Goodbye for now: Why the Islanders could return to Nassau Coliseum

Goodbye for now: Why the Islanders could return to Nassau Coliseum

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Megan Hallquest started working at Nassau Coliseum when she was 16 years old. She sold Carvel ice cream.

“First job ever,” she said proudly. “Greatest first job ever.”

She’s 23 now, and she’s moved on to pretzels, then Chinese food, and now adult beverages. “Finally,” she says with a smile, “I get beer.”

Megan’s sister worked here, too. So did her brother. She was “devastated” when she learned the Islanders were moving to Brooklyn, and she figures she’ll be crying on the night they finally depart.

She also figures they will be back.

“Brooklyn is not for them,” she said. “They will learn the hard way.”

She’s not the only one who thinks this. In a canvassing of several workers in and around Nassau Coliseum, there was a clear undercurrent of thought that their cherished team will someday return to Long Island.

“This is home for the Islanders,” said 74-year-old Mike Nastri, a ticket-taker and usher since 1973. “Barclays Center is not.”

Call it denial. Call it delusion. Call it a dream, which is what former Islanders great Clark Gillies did last year about a return here. “It’s a stretch,” Gillies said, “but wouldn’t it be kind of neat if it happened?” It’s not hard to find believers. Even Nassau County executive Ed Mangano recently said a new practice facility and corporate office on Long Island would “provide hope” for a return.

“I don’t think this was just a ploy to get the Coliseum renovated,” said Neil deMause, author of “Field Of Schemes,” but it would totally not surprise me if 10 years from now all or most Islanders games are back on Long Island.”

Despite a 25-year contract, hockey might not last long at Barclays Center. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Despite a 25-year contract, hockey might not last long at Barclays Center. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The NHL casts strong doubt on this, as does a 25-year contract with Barclays Center. But the Islanders’ new home will still have the second-smallest capacity in the NHL, at fewer than 16,000 seats for hockey, and Barclays Center owner Bruce Ratner is also pouring more than $200 million into renovating the Islanders’ original home. “Nassau Coliseum Redevelopment Plan Moves Forward” read one headline from just this week. So it’s not like the beloved dump will always be just a beloved dump. There was even a report saying Barclays Center can get out of the Islanders deal after five years.

This move is different than, say, the Whalers going to Carolina or the Nordiques heading to Colorado. In those shifts, the NHL was entering a completely different region with new fans and even a new team name. This is a drive down the road, and the fan base is expected to bleed over. The DNA of the team’s backers will morph, but it won’t really change. This is still Long Island’s team, and unless there are consistent sellouts in Brooklyn, people will be quick to ask why Long Island’s team is playing down the road when there’s a building and longing fan base back “home.” Adding to the intrigue is Ratner indicating the team will play six home games every season at a renovated Coliseum. If fans show up in droves for the home-away-from-new-home games and less consistently for Brooklyn games, more people will wonder why the team moved in the first place.

So, this is hardly a clean break. The Jets leaving Winnipeg was so traumatic for the fans there that many were bawling in the stands when the team was eliminated at its last home playoff game. Don’t expect quite the same outpouring for the Islanders when they’re finished this spring (unless they win it all, of course). That’s not because of a failed romance, but rather because the team is still close by, and because feelings toward current ownership have soured somewhat. There is frustration that the Islanders invested in talent only when the move to Brooklyn was imminent. The neighborhood feel of the franchise has leaked away over the years, at least according to some. “Some of the people running this place are very young,” says Mastri. “They don’t have good people skills.” Another longtime ticket-taker, who would only give his name as “John,” said working at the Coliseum “used to be a lot of fun” and now is “just a job.”

Then there’s this: Most hockey teams have moved into new buildings over the years, but the majority of those moves were from shared complexes to other shared complexes — Boston, Chicago — or from hockey-first arenas to newer hockey-first arenas (Montreal). The Islanders are moving from a hockey-first rink, where the seats are good even if the facilities aren’t, to a basketball-first complex.

“All parties are all in for this experiment,” says deMause. “The big question is whether people will put up with watching hockey in a basketball arena.”

The proximity of the old (and renovated) place is like the ex-spouse who lives in the next gated community. It’s not exactly out of sight, out of mind.

“There’s nothing stopping them from moving back, because their lease is with Ratner,” deMause says. “They could do a time-sharing deal and see which is more popular.”

So although the coming weeks will bring a fond farewell, quite a few people don’t expect the team to necessarily fare well.

Hallquest is one of those people.

“I say three years.”