A New Stadium, but Still the Same Old Team

The newly transplanted Islanders settle in at the Barclays Center

(Photo by Getty Images)
(Photo by Getty Images)

Hockey calls to mind certain images. There’s a pastoral pond in Canada, filled with children wearing the jerseys of their heroes and shooting a puck into a milk crate. There’s a packed arena in a historic, northern city, filled with generations of champions and villains. And now, there’s Brooklyn.

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Yes, Brooklyn; New York City’s trendiest borough will soon be the home to the least mainstream of the four major sports.

As announced last fall, the New York Islanders will make the move from suburbs to city starting in 2015. They’ll leave behind the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and decades of history. After joining the NHL in the second wave of expansion in 1972, the Islanders colonized Long Island’s booming suburbs. The Coliseum was new and the team had potential. Before long, they had captured 4 Stanley Cups and were battling the revered Montreal Canadiens for Eastern Conference supremacy. Unfortunately time wasn’t kind to the Isles.

The 80’s faded, along with their glory. Stars of the old guard retired, only to be replaced by some of the worst signings in modern sports. Alexei Yashin, a Russian forward who floundered on the Island, is still getting paid despite leaving the team in 2007. Rick DiPietro, expected to be the franchise goalie, was cursed with glass bones and paper skin; after a career of unbelievable injuries –he blew out a knee in the All-Star Game shootout and was concussed after taking a shot to the mask in practice–he was mercifully bought out this summer. General Manager Mike Milbury did all he could to run the team into the ground in the ‘90s, short of inserting himself in the starting line-up. The team became one of the leagues worst. There was even a time when the Islanders owner was a literal con man, with barely a cent to his name.

The coliseum. (Photo by Getty Images)
The coliseum. (Photo by Getty Images)

The Coliseum faded, too. The sight lines were good, but seats began to stain and break. Concourses were simply too narrow to comfortably accommodate a full house. Signs in the locker rooms warned of asbestos and the scoreboard was an antenna away from looking like your grandparents’ TV. Fans longed for amenities that would be taken for granted at any other arena, like a team store and food options beyond generic sports-event concessions.

It was also isolated, miles away from the Long Island Railroad. Fans were forced to sit in highway traffic for hours, only to arrive at a gray cylindrical arena, in the middle of a cracked parking lot. They would enter, sit in an uncomfortable (if at all functioning) seat, see a bad hockey game, and shuffle out. Their consolation prize? Either an hour of sitting in traffic or an overpriced beer at the sports bar in the hotel across the parking lot (owned by team owner, Charles Wang).

Last year, the Islanders began to turn things around. Despite a lockout wiping out the first half of the season, the team announced in September that they would move to Brooklyn in 2015.  While that news faded into the background during the season, the team made the playoffs and gave the top seeded (and painfully smug) Pittsburgh Penguins a run for their money. Optimism, for the first time in years, could be used in the same sentence as ‘New York Islanders’.

That optimism was on full display in Brooklyn on Saturday, when the Isles took to the ice in their new home for the first time. While it was only a preseason game, it served as a chance for fans to look forward: this wasn’t only what the future could be, it was what it inevitably will be in 2 years time.

Things got off to a good start since the ease of access that Barclays Center loves to advertise proved to be true. I drove from Staten Island and made it door to door in roughly 45 minutes; the Islanders themselves took the LIRR without a hitch. Inside, there was a tangible buzz; let that settle for a moment, people were excited about a New York Islanders preseason game.

Instead of the classic Nassau Coliseum experience of entering into a tight cement corridor, most fans at Barclays Center enter through an atrium. Ahead of you is what you ultimately came for: the gleaming sheet of ice. Standing on the balcony overlooking the playing surface, even the Nassau Coliseum’s most faithful supporter couldn’t help but marvel. The most commonly heard reaction was simply, “wow.”

Things got less positive, though, once warm-ups began. Like with other sports, hockey warm-ups are the one time that everyone, regardless of seat location, gets an equal look at the players. Kids crowd the glass trying to catch a puck from their hero while old-timers stand a few rows back attempting to glean an astute insight from the way a defenseman takes a wrist shot or how a forward crosses over. It’s one of those times where everyone gets to be a fan.

That is until the ushers appeared to move us out of the section because fans with tickets there wanted to sit. Barclays might use invisible glass barriers to divide the most exclusive sections, but the message is clear: even before the game, you can’t get close without cash.

The Islanders took on the Devils in a pre-season game at the Barclays Center on Saturday. (Photo by Getty Images)
The Islanders took on the Devils in a pre-season game at the Barclays Center on Saturday. (Photo by Getty Images)

Heading upstairs, the escalator wasn’t working; after all, nothing makes an Islanders fan feel at home like a little disrepair. From there, I was faced with a surprisingly narrow corridor, lined with stands selling gourmet popcorn and artisanal macaroni and cheese. I’m not sure what hockey fan would eat that at a game, but hey, when in Brooklyn.

I then found my seat, but only after being asked “are you sitting in this section?” and having to show an usher my ticket; people sneaking into the cheapest section in the house must be a frequent issue. I was sitting in the upper level, behind the net, in what was advertised as “obstructed view.” Despite that descriptor, most of the section was shocked at how obstructed their view really was.

Some of the main concerns over the Islanders’ move to the Barclays center were capacity and layout. The Coliseum fits 16,170 fans while Barclays holds 15,813 for hockey. In addition to that being the second smallest capacity in the NHL behind Winnipeg, it hints at the bigger issue: the arena was simply not built with a hockey rink in mind.

Because of that, the ice surface extends unevenly in the arena. In one end, there is a normal arena layout of seat extending down to the glass. At the other, though, there has to be empty space (which of course is monetized by letting the most exclusive fans walk around behind the glass) for the surface to physically fit in the building.

That of course leads to obstructed views. From the upper level, you cannot see below the faceoff dots in your end. To the unfamiliar, that means one of the two goals (aka one of the things you want to be able to see more than anything else) isn’t there. You’re forced to rely on the scoreboard, which in and of itself wouldn’t be a bad thing except for the non-stop moving banner adds above and below the replay screen. It’s kind of hard to focus on the play when a Big Mac is bouncing through your peripheral vision.

One fan was reported as saying that it looked like a hockey rink was crammed into a concert hall. A man in my section addressed his view with a typical Islanders fan’s attitude. “Hey, I’m already miserable as an Isles fan,” he mused to no one in particular. “So why not only show me half the ice while you’re at it?”

The layout also affected the National Anthem festivities. The Islanders recently have taken to unfurling a giant flag over the crowd, as many other teams do. In other arenas, the flag gets passed around the crowd. Barclays, though, has too many dividers between its uneven sections, so the flag just sat in one place. Its ‘waving’ looked more like pre-schoolers bouncing a rainbow parachute than anything else.

Goodbye to all that. (Photo by Getty Images)
Goodbye to all that. (Photo by Getty Images)

The game then got off to the worst start possible. No, no one got hurt and the Islanders didn’t surrender a goal seconds in. As the players skated to center ice for the initial faceoff, Seven Nation Army began to play. The crowd did the accompanying chant. I cringed. Not only is it an artificial way to create fan engagement that has nothing to do with the game at hand, but it also reminds me of the Miami Heat.

After that, the game was, for better or worse, like a normal Islanders game. The crowd was loud, and then got quieter over time. The Isles fell behind and failed to score on their power plays. It was hard not to feel at home when the organist played the chicken dance and ‘If you’re happy and you know it’ and received the usual anti-Rangers responses.

That was what was so lovable about the Islanders and why playing in Nassau kind of fit them; they were both bad, but in the lovably blue collar way. The fans embraced it. Where other franchises do all they can to encourage their fans to be polite, the Islanders prompt their fans to shout “the Rangers suck” several times a game. Not the most high brow? I’ll give you that. But it’s fun.

The Islanders are not the Rangers, who rely on years of history and an aura of class. They’re not the Devils who went from “Mickey Mouse organization” to model franchise overnight. They showed up late to the party, had the best damn time they could, and then passed out on the couch. Now they’re working off the hangover.

I’m not striving to suggest that moving to Brooklyn will change who the average Islanders fan is. While the crowd did feature some orange and blue plaid shirts and random Turkish soccer jerseys, the overwhelming majority of the crowd was clad in the familiar orange and blue Isles sweater. The ironically bad Fisherman jersey even made several appearances in the crowd, blending hipster chic with a badge of fandom.

But at the same time, an arena reflects what an organization views itself as. Changing sports for a moment, the Yankees posit themselves as the be all and end all of baseball; their stadium, consequently, is a theme park too distracted at being big and great to be that special of a baseball stadium. The Mets, by consciously alluding to Dodgers history, try to remind you they are a classic New York franchise, not an orange-haired stepchild.

Moving to Barclays, the Islanders aren’t a laughing stock anymore. Like the arena, they might not be perfect, but there’s a buzz. Players won’t shun them because of poor facilities. Fans won’t write off a game as too inconvenient to attend. There’s hope that things can be good again.

They’re still the Islanders, though; just look at the third period of the game on Saturday.  Kyle Okposso was bloodied by an inadvertent stick to the face, Evgeni Nabakov allowed a third goal of the night, and the Islanders Ice Girls danced to Gangnam Style for some reason.

Will the move be perfect? Absolutely not, but it’s inevitable at this point. The Islanders will be in Brooklyn for the 2015 season.  Right now, it’s the best of both worlds. On one hand, there’s hope on the horizon. The team is improving, there’s a new arena waiting, and, to be honest, things can’t get much worse than the past decade of Islanders history.

On the other hand, the impending move has done the impossible: made people nostalgic for the undeniably shitty Nassau Coliseum. Sure it was kind of a laughing stock, but it was where the Islanders played. It was blue collar and about as comfortable as a barn, but that wasn’t its goal. It was a holdover from the days when an arena was nothing more than where a team played and a fan would be satisfied with a fight on the ice, a cold beer, and a smoke between periods.

When I emerged from Barclays onto Atlantic Avenue, two fans behind me were breaking down the game we just watched. While they were focusing on this season, they inadvertently touched on the juxtaposition of the move.

One believed that while the Isles struggled tonight, they would pull it together for the regular season. He felt that things were coming to a crescendo; the years of struggle were finally a thing of the past. The other, jaded by years of fandom responded, “but you’re forgetting one thing: we’re the Islanders.”

A New Stadium, but Still the Same Old Team