Shovel, meet ground.
Against the backdrop of backhoes and bulldozers, the New York Islanders and New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo officially announced the groundbreaking for the team's new arena at Belmont Park.
"The Islanders belong on Long Island - and today we start building the state-of-the-art home this team and their fans deserve while generating thousands of jobs and billions in economic activity for the region's economy," Governor Cuomo said in a press release.
A line of Islanders, including captain Anders Lee, Head Coach Barry Trotz, President/GM Lou Lamoriello and Co-Owner Jon Ledecky flanked the Governor with shovels - cleverly crafted with hockey stick shafts - in their hands. They each scooped up a mound of ceremonial dirt and tossed it in front of them in a symbolic gesture that officially kicked off construction and unofficially buried the past uncertainty of where the Islanders would call home.
"This today will go down as one of the great days in the history of the New York Islanders," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "This is the day that assures everybody who has anything to do with the Islanders, who cares anything about the Islanders, who is passionate about the Islanders as Islanders fans are, that this is the future of this franchise right here on Long Island."
Even the most cynical Islanders fan, justifiably hardened by past arena issues and relocation rumors, had to be moved by Monday's events. While the arena had already won an RFP, passed an environmental impact report and been approved by Empire State Development, there were always fans who whispered I'll believe it when I see a shovel in the ground. Now they have their proof.
"It's probably the greatest day an Islanders fan has had since they won the Stanley Cup," said Steven Schwartz, an Isles fan from Cold Spring Harbor. "To see the reality and not the dream. I think the reality is better than the dream. This is going to be great."
It was not lost on Schwartz that his team could have moved to Kansas City all those years ago when the Lighthouse Project went dark. Even Lamoriello, whose entering his second season with the Islanders, can sympathize, as he recalled the relocation rumors and building troubles he experienced with the New Jersey Devils in the mid-90s. For the past year, Lamoriello was steadfast that the arena would be built and didn't underscore its importance to the health of the franchise.
"It was inevitable that if a facility wasn't built that hockey wouldn't be here on Long Island," Lamoriello said.
Monday was a celebration, with Ledecky leading a Yes! Yes! Yes! chant and Governor Cuomo expressing his excitement for the Islanders to return home to Long Island. Even Ralph Macchio and Kevin Connolly were on hand.
"We celebrate this historic day with our loyal fans and thank Governor Cuomo, who has championed the Belmont Park Arena project from the start," Ledecky said. "The Islanders also thank the elected officials and our community for their support in helping reach this franchise milestone."
"Without a number of people, this day wouldn't have happened," Bettman said. "Obviously there's Islanders ownership that not only has invested time and energy and creativity into this project, but they've also devoted the resources necessary to make this project a reality."
Congratulations were given and received and tribute was paid to late Islanders owner Charles Wang, who helped point Scott Malkin and the Islanders owners towards Belmont in the first place.
"I also want to thank Charles Wang and acknowledge his family," Bettman added. "The late Charles Wang had a vision for Long Island. He didn't start out a hockey fan, but he knew that the Islanders were important to hockey fans and for all of Long Island and he put his heart and soul into this team."
The Belmont Park Arena will mark the first rink that the Islanders fully own and operate since entering the league in 1972, as opposed to their previous tenant status at Nassau Coliseum and Barclays Center. For a team who has searched for a permanent and state-of-the-art home for decades, Monday's announcement was monumental.
"It's special," said Josh Bailey, who has the longest-tenured Islander has waited the longest for the arena situation to settle. "I remember sitting at one of these in my first year when we were still working on the Lighthouse Project, it's nice to get some clarity here on the future of our franchise and to be a part of it."
For the Islanders, it means a stable home on Long Island for years to come. No more compromises, no commutes to Brooklyn or half seasons at the Coliseum. Even fans won't have to choose between driving or taking the train to games, as they'll have both options. There will be a retail village and state-of-the-art everything, from player lounges to ice-making equipment. The renderings really tell the story.
Soon, steel and concrete will be put in place and a little beyond that seats, scoreboards and eventually ice will be added, all in time for the 2021-22 season. Somehow, that feels both near and far, but one thing is for certain - a shovel is in the ground and an arena is on its way.