath that the Islanders will return, despite what some idiot politicians want to try and sell now that the team is finally moving out.
After I filed my game story following Saturday's Game 6 versus the Capitals, I took a walk. To get to the Coliseum press box you have to walk down a long, narrow hallway along the suites. Adorning the walls on your path are blown up photos of great moments in Islanders history. Bobby Nystrom’s goal. Mike Bossy. The Stanley Cup sweep against Vancouver. “The Coach” and “The Architect,” Al Arbour and Bill Torrey, with their four mini Stanley Cups.
I walked by those photos a little slower than normal before exiting the building on Saturday.
I left the Coliseum that night thinking about the last 26 years of attending games and now covering them for a living: My first game being only feet away from Mario Lemieux; witnessing the infamous Penguins-Islanders brawl from the crowd in 2011; Kyle Okposo’s four-goal night earlier this season; the atmosphere during Rangers games; and so many more.
(Also, that time Chainsaw Charlie debuted on WWE Raw back in 1997.)
But time comes for us all, and now it’s Nassau Coliseum’s time.
The banners that hung from the Coliseum rafters — Potvin, Gillies, Trottier, Bossy, Nystrom, Smith — will be relocated to Brooklyn, and the legends of the past will look down upon players like John Tavares and Kyle Okposo as they write the next chapter in Islanders’ history. It's finally time to turn the page.
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