The building was beautiful, the presentation was first class and there was a sense of rebirth in the air Thursday as the New York Islanders opened their 2013-14 training camp at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. And yet, as a lifelong Long Islander, I couldn’t help but feel very mixed emotions as I inspected the club’s future home rink.
Sure the concourses were spacious, the amenities plentiful and with a few curious exceptions, the sight lines were superb. Heck, parts of the building still smelled like wet paint. The Barclay’s Center is a palace compared to the old Nassau Coliseum, a building that was almost outdated when it was built and then poorly maintained and even neglected by Nassau County and SMG over the years.
Charles Wang was excited to see his team’s new home and I couldn’t blame him. The artist’s renditions of what the Isles new locker room would look like were impressive and the press room and concession stands at Barclay’s put the old barn in Uniondale to shame.
The Islanders couldn’t stay at the Nassau Coliseum in its present condition. Everybody knew that. And the move to Brooklyn gives them a state-of-the-art facility that is second to none.
So why is the feeling bittersweet? As I explained to my friend from the press box, Dee Karl, this beautiful new home feels strange because it’s like finally getting your dream house but not in the neighborhood you wanted it in. This spanking new arena is gorgeous, and it’s good for the franchise in the long run, but it’s not good for Long Island, the place I’ve lived nearly all of my life.
Since the Nets moved to New Jersey in the mid-70s, the Islanders were Long Island’s only major league professional sports team. Along with Billy Joel, the Isles helped give Long Island a cultural identity. When the Isles won Stanley Cups, they gave all Long Islanders something to feel proud about. When they beat the big bad Rangers from New York City, they gave the suburbanites on Long Island a feeling that there was something they had that city people didn’t have: a championship hockey team.
Even the team name was ISLANDERS—people who lived on Long Island. The Rangers were richer, had more tradition and got more media attention with their designer jeans commercials and appearances at Studio 54. The Islanders didn’t have those things They just won. Like the residents of Long Island, they went about their jobs, were successful at them and then returned home to their families without ever appearing on Page 6 of the New York Post.
I know it could have been worse. I know the Islanders could have moved to Quebec City, or Kansas City or any other media market. They’ll still be a local team and the games are still accessible even if it will now take me about two hours each way to get to the games from Western Suffolk County (door to door) rather than 20 minutes.
Today, walking into the Barclay’s Center, that beautiful new building in Brooklyn, I realized that Uniondale and Nassau County are now part of the Islanders’ proud past, but not such a big part of their future. An era of big-time sports on Long Island is coming to an end. I don’t expect it will be coming back any time soon.
When the Dodgers left Brooklyn in 1958, the borough hit hard times. Brooklyn became the place where things “used to be,” the place where my parents and grandparents grew up and used to live, but there weren’t too many reasons to go back there anymore. It took Brooklyn more than 50 years to get a major league sports franchise back within their borders. I hope it doesn’t take Long Island that long.
The move is good for the Islanders franchise, and it’s the right thing right now. But it didn’t have to be that way. If not for the bungling of county and town politicians, this gorgeous new arena or something similar could have been built at or near the current Coliseum site and the Islanders could have continued to be Long Island’s team. Seeing the team logo at center ice and the Stanley Cup banners hanging in the rafters in Brooklyn made it real to me that this just wasn’t going to happen. The Isles were really leaving Nassau County.
And for Long Island sports fans, the new Nassau Coliseum so enthusiastically approved by the County last month is just too little, too late.