As the Islanders bundled their sticks, packed their bags and cleaned out their lockers this week, many took a moment to pay their respects to the franchise’s home for the last 43 years, Nassau Coliseum.
Players walked down the tunnel to the ice – the Islanders logo still painted at center – and took a look around. The banners still hung proudly, the air full of history, as bittersweet memories of the final game here – a 3-1 Game 6 win – slowly sunk in.
To some it’s just a rink, but to the Islanders – many of whom have known no other team – it’s so much more.
“It’s been home for six years for me,” John Tavares said. “It’s a lot more than just a building and playing games here.”
The Islanders worked and played together here nearly every day for eight months per year for 42 seasons. You can tell it’s been lived in. The low-hanging ceiling tiles outside the locker room have been dented by countless soccer balls, much like a dinged garage door after a summer of ball hockey. There are marks on the Expo Hall floor from pucks being stickhandled before games. There are layers of paint covering up scratches from equipment bags and carts.
“The atmosphere is talked about a lot and it’s special, but it’s also the people that are here every day, that appreciate having us here,” Tavares said. “There are a lot of relationships and great people you meet and are involved with.”
It’s been lived in by the fans too, who have been coming here for 43 years and came out in huge numbers in the final season.
The Coliseum was sold out 30 times in 2014-15, marking the highest attendance in years and turning a long, sad, goodbye into a celebration. The Islanders honored the building’s past, bringing back players from every decade to recount the franchise’s whole history, not just the fabled dynasty years. Even the Fisherman crest was exhumed for one last twirl around the ice.
The revered building set the stage for a high-flying team in 2014-15; a well-rounded, four-line team with a revamped defense, crease and attitude.
“The support by our fan base is the reason we went as far as we did,” Head Coach Jack Capuano said. “It was the fans that we built energy off night in and night out here. It was a special bond between the players and the fans, the relationship they had. We concentrated on giving this fan base some excitement and we did that.
The building shook. It rumbled. The rambunctious crowd spilled out into the parking lot long before and after games. There was enthusiasm in every direction, a nightly sea of blue and orange and iconic honking down Hempstead Turnpike.
“It was different than any other year,” Josh Bailey said. “Everyone really rallied around the team. We were able to win some games, give them something to cheer about and the people really responded well and rallied around that, as we did with them.”
The "Yes! Yes! Yes!" chant signified that bond. What started as a small section of fans saluting the team in their own way, became the signature of the season. The Islanders paid tribute to their fans at center ice after every win, echoing the chant back to the crowd.
“The different chants, the Yes! Yes! Yes! stuff at center ice, I think we had a special bond with one another,” Bailey said.
For the longest-tenured Islanders, like Bailey and Frans Nielsen, their bond with the Coliseum goes way back. The crowd first left an impression on a 22-year-old Nielsen in the 2007 playoffs, his first season with the Islanders.
Nielsen was called up as a Black Ace for the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series against the Buffalo Sabres and watched both games at the Coliseum. He saw the potential, heard the noise, the ruckus and knew how much fun it would be to play in that environment.
“It’s incredible. It really pushed me every summer, every year to get better,” Nielsen said. “I told Garth in my exit meeting my first year, I said 'I want to experience that one day.'”
He did. He was on the ice for the Islanders return to the playoffs in 2013 and helped recreate that atmosphere. Nielsen was part of one of the most memorable goals of that series, feeding Kyle Okposo for his breakaway in Game Three. Okposo said that game was the loudest he ever played in, though many players said Game Six vs. Washington may have topped it.
Tyler Kennedy – a former visitor with the Pittsburgh Penguins – paid the Long Island fans and the Coliseum the ultimate compliment.
“This is an intimidating place to play.”
That is, if you’re sitting on the visitor’s bench at puck drop. To know this building as a home player is to love it. It has a classic bowl design, a low ceiling forcing sound down to the ice and an old-school charm. It’s not luxurious, but hockey people get it.
“It’s unique,” Cal Clutterbuck said. “The way buildings are made today, the acoustics are a lot different. It’s extremely loud. [There’s] a ruckus, [it’s] blue collar. It’s a really good atmosphere to play in. I hate to use a cliché, but they really don’t make them like this anymore.”
And one thing that can’t be built with any amount of steel or concrete is history. That’s built through championships, success and time. There’s a lot of history in this building. Bobby Nystrom’s OT winner, Ken Morrow’s OT winner and Mike Bossy’s 50-in-50 stand out as three of the all-time Coliseum moments, but there’s a lot of personal history for the current Islanders.
This was a building for many firsts. Ten Islanders regulars played their first NHL game at the Coliseum. Two of them – Tavares and Anders Lee – scored goals in those games and three other regulars also scored their first goals here. For those players, the Coliseum will serve as the backdrop to memories they’ll never forget.
“All the guys are going to miss this place,” Okposo said. “Going to Brooklyn, it’s a beautiful arena, but you have to get used to that too. You have to mold that into a home. It’s like buying a house, it doesn’t become a home until you’re in it and mold to it.”
This was home.
“I feel like any time I drive by next year,” Bailey said. “Part of me is still going to be here.”