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Islanders – and fans – giving Nassau Coliseum proper sendoff with final postseason run

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UNIONDALE, New York — These fans have already said their goodbyes to Nassau Coliseum, drank their last Bud Lights in the parking lot, sat in traffic on the way home for the final time.

They did it six years ago, when the New York Islanders packed up after more than 40 years on Long Island for the shiny Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets, ditching their dueling suburban-blue-collar identity for Atlantic Avenue.

But on Wednesday, they will play Game 6 of their second-round playoff series at the Coliseum – official name NYCB Live: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, “the Coliseum” locally – against the Boston Bruins. It will be New York’s sixth home game there this postseason, six more playoff games these fans ever thought they’d watch again in this building.

A win would move the Islanders into the next round, securing at least two more games here. It could also be the last time the Islanders skate inside the Coliseum – for real this time, exact date still unknown.

The only certainty is that by puck drop, Islanders fans will have “The Barn” rocking like a zoo.

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Michael Leboff was convinced Game 4 was really going to be the last time he watched the Islanders in the building.

Down 2-1 in the series, they’d lose the next two games , preventing Game 6 back at the Coliseum, he thought.

“That’s being an Islander fan,” Leboff, the co-host of a team-centered podcast called “Islanders Anxiety,” told USA TODAY Sports.

Fans celebrate a goal by New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal against the Boston Bruins during the third period of Game 3 of the second round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Fans celebrate a goal by New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal against the Boston Bruins during the third period of Game 3 of the second round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

With about three minutes left in the first period of a scoreless Game 4, the Bruins’ David Pastrnak hit the right post when shooting on a wide-open net. Had that shot gone in, maybe it’s a different series. Instead, the Islanders would prevail 4-1, scoring four unanswered goals after an early second-period Boston goal.

But during the first intermission, Leboff met up with friends who said the gaffe was a sign the Islanders would win. Leboff wasn’t convinced, but he’s found himself more trusting under the regime of general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz, who led the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup in 2018.

“This team has showed us not to be so fatalistic with the Islanders,” he said. “They’re such a composed, confident group. I guess old habits die hard.”

Besides, he’d done this before. After a standoff with local government officials, the team let its lease with the building expire after the 2014-15 season under former owner Charles Wang. The Islanders won their "final" game at the Coliseum on April 25, 2015, Game 6 of the first round against Trotz’s Capitals. A defeat in Game 7 meant what Isles fanatics like Leboff had accepted and expected: the end.

What should have been a celebration was more of a depressing countdown.

“We knew at some point they were going to get eliminated,” Leboff said. “Then Barclays Center looming felt shitty.”

New York Islanders fans cheer in the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period in Game 6 of the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
New York Islanders fans cheer in the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period in Game 6 of the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

This time around, instead of Brooklyn, the Islanders will be moving 7.5 miles west on the Hempstead Turnpike to UBS Arena, an 17,000-seat rink in Elmont, New York, across the street from Belmont Park that is scheduled to open by next season.

“It sounds like they’re building the inside to basically be a spitting image of the guts of the Coliseum,” Leboff said. “So there’s a chance that that place could be just as good.”

Leboff likened this sendoff to a New Orleans-style funeral, a lighter affair with a brass band as part of the procession – a celebration.

“The last time we said goodbye felt more like, I don’t know, an Irish-Catholic funeral or something,” Leboff said. “This is much more a party. It’s been an absolute zoo.”

Even without captain Anders Lee, the Islanders are one win away from the NHL semifinals for the second consecutive season. The excitement, combined with the chance to give the Coliseum a proper send-off thanks to fortuitous timing of lifted COVID-19 restrictions, has given the Coliseum an energy it has rarely seen in decades.

At 6:38 p.m., 47 minutes before Game 4’s start, a full-throated “Let’s Go Islanders!” chant filled the concourse. A fan of the visiting team was called a loser for wearing a Brad Marchand No. 63 Bruins jersey.

During the game, members of the New York Jets, notably offensive lineman Dan Feeney, shotgunned and rumpled cans of beer to charge up the crowd.

“This run has been like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Leboff said. “Because there’s actual promise of this team.”

Members of the New York Jets cheer during the first round. They returned for the Bruins series, too.
Members of the New York Jets cheer during the first round. They returned for the Bruins series, too.

*

To call Nassau Coliseum “a barn” these days is technically a misnomer. The interior received a facelift during the renovation that began after the 2015 postseason. When the Coliseum reopened in 2017, the Islanders returned for an exhibition game, and then gradually for more regular season games each year.

With the Islanders leaving as tenants, the space will continue to be used for concerts and other entertainment events. The Long Island Nets, the G-League affiliate of Brooklyn, will continue playing at the Coliseum. It’s a far cry from the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association, which won two titles (1974, 1976) while calling the Coliseum home with local star Julius Erving leading the way at the dawn of his Hall of Fame professional career.

His jersey hangs in the rafters, right next to Billy Joel’s name – “34 sold out shows,” the banner reads.

There are also the names of Islanders greats from the dynasty of the early 1980s.

Gillies. Potvin. Bossy. Trottier. Smith.

That core won four consecutive championships, a stretch not repeatedin the four major men’s professional league. The Islanders went 10-0 in Cup Final games at home during those years, and the Coliseum became known as “Fort Neverlose.”

“It was such a special place for me and my Islander group that I played with,” Hall of Fame center Bryan Trottier told USA TODAY Sports. “We all have our special memories of that place. I’m sure the fans do too. It reflects well on Long Island.

“It has its identity, but beyond that, I think it has its energy. I think that energy is real.”

The New York Islanders salute the crowd after defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The New York Islanders salute the crowd after defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After the Islanders advanced past the first round in 2019, playoff games moved to Barclays Center, which quickly became a sore spot for Isles fans, whether it be the commute or eerie feeling of a hockey game being played in a building not constructed for that purpose. They remained near the bottom in attendance at Barclays Center.

“It felt like you went to a shopping mall and there was a hockey game taking place in there,” Leboff said.

In other words, the complete opposite of the Coliseum.

As the move to Barclays backfired, it allowed the Coliseum to host the entire slate of home games – plus playoffs – in 2021, which New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Feb. 29, 2020. Weeks later, the coronavirus pandemic threatened that reality.

Fans were allowed back in the building in March 2021, starting at 1,400, and the arena approached its 14,000-person capacity Saturday night.

“If you’re a hockey fan,” Leboff said, “there’s no better place to watch a hockey game.”

The seats are nicer now, the exterior of the building looks different and there are more corporate amenities compared to the old joint. But not much of a difference exists when it comes to atmosphere.

“It’s so raucous,” Trottier said.

The noise funnels down to the ice, he added. Lip-reading became an essential skill – hearing the teammate next to you, even if he was screaming, was impossible.

“Here we are, basically 50 years after it opened, and the Coliseum stands ready,” he said. “It stands ready to bring that same, crazed din.”

The proper way to close down a barn like this.

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Islanders-Bruins in NHL playoffs is proper sendoff for Nassau Coliseum