A final appreciation of Nassau Coliseum

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The final NHL event at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum seemed like a perfectly fitting one considering the venue’s long history. The home team, the New York Islanders, won a must-win playoff game, and the fans made themselves heard, from the numerous chants during the contest to the debris thrown on the ice after it.

In other words, it, just like pretty much every other hockey game at the Coliseum in recent years, was a raucous, lively affair.

Whether you made the trek to Uniondale, N.Y., to root for the Isles or for the opponent, or were just there as a neutral observer, you were most certainly in for a good time.

The Coliseum‘s location, outside the web of public transit that envelops the New York City metro area, meant that anyone going to an event there had to endure quite a bit of effort to do so. Many Islanders die-hards got around this by arriving early and tailgating in the parking lot, creating one of the most boisterous pregame scenes to be found at an NHL arena.

And then there was the size of the place.

My first visit to the Coliseum came in the late 1990s, as a college student just beginning his quest to visit every major arena in the U.S. and Canada. Back then, plenty of older arenas were in use and the Coliseum, despite clearly being dated, didn’t seem too abnormal in the greater venue landscape.

That changed when I would return in the mid-2000s. Big buildings like Staples Center in L.A. and the venue now known as TD Garden in Boston were setting the standard for new arena construction, and the Coliseum’s size was a detriment to go along with its age.

When you take all that into consideration — and we’re only scratching the surface of the Islanders franchise’s years-long saga in finding a suitable way to either replace or renovate the Coliseum — it’s a wonder that NHL games were still taking place there in 2021. If anything, it’s a fascinating testament to resilience for an arena that was expected to have faded into irrelevance a long time ago.

Nassau Coliseum New York Islanders arena events parking seating

You may know the story of how the Islanders moved to Barclays Center in Brooklyn in 2014, leaving Long Island — and the fans of Long Island — seemingly behind. And you may know about how Barclays Center, as good as it is for basketball, turned out to be an awful venue for hockey, which led to the Isles eventually coming back to the Nassau Coliseum for a few more seasons.

Returning to Uniondale was meant to be a temporary stopgap until a new arena could be built, and indeed, the Isles will be moving into the sparkling UBS Arena, near the Belmont Park race track, in the fall of 2021.

Looking back on it, the Isles’ journey might seem neat enough, if not exactly linear. But moving back to Nassau Coliseum had its perils — namely that it had fallen far below size standards for a major-league arena, a problem that a much-needed renovation actually worsened.

Really, though, it turned out that the reduced capacity was the only issue.

Moving back closer to their core fan base — and farther away from the competition brought on by the Rangers and Devils in the NHL’s only three-team market — was a no-brainer. 

Eliciting the nostalgia factor in the place where the Islanders dynasty reigned for four straight championship seasons in the early 1980s was also an easy decision, especially considering it came at a time when the franchise was slowly returning to Stanley Cup contention.

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And as for the size? Well, the intimacy had become a positive thing, now unique in sports venue atmospheres. The days of the old NHL barn were just about over, and this was the only place holding on to that tradition.

At least that was my impression when I visited Nassau Coliseum for the last time in the fall of 2019. My first reaction, walking over from the adjacent Long Island Marriott, upon seeing the arena was, “Wow, I don’t remember this place being so small.” And yes, the concourses and parts of the seating bowl were cramped.

But I couldn’t help but notice how much more boisterous the fans were, and I truly believe the intimacy fostered this atmosphere.

Will it be like this next season, when the Islanders christen their new place? If history is any indicator, probably not. At least until the team establishes a tradition of winning similar to what it had at the old place, you’ll probably hear cries of nostalgia for the old Coli soon enough.

But at least the Nassau Coliseum had its one last moment in the spotlight, and for all the arena has seen over the years, it definitely deserved that.

And frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw the Islanders return to Uniondale for a game or two per season in the future — maybe in the preseason, or even the regular season if they could swing it. After all, the Coliseum will remain standing, and I bet it would still rock as hard as ever if they did come back.

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