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Islanders closing Coliseum chasing one more Cup

by Brian Compton

"It's the land that time forgot over there. It's all the same ushers, it's the same people working there. To me, it feels like I stepped back through a portal to 1984." -- Former New York Islanders captain Patrick Flatley

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Depending on where you live on Long Island, you either drive north or south on the Meadowbrook Parkway. When you see the gigantic smoke stacks alongside the highway, you know you're almost there.

You get off at Exit M4. On most nights, many of the car horns are playing to the tune of "Let's Go Islanders," a repetitive sound you've heard nearly every trip you've made to Uniondale.

Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the only home the New York Islanders have had, opened in 1972, the same year the Islanders entered the NHL with the Atlanta Flames. This Saturday, the Islanders will play their final regular-season game there, against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Despite owner Charles Wang's multiple attempts to either renovate the Coliseum or reach an agreement with Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead for a new arena, nothing came to fruition. The Islanders will play at Barclays Center in Brooklyn next season.

"It's sad that they couldn't get anything done," said Hockey Hall of Fame right wing Mike Bossy, who scored 573 goals in 10 seasons for the Islanders (1977-87). "It's not like there wasn't room to do stuff, that people couldn't have found the money to do it. I just think there wasn't a desire, a strong enough desire [from the county and town] to get it done."

Officially opened and dedicated on May 29, 1972, the Coliseum hosted its first event three months earlier. The New York Nets of the American Basketball Association played the Pittsburgh Condors there on Feb. 11. With the help of Julius, "Dr. J" Erving, the Nets won the ABA championship in 1974 and 1976 during five seasons there.

Once called "Fort Neverlose," the Coliseum is best known for hosting one of the greatest dynasties in the history of sports. The Islanders, led by a Hall of Fame coach (Al Arbour) who won almost 800 NHL games, won the Stanley Cup four consecutive years and a record 19 straight playoff series.

"The guys had all come from the minors or another team, so we didn't do very well that first year. I think we won 12 games. We all knew it wasn't going to be easy. We all got picked [in the expansion draft] and got thrown together." -- Former Islanders center Terry Crisp

With the NHL in a heated competition against the World Hockey Association, the Islanders became a franchise on Nov. 8, 1971. Led by entrepreneur Roy Boe, the first order of business was to hire a general manager who would have to build a team from scratch.

Hall of Fame goalie Billy Smith was selected in the 1972 expansion draft by the New York Islanders from the Los Angeles Kings.
(Photo: Bruce Bennett)

After a 90-minute interview, former Oakland Seals executive Bill Torrey was named Islanders GM. With the help of amateur scout Jimmy Devellano, the Islanders selected forward Billy Harris with the first pick in the 1972 NHL Draft and forwards Lorne Henning and Bobby Nystrom in the next two rounds. They also selected Terry Crisp, Eddie Westfall, Gerry Hart, and a goaltender named Billy Smith in the expansion draft.

"I didn't know a thing about Long Island," Crisp said. "Being from Canada, for us New York was New York City and the big buildings and the traffic. When we got to the Island, it was like a whole new world. My wife and I loved it there."

The Coliseum averaged 12,908 fans per game in the Islanders' inaugural season of 1972-73, when they won 12 of 78 games. Phil Goyette, their first coach, didn't make it to the end.

"That first year we all just rented homes because we didn't know where to go or what to do," Crisp said. "We'd leave the motel in the morning, we'd pull out of the parking lot to look at houses and there'd be four or five cars behind us. It was like a caravan going to look for homes. Nobody knew where they were going or what to look for.

"It was a bonding thing because you knew you were all brand new and trying to make it happen. It worked out good. It was a fun experience. I enjoyed being an original Islander, I really did."

Mary Sloan from nearby Williston Park began attending games that season as a 15-year-old. Her family shared tickets with friends for the first two seasons, and she's been sitting in Section 334 since 1974.

"There never used to be all those seats above the (second level)," Sloan said. "All of that was standing room. It was very reasonable to get in for that. It was just standing room. During the game, if you wanted to, you could walk down and nobody really bothered you as long as you weren't bothering anybody else. It was more about the game. It's now become more about the event. People stayed in their seats more. It was more about the hockey game back then."

"The Rangers were here and they scored a goal, it might have been Rod Gilbert. I remember what happened to our team at that point; the Rangers scored a goal and the [Coliseum] erupted. It was like we were playing a home game with the Rangers. I remember going back to the dressing room and the guys were just livid. We all came back out and it changed our whole focus. We weren't just a new franchise; we were a franchise that needed to be better than the Rangers, and it didn't take that long. In 1975, we finally beat them in a playoff series. That was one of the early memories." -- Former Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin

Over the past 43 years, the Coliseum has hosted several pulsating playoff series between the Islanders and Rangers, a rivalry that truly arrived in the spring of 1975. In their third season of existence (Arbour's second as coach), the Islanders eliminated the Rangers when J.P. Parise scored 11 seconds into overtime in Game 3 of the opening round at Madison Square Garden.

Parise's goal made it official: The Islanders had arrived. With defenseman Denis Potvin and forwards Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies in the mix, there truly were two teams in the New York metropolitan area. The Islanders went on to become the second team in NHL history to rally from 3-0 in a best-of-7 series when they eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round, then nearly did it again before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 7.

PHOTOS: Iconic Coliseum moments

Nassau Coliseum has seen its share of iconic moments in its 43-year history. (Photo: Bruce Bennett)


"I think it brought credibility to a new franchise," Islanders defenseman Dave Lewis (1973-80) said. "Nobody ever expected us to beat the Rangers. And then going in to beat Pittsburgh down 3-0, knowing that only happened once in 1942 (by the Toronto Maple Leafs), that was quite a remarkable experience. We almost did the same thing to the Flyers. Great memories and great guys."

Howie Rose, the Islanders' play-by-play television announcer since 1995, said, "I don't think those that weren't around then even understand or realize what that '75 team accomplished to put the Islanders on the map. Clearly the birth of the franchise was J-P Parise's goal that beat the Rangers at 11 seconds of overtime to win their first-ever playoff series."

Sloan said, "I don't think all of a sudden we expected them to be who they were. It began the rivalry."

It blossomed into arguably one of the best in sports. On April 10, 1984, the Coliseum was the site for one of the most exciting playoff games of all-time. With their opening-round best-of-5 series tied 2-2, defenseman Ken Morrow put a shot past Rangers goalie Glen Hanlon at 8:56 of overtime to reserve the Islanders' drive for a fifth straight Stanley Cup (they would lose the Final to the Edmonton Oilers).

Throughout the years, a Rangers-Islanders game at the Coliseum was always an event. It didn't matter how either team was faring in the standings, the players always heard about it.

"The day of a Ranger game when I'd pull my car into the gas station, the gas station's attendant is talking with you," Flatley (1983-96) said. "You go get a coffee at the deli, the deli guy can't stop talking about it. You've had six conversations before you even get to the rink about the Ranger game tonight. The buildup of the community is what made those games so intense."

Trottier (1975-90) said, "It was unique, special in every form. It was like we'd bump into these guys off the ice in the summertime. We'd do fundraisers, golf tournaments. Great guys, awesome guys. We'd get on the ice, we'd want to like beat the heck out of each other. It was just incredible that the intensity and the rivalry that had formed because of the New York-New York thing brought out that intensity in both teams. It made for a great hockey game."

Islanders right wing Mick Vukota (1988-97) remembers one occasion during a preseason game against the Rangers early in his career when things got a bit out of control.

"As I was skating off the ice after a fight, there was a huge Grizzly Adams-like Ranger fan with a (John) Vanbiesbrouck jersey standing right there on the rail as I exited the ice," Vukota said. "He's screaming at me and I couldn't get to him because there was cement there. I just instinctively took my helmet off and fired it and hit him right in the face.

"The poor security guard for the Coliseum had to get it in a pile of Ranger fans. He came back with a bloody nose and a cut on his eye and he handed me my helmet back. He's like, 'I'd really appreciate it if you didn't throw it into a group of 6-foot-6 Ranger fans next time.'"

"What I tell people is to be put in that position is incredible. We all thought we would be the hero. So I always am thankful that I was put in that position. It was the best moment, but there were many moments." -- Former Islanders forward Bobby Nystrom

After being eliminated by the Rangers in the 1979 playoffs, there was some doubt whether the group Torrey and his staff put together was good enough to win a championship.

But the final piece was added in the spring of 1980, when the Islanders acquired center Butch Goring from the Los Angeles Kings in what has since been dubbed one of the best NHL Trade Deadline moves of all time.

"We had a good group, and we had a good plan," Torrey said. "A lot of those names (on the banners) were drafts. Fortunately in those days, you were drafting 20-year-olds and you could build a team and keep them."

The first championship banner was secured on May 24, 1980. On that warm spring afternoon on Long Island, Nystrom redirected John Tonelli's feed past Flyers goalie Pete Peeters at 7:11 of overtime, ending the Stanley Cup Final in six games. Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum was suddenly the home of the best hockey team in the world.

"The highlight of my time here was when Bobby scored the goal that won the first Cup," said Gillies (1974-86), who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2002. "I had just gotten off the ice and I was tired, I think I had my head between my legs. I never really saw him score the goal; I was certainly happy when I found out he had scored. That was a huge moment, winning the Cup here. We won three of the four Cups here, that was pretty special."

The Islanders won the Cup on home ice in 1981, defeating the Minnesota North Stars in five games. In 1982, they won their third straight championship against the Vancouver Canucks, but it was on the road. The Islanders swept the Oilers for a fourth consecutive championship in 1983 and nearly won it a fifth time before losing to the Oilers in five games the next season.

"We were in Bermuda when they won the first Cup," Sloan said. "My brother-in-law got to see it. But the following year when we beat the North Stars, we had bottles of champagne in our section. When they won, everybody popped the champagne. Just to know that the Cup was in the building was so exciting.

"Although it was really devastating [when they didn't win the fifth Cup], the following spring it was actually a relief. It took up all our whole life. You couldn't make any plans in May."

Trottier said, "It's magical that we had that kind of success for so long. We pushed and pulled each other."

There were other memorable moments during the run. On Jan. 24, 1981, Bossy joined Montreal Canadiens great Maurice Richard by scoring 50 goals in 50 games, accomplishing the feat at the Coliseum in a game against the Quebec Nordiques.

On Feb. 21, 1982, Tonelli scored with 47 seconds remaining to give the Islanders a 3-2 win against the Colorado Rockies, allowing the Islanders to break a 52-year-old record with their 15th straight victory.

Six players from the dynasty era have had their number retired by the Islanders: Potvin (5), Gillies (9), Trottier (19), Bossy (22), Nystrom (23) and Smith (31).

"It was a remarkable amount of fun to watch a bunch of kids who came together, in some cases one at a time through the middle part of the 1970s, evolve into four-time champions," Rose said.

"They were always up for free beer. They would head out to the softball games and do everything they had to to solidify their place in the community." -- Former Islanders forward Mike Bossy

To this day, several players from the dynastic run live on Long Island. Just a short drive to beaches and some of the country's best golf courses, not to mention the short train ride to Manhattan, is enticing.

But there's little doubt that the way the Islanders were embraced by the community left a lasting impact.

"It was a community atmosphere that you probably wouldn't find in other major cities," said Potvin, who had 310 goals and 742 assists in 1,060 games, all with the Islanders (1974-88). "The makeup of Long Island was such that it wasn't overwhelming for us. All I knew about New York was the Empire State Building. This was so different than what we expected. It was impossible to stay home on Thanksgiving. I had Kosher meals, I had turkey with Christian families, then I'd go to an Italian family for Christmas and have fish. It was a great eye-opener for all of us. The people really took us in. It was great."

Bryan Trottier

Hockey Hall of Fame member Bryan Trottier holds numerous
Islanders records, including being their all-time leading
scorer. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1980 and
was the only Islander to win the Art Ross Trophy (1979).
Photo: Bruce Bennett (Click to enlarge)

Trottier said, "I think they really embraced us as a bunch of kids. We wanted to just dive right into the communities and be a part of everything. The invitations just never seemed to stop. There was always some kind of function going on, there was always some kind of fundraiser or community event. We'd go there and we'd just have a blast because the people made us feel like such a part of Long Island."

Nystrom said, "Most of us came from small towns, so we really identified with the community. We used to watch people walk into the building and be like, 'There's Rob and Lyla, Eddie and Susan.' We just had that kind of a relationship. Probably the best thing of all was we didn't have that mystique about us, we weren't secluded. We were out in public, loved being in restaurants and interacting with the folks here. That's why it was special, the guys weren't aloof or distant. They were out there mingling with the regular folk."

After practice or a morning skate at the Coliseum, the routine rarely changed: Shower, get dressed, and head out to one of area's many great restaurants. No matter where the Islanders went, they were recognized and received a warm welcome.

"[The Coliseum] is the only home I know there," Vukota said. "I loved playing at the Coliseum. I've been back (since leaving in 1997) probably a half-dozen times or so. It's always going to be a special place to me. I'm absolutely disappointed they weren't able to create an atmosphere in Nassau County. All my haunts and all my restaurants … going into Vinny's (Vincent's Clam Bar in Carle Place) and getting the best hot marinara and tomato sauces on the Island and the pregame meals that we used to do together. I loved being in Nassau County."

Sloan said, "After games, they would stay around. Some of them would actually come into the bar after the game. But they would go to the local places like the Wheatley Hills Tavern (in Westbury). One night I was there for dinner and in the booth right behind me was Bossy, Trottier, Potvin and Billy Smith. It was really hard to eat dinner that night knowing they were all in the booth behind me.

"They were always out and about in the community. You ran into them. You'd see them in the shopping mall. We got to interact with them."

That included before and immediately following games, when players had no choice but to walk through the parking lot to either enter the Coliseum or to get back to their car, only to be met by a large group of fans who were waiting for autographs and/or a picture. Players now park underneath the building but are still met by fans as they exit.

"One of my greatest memories at the Coliseum is all of them," Flatley said. "I really can't pick one. It's one giant collage of fantastic memories. From the warm-ups to just arriving to the rink, to finishing the games and walking out of the Coliseum and [getting in] your car and going through the gauntlet of fans, that was always to me very special. I think it made us a more accountable team too. When you lose, you have to go through that gauntlet as well.

"The people make the building. It started actually in the parking lot when I pulled my car in and I was recognized by the parking attendant. On the way into the building, the ushers all recognized me and greeted me. It was an unbelievably positive welcome. It was overwhelming. The fans and the people of Long Island are really what made that Coliseum."

"I think the one thing our fans appreciate is we're only 20, 25 miles down the road, and it could have been a lot worse scenario than that." -- Islanders general manager Garth Snow

Wang, who bought the Islanders in 2000, began working behind the scenes with Nassau County politicians early in his tenure. Wang's vision, the Lighthouse Project, was reportedly going to be privately funded and included a complete renovation of the Coliseum. But the project was deemed too large by the Town of Hempstead, and its counterproposal, according to Wang, was not economically viable.

On Aug. 1, 2011, Nassau County residents voted against spending $400 million for a new arena.

"I have to tell you I'm disappointed, and to put it very bluntly, I'm heartbroken" Wang said after the defeat, according to the New York Times.

Fourteen months after the referendum failed, Wang, determined to keep the Islanders in the metropolitan area, announced they would move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn. They would honor the remaining years of the lease with Nassau County, which required them to continue playing their home games at the Coliseum through the 2014-15 season.

"No one has done more to retain the New York Islanders than my administration," Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano said when the announcement was made. "I have supported various proposals to redevelop the HUB, including a public referendum in which votes chose not to construct a new sports arena. It's sad and unfortunate that political opponents chose to oppose my plan and instead continued to support the 'Culture of No' on Long Island."

A state-of-the-art arena that opened in 2012 as home of the NBA's Brooklyn Nets, Barclays Center will provide the Islanders with the amenities the Coliseum lacks. But for anyone involved in creating so many memories for the citizens of Long Island, the idea that the Islanders won't be playing in Nassau County after this season is a wound that likely won't ever heal.

"It's heartbreaking to me to see it happen," said Nystrom (1972-86), responsible for the greatest memory of all. "It's a great building. It's had its time and I certainly understand that it has to be refurbished, but for me there are just tremendous memories here."

Hall of Fame announcer Jiggs McDonald, who did Islanders play-by-play from 1981-1995, said, "It tears my heart out. It's one of the classic buildings. So many of the new ones are cookie-cutters, they're all under the same architectural design plan. That building is so significant, the fact that [from the] parking lot you can walk from your car unmolested to the building, you can tailgate out there, you can drive to the game.

"… There's so many things involved, and for Nassau County to turn their back on what could have been just a great destination point, it's mind-boggling. I fail to see the rationale in it."


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The Coliseum, when compared to other venues, was considered a deterrent in recent summers when Islanders general manager Garth Snow tried to sign free agents. With on-ice success this season and the move to Barclays Center, the Islanders can become a preferred destination. But Snow said he sympathizes with fans who are having a difficult time coming to terms with the move.

"Some great memories in the old barn here," said Snow, a former goalie who won his first NHL game at the Coliseum in 1995 while playing for Quebec. "I know our fans, whether it's on the concourse or seeing them in a restaurant, they're pretty pumped up, [but] obviously a little sad that it is the last year at the Coliseum. But 43 years is a pretty long time to be in one building, so we're excited about going to a first-class facility like Barclays Center, and I know our players are pretty pumped up about it."

The biggest change for Islanders fans will be taking mass transit to home games. Most are used to hopping in the car after work and getting to the Coliseum in about 30 minutes. Next season, most of them will have to take a train.

"I think it's tremendously sad that they're not going to be in Nassau anymore," Flatley said. "But life has its challenges, and from what I understand the Long Island Rail Road is going to be providing really good service into Brooklyn. I think the fans will adjust. I think their passion will override any inconveniences that it may put in their way."

Sloan, who has attended games at the Coliseum since the beginning, said she won't be following the team the 20 miles to Brooklyn, at least on a full-time basis.

"I'll go to a game or two," she said. "I haven't been to (Barclays Center) yet, but from what I can see and what I can afford, it tells you that it's limited view. It's pricey, and trying to get there for weekday games would really be difficult. I think it's really beginning to sink in that they're actually not going to be (at the Coliseum) next year."

Developer Bruce Ratner, who helped make Barclays Center a reality, is scheduled to begin renovating and scaling down the Coliseum soon after the Islanders depart.

"What happened in the 1980s may never happen again anywhere, but if you're just talking about sustaining a winning team and fan interest and those days when you couldn't go anywhere without seeing an Islander bumper sticker or go into a store or a deli without seeing an Islanders calendar, some artifact that told you you were in Islanders Country, it's sad that now as the team is getting better, they're leaving," Rose said.

"Just like any other organization, they go through their ups and their downs, but I think to have a final toast to the Coliseum and have the team play so well has made this that much more special and meaningful for the fans, the players and anybody who's ever been associated with that building for 43 years. I think the team has meant so much to Long Island. That's going to be a hole you can't replace." -- Former Islanders forward Pat LaFontaine

The Islanders experienced plenty of rough times post-dynasty. They had one more somewhat magical run in 1993, when they surprisingly reached the Wales Conference Final that included a seven-game series victory against the Penguins, who won the Stanley Cup the previous two years.

The Islanders haven't won a playoff series since. They were swept by the Rangers in the first round in 1994, and the Coliseum didn't host another playoff game for eight years.

Peter Laviolette's arrival as coach in 2001, along with the acquisitions of forwards Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca, provided some hope. The Islanders finished fifth in the Eastern Conference that season, and, for a few days in April 2002, made fans remember the glory years during a vicious first-round series against the Maple Leafs. The Islanders lost in seven games.

"It was my first year as a head coach so it's certainly something I will remember," said Laviolette (2001-03), coach of the Nashville Predators. "I don't think I'll ever forget that first year and the success we had. The fans have packed this building, and I've said it all along that the first series that I ever coached against Toronto was probably my most memorable and I'll always remember how it happened and how it went down and the aggressiveness of it and the physical play, the roller-coaster ride. Certainly I'll remember the noise this building can generate with the fans."

There have probably been a handful of times when it was louder than the night of April 24, 2002. Locked in a 3-3 tie in Game 4 against Toronto at the Coliseum, forward Shawn Bates was pulled down by Maple Leafs defenseman Bryan McCabe on a breakaway with 2:30 left in the third period. A penalty shot was awarded.

With more than 16,000 people on their feet, Bates raced in and put a wrist shot past goalie Curtis Joseph to give the Islanders the lead. The Coliseum roar was deafening.

"I thought I was going to puke," Bates told the New York Post after the game.

Laviolette said, "The roof could have caved in after that, it was so loud. I remember trying to give some direction as to who we were going to put out on the ice and I couldn't even talk to (assistant coach) Kelly Miller on the bench. I was in his ear and he couldn't even hear me."

There were rough times for the Islanders following that 2002 series. They made the playoffs again the following season, but were eliminated in the first round by the Ottawa Senators. Despite getting the Islanders to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons after seven straight misses, Laviolette was fired in the spring of 2003.

The Islanders made the playoffs again in 2004, then qualified twice over the following nine seasons. Between the on-ice failures and the uncertainty hovering over their next home, 1255 Hempstead Turnpike wasn't always a fun place to be.

"It's wonderful to see this place rocking." -- Former Islanders forward Bryan Trottier

With a young core led by center John Tavares in place, the Islanders have made their final season at the Coliseum an exciting one, and they will host at least two more playoff games. Sloan, who now brings her grandchildren to games, is happy they're having the opportunity to see the building loud and with few empty seats. The game Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres was the Islanders' 26th sellout of the season, the most in three decades.

"They had never seen the Coliseum full," Sloan said. "Now they've heard the old barn shake and they're like, 'Wow. We've never seen it like this.' There were nights in my section when it was me and whoever I brought with me. You could hear the announcers talking. It was so quiet up by us. It's fun again."

Some believe it will take a long playoff run for the Islanders to give the Coliseum a proper sendoff. But after several seasons usually determined by Christmas, former center Pat LaFontaine (1984-91) said this team has already made the Islanders alumni proud.

"It's been extra special, the fact that the team has played so well, it has allowed people to reminisce of the good old days," said LaFontaine, who made his Islanders debut as a 19-year-old in 1984 and is the NHL vice president of hockey development and community affairs. "The good days are (back) now. I think the timing of it has been very interesting in that I don't think if they were having the season they're having we would have been able to kind of remember what it was like."

Tavares first made an impact at the Coliseum on a night when he wasn't even in the building. On June 26, 2009, more than 10,000 fans made their way to Uniondale to watch the NHL Draft. When Snow reached the podium at Bell Centre in Montreal and announced Tavares as the No. 1 pick, the crowd cheered.

In October, Tavares scored his first NHL goal in his debut against the Penguins. He played in his first playoff series in 2013, also against Pittsburgh, and rocked the Coliseum when he scored what proved to be the winning goal in Game 4 of that first-round series. The Islanders lost in six games, but Tavares is hopeful the Coliseum will host a second-round series for the first time in 22 years.

"It's been great. So many great memories so far," Tavares said. "We just don't want it to end anytime soon. Certainly I'll always have a connection to this place."

So will many others, who are hopeful there is one memorable final act left to come.

"I've had a lot of nice things happen to me in my hockey life," Gillies said. "The final thing on my hockey bucket list I think is to watch the Islanders raise the Stanley Cup. A lot of things have to be perfect for that to happen, but they've certainly taken some steps in that direction.

"That would be my ultimate, to be able to see them win the Stanley Cup. I don't know if that'll be this year, but certainly there's a chance."


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