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Wings to play for final time at Coliseum

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Veteran forward Stephen Weiss has played more games (17) at Nassau Coliseum than any other Red Wing, who will be in the lineup against the Islanders on Sunday. (Photo by Getty Images)

UNIONDALE, N.Y. – Today, the Red Wings will play their 52nd and final regular-season game at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the second-oldest arena in the National Hockey League.

Beginning next season, the New York Islanders – the primary resident at Nassau Coliseum since their inception in 1972 – will move 27 miles west and join the NBA’s Nets at the state-of-the-art Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Like other arenas of its time, the Coliseum is outdated and showing age in its brick and mortar. As new arenas rise like separate sports and entertainment enclaves around the league, the Coliseum has seen better days. The 17,000-seat arena built in 1971 can no longer rival younger arenas with their posh luxury suites, roomy concourses, and tons of amenities that add value to the overall fan experience in the 21st century.

The Coliseum is the equivalent to the rotary phone in a smart phone world.

“There was nothing really ostentatious about the building,” said Red Wings senior vice president Jimmy Devellano.

For a decade, the hall-of-fame hockey executive had an office at the Coliseum, where he held three different posts during his tenure with the Islanders, including assistant general manager at the start of the club’s Stanley Cup dynasty of the 1980s.

“I walked into the place when it was brand new,” said Devellano, who has three Stanley Cup rings with the Islanders. “I walked in there and it was a spanking brand new building. It was state of the art. It was before buildings had suites and boxes. None of the buildings had those, and neither did the Nassau Coliseum.”

Sports venues built in the 1970s and ’80s were concrete mausoleums where the reality show on the playing surface was the fan experience. Nassau Coliseum is no different than sister buildings like Joe Louis Arena and Edmonton’s Rexall Place that offer little in ways of fan comfort and convenience.

“There was nothing fancy about Nassau Coliseum. It was quite frankly brand new,” Devellano said. “So it was clean, everything was nice inside, but there was nothing that I would say was real special. But it was clean, it was new and it had an NHL team.”

Former goaltender Chris Osgood is among 37 players who played for the Red Wings and Islanders during their careers. He says the Coliseum and JLA are similar in that the seating areas in both buildings are perfect for watching hockey.

“The stands are kind of configured pretty much the same,” Osgood said. “It has the same vibe to the rink where you can really feel the energy when you’re in the locker room before the game.”

Devellano agreed.

“It was a great building and even today, while the concessions area and the wash rooms are sort of inadequate you can’t argue with the good sight lines. It’s a good hockey building to watch a game in.”

While the Red Wings and Islanders aren’t rivals, their fan bases share a comparable passion. Wings’ fans are raucous leading up to game time in the playoffs, something Osgood said he felt in 2001-02, the season he spent on Long Island.

“When we played against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs the rink would almost be shaking, kinda like The Joe,” he said. “You can feel the intensity because everything is so close, locker room, stands. The stands are on top of the ice surface. Nassau and The Joe are the two that are really close and on top of you with that on-top-of-you feel when you’re playing. So it’s a great atmosphere, and to me it’s 100 percent hockey, there’s nothing else played in these rinks.”

As with all old buildings with championship banners hanging in their rafters, the Coliseum is filled with tradition and history. Like the Wings in the Ilitch family era, the Islanders have won four Stanley Cup titles.

“Obviously in New York they had celebrations a couple of times,” Osgood said. “You’d see guys like Mike Bossy, Billy Smith, Bob Nystrom, Denis Potvin, you’d see some hall-of-fame guys come onto that ice. Just great, great players, same as at Joe Louis Arena with Steve Yzerman, Paul Coffey, Brendan Shanahan. Both arenas have tons of tradition and tons of great history. Lots of great things happened in both buildings. They will be missed for sure, but they’re older arenas. People will miss the traditional hockey arena.

“Still, nothing beats the old school of watching the games in an arena like this where you’re right on top of the ice and it’s strictly for hockey. Nassau Coliseum and Joe Louis are that where, really, there’s not a bad seat in here. It’s a real intimate feeling you get in arenas like this.”

But time moves on and fans desire more than the game.

“I think the fan experience has changed over the years where it’s not just about the game,” Osgood said. “It’s about entertaining around the arena as well. You see these new rinks where they have the screens and tables outside, people are eating and walking around the arena before the game. I think that’s cool. It’s exciting.”

Unless they meet in the Eastern Conference playoffs, today’s game will be the Wings last at the Coliseum, a building that hasn’t been kind to them over the years. Detroit enters Sunday’s game with a 21-25-4-1 (W-L-T-OTL) record on Long Island.

“It hasn’t been very good, to say the least,” Devellano said. “It’s little surprising, really. But for whatever reason, we wouldn’t meet them very often. I don’t know why, if we didn’t get up for them, I really don’t know, but our record wasn’t very good against the Islanders when they weren’t very good.”

Wings and Islanders have each won a game in the season series. New York recorded a 2-1 win at JLA on Dec. 19; Petr Mrazek made 22 saves in Detroit’s 4-1 win at JLA on Jan. 31.

It’s been 16 months since the Wings last played at the Coliseum. Darren Helm and Daniel Alfredsson scored two goals each, and Jimmy Howard stopped all 29 shots in a 5-0 victory on Nov. 29, 2013.

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