On May 5, 2015, Matt Martin was holding a jagged chunk of Nassau Coliseum ice in his hand during the rink's deconstruction.
It was a sad day, Martin recalled, as a bulldozer unceremoniously carved through the Islanders logo at center ice, while the banners were being lowered from the rafters. At that point, Martin and the Islanders had said their goodbyes to the team's original home and he was looking for a keepsake or two. He didn't take home any ice chunks, but did get one of the bottles of melted ice the team sold after the 2015 season.
"I think I tried to get out of here with a chair, but they wouldn't let me," Martin said. "I tried to take what I could get."
On Friday, the ice was in its rightful place, underneath Martin's skates, as he and his teammates practiced at NYCB LIVE, the new name for the arena where the Isles started playing in 1972 and won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83. On Saturday, the Islanders will play their first regular season game at the Coliseum since April 11, 2015 - and first meaningful game since Game Six vs Washington on April 25. It's an unexpected second life for Coliseum and Martin plans to enjoy it.
"That day [in 2015] was a pretty sad day for us. We were going to miss this place, but now that we're back it's pretty special," Martin said. "You don't get that opportunity too often."
The Islanders are going to play 21 games at NYCB LIVE this year, half of their regular season schedule. Each game figures to be an event, especially Saturday as the team is hosting a pre-game party on the plaza beginning at 4:30 p.m.
"I think it's going to be awesome," captain Anders Lee said. "I have no doubt about it. We have some of the most loyal, best fans in the NHL that have been waiting for this moment, for us to be back in this area of the island. We're looking forward to it. It'll be a fun day tomorrow."
Lee is one of the 10 Islanders still on the roster who played during the 2014-15 season, the Isles' last at the Coliseum, and remembers those days fondly. So does Josh Bailey, the longest-tenured Islander and best acquainted with the building.
"Anyone that was a part of that team has nothing but good memories of playing in this building," Bailey said. "It seemed like that atmosphere was a playoff atmosphere every night and the playoffs were even more so. Looking forward to tomorrow night. It'll be good for us, good for our fans and I'm sure it'll be rocking in here."
Video: Gillies, Nystrom lead NYCB Live Tour
The building underwent an upgrade since the Isles last called it home and even since the team's preseason game in September. New York State invested $6M into the bones of the building, specifically investing in ice plant redundancy and dehumidification to meet NHL requirements. The Islanders put $4M into a new team campus, outfitted with a new team lounge, locker stalls and a training area. The new dressing room is tight, but the intimacy is one of the appeals and motifs of the Coliseum.
"They did a good job with the room and the facilities and getting ready for us," Bailey said. "It feels like home."
Part of feeling at home is knowing the quirks of the building. Johnny Boychuk was firing pucks off the end wall to test the elasticity of the boards before Friday's practice and find some new sweet spots.
Head Coach Barry Trotz is looking forward to taking advantage of the new amenities and the home ice advantage when he steps behind the Isles bench on Saturday. The coach said he had to duck the odd beer when he was with the Washington Capitals and backed up John Tortorella's comments that the lighting was dim and space was cramped in the visiting coach's offices. Trotz said he used to fret about the Islanders coaches being able to hear him through the walls, so he'd take his meetings elsewhere, but he's an old-school guy and he appreciates the character in the building.
"I just think there are certain buildings that are tougher to come into," Trotz said. "The buildings are very generic now around the league… I think the older buildings are a little more intimate. They carry a little bit of weight. The players get the energy from the building. Especially the home team when you're going good and that's something this building has had."
Martin agreed. He said the design of the building amplified sound and gave teams the impression they were being dominated, even in a scoreless game.
"They were right on top of you," Martin said. "The ceiling is low and it's so loud. I just remember sitting in this dressing room for the playoffs and 10 minutes before you go on the ice, you hear Let's Go Islanders chants and you get the butterflies going through. I had a similar feeling in the preseason when I came back, so I'm excited to get back here tomorrow night."
All of the Islanders are excited, as are the fans who've gone 270 consecutive regular season games between home affairs on Hempstead Turnpike. As Martin can attest, it's a day he didn't foresee happening back in spring of 2015. Second chances like this don't come around often and the Isles are going to enjoy it.
"It's an opportunity to enjoy this building," Lee said. "An opportunity to do well in it, to have success and do whatever we can to continue the history and tradition that are here."