UNIONDALE, N.Y. – Part of the deal between Nassau County and Barclays Center, where the Islanders play now, but which operates the renovated Nassau Coliseum, is that the Islanders either play four regular-season games and two preseason games at their traditional home, or the county gets an extra $1 million in rent.
Because Sunday’s preseason contest between the Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers is the only scheduled NHL action at the Coliseum in 2017-18, Nassau County is getting its extra million bucks.
Sunday’s game also was little more than a tease. Gary Bettman said earlier this month at the Winter Classic press conference that “my gut reaction is it’s not a viable option” for the Islanders to return to an arena that got a $165 million renovation but still has many of the same issues as it did before the Islanders moved to Brooklyn, simultaneously 22 miles and light years away.
John Tavares nearly blew the top off the old barn when he scored his second goal of the game, an overtime winner to give the Islanders a 3-2 verdict. The level of sound in the old barn is the same as ever when the building is full, and the sellout crowd serenaded the Islanders all the way off the ice.
“It was pretty close to what we had in the playoffs,” Tavares said. “It was through the roof coming out in warmups and certainly the start of the game. Hearing the ‘Let’s go Islanders’ chants and the ‘Yes! Yes!’ chants (for goals) were prominent again. This fan base has got a tremendous identity, and they don’t want to lose hold of that. As players, we recognize that, and we want to reward them with good hockey, so this was fun.”
During the break between the third period and overtime, the fans made their opinion known, loudly chanting, “BRING THEM BACK.” The chant rose up again after Tavares’ game-winning goal.
“They certainly wanted to be heard,” Tavares said. “That’s above my pay grade, but I think certainly this place is very meaningful to this organization and the identity of this organization for a reason.”
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
The identity lives on in the Islanders’ logo, which has not changed since the move to Brooklyn. The tip of the “I” in the word “Islanders” points directly to the location of Nassau Coliseum. Keeping the team’s identity exactly the same is one of the reasons the move has felt half-baked for a lot of people, and why a return to Nassau County, even for an afternoon, was priceless.
“It means a lot,” said Matt Mead of Rockville Center, wearing a vintage Dave Scatchard jersey. “It’s kind of sad, because you know we’re going to have to head to Brooklyn after this, so it’s nice to have one little last hurrah here. It’s a good turnout, and I got to see a lot of old friends that I haven’t seen in a while.
"I’m enjoying it. It’s a 30-minute train ride to get to Brooklyn – it’s not that bad, but I miss coming here, tailgating, being with friends and family. Brooklyn’s a little bit of a pain.”
That pain is measurable in the fact that the Islanders ranked 28th in the NHL in attendance last year, at 13,101 per game, 82.9% of capacity in Brooklyn. That was down from an average of 13,626 (86.2%) in the first season in Brooklyn, while the Islanders averaged 15,334 per game, 94.8% of the final-season capacity at the Coliseum.
Sunday’s crowd of 13,917 not only filled the Coliseum, but the parking lot as well. Arriving in the morning, fans set up their tailgates and Islanders flags flew all over.
“I think we had a good sense that was going to happen,” said Tavares, who owns 89 regular-season goals at the Coliseum, plus five in the playoffs. “That was such a great part of Islanders hockey and who the Islanders are, is a lot of weekend afternoon games or evening Saturday home games, people out in the parking lot with a lot of space, just enjoying the atmosphere of what it was to be an Islander fan. It was great that they got to enjoy that again.”