Itinerary: Watching an Islanders game at Nassau Coliseum

Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum

Say this for the venerable Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum: It has had, and continues to have, an interesting life as a sports venue. Opened in the early 1970s, it was the only home the New York Islanders knew for more than 40 years and bore witness to the glory days of the franchise — its run of four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980 to ’83.

For a long time, though, it existed in a sort of sports venue purgatory. Outdated and tiny by arena standards, it seemed destined for the wrecking ball pretty much since the turn of the century — it’s just that Islanders ownership couldn’t figure out the right course of action on how to replace it. Finally, the team announced it would move to Brooklyn and Barclays Center in 2015, and it seemed like that was that for the Coliseum, and maybe hockey on Long Island.

But a funny thing happened to give the old Coliseum new life as an NHL facility: Barclays Center and hockey turned out to be quite a mismatch, and both the venue and the Islanders began looking for ways out of the relationship.

At the same time, the Coliseum underwent a much-needed renovation and received a new “official” name (“NYCB Live at the Nassau Coliseum”), and while the resulting reduced capacity meant it wasn’t a viable long-term solution for the Isles, the upgrade was enough to lure them back on a part-time basis.

Nowadays, the Isles are splitting time between Nassau and Barclays while their long-awaited new arena is being built next to the Belmont Park racetrack, just outside the New York city limits. In the meantime, the magic seems back at the Coliseum, which is roaring again and has its fan base energized. We took time to check it out and found that the smaller crowds do nothing to dampen the atmosphere.

Nassau Coliseum banners

Getting to the arena

With three NHL teams in the New York metropolitan area, it makes sense that a majority of the Islanders’ fans live on Long Island, close to the Nassau Coliseum. But for visitors to the area, getting to the game presents a challenge in that the arena is located outside the transportation network that most visitors would know about or have easy access to. 

In fact, even the main public transit link between New York City and Long Island, the Long Island Rail Road, doesn’t run by the Coliseum. The closest station is about three miles away in the town of Hempstead, and if you’re coming to the game via this method you’ll still need to hire a taxi or rideshare to get yourself to the Coliseum grounds.

If you’ve got a car, you’re all set, of course. The Meadowbrook Parkway, a major north-south route on Long Island, runs nearby. From there, use exits for the Hempstead Turnpike — there’ll be plenty of signs marked “Coliseum” to guide you along the way — and you’ll see the arena, in the center of a sea of parking. For more detailed driving directions, click here.

Things to do around the arena

Unless you’re a resident of the immediate area, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything interesting to do before the game. The Coliseum grounds are surrounded by college campuses (Hofstra University to the west, Nassau Community College to the north), recreational fields and neighborhoods.

Across Hempstead Turnpike you’ll find a few fast-food joints, and if you travel about half a mile or more in either direction you’ll find some more strip mall-type options, but nothing rivaling the sports-fan hangouts that many other arenas boast.  

The “NYCB Live” in the new official name might lead you to believe that the Coliseum was made into the centerpiece of an entertainment district like a lot of other facilities around the country — for example, L.A. Live next to Staples Center, or Xfinity Live! near Philly’s Wells Fargo Center. But alas, it’s just a name and whatever is happening in the arena is what they mean by “Live.”

The Long Island Marriott is the closest hotel to the arena, just a short walk across the parking lot away. Its lobby and bar serve as fan gathering points and hangouts, and it’s not a bad option if you’ve got some time to kill before the game. (If your primary purpose for visiting NYC is to see an Islanders game, it’s worth saving all the pre- and post-game transportation trouble to stay at this hotel so that you can just walk to the game.)

And if none of the above piques your interest, there’s always tailgating, which many Isles die-hards will do starting up to three hours before puck drop.

Nassau Coliseum New York Islanders arena events parking seating

Watching a game at Nassau Coliseum

If you’ve grown used to the size of contemporary arenas around the NHL, then you’ll probably be stunned by how small the Coliseum looks in comparison. That’s OK, though, because the size definitely has its advantages (although, admittedly, crowding isn’t one of them).

The building has a single concourse for both upper and lower seating levels, which can understandably get jam-packed during intermissions. But inside the seating bowl, there is also a center aisle that you can use to walk around the arena, and even sometimes stand for a little bit and watch some game action — though ushers will kindly ask you to move along if you linger too long.

Right at center ice on the concourse level is a bar branded the JetBlue Overlook, at which you can watch the game from a great angle, drink in hand. Don’t drift too far into the center aisle, though, or you will hear from the ushers — we did that and were asked to step back. As it turns out, directly above that spot are the cameras that follow game action, and your head or raised hands can get in their line of view if you step too far ahead.

The seating bowl itself is pretty standard-issue; sight lines are good in most spots, but beware of the uppermost rows in the sections directly behind the goals. The ribbon boards that hang over the seating area will block your view of the center-hung scoreboard, literally the only place in the arena where the score and game clock are displayed. On a couple occasions we witnessed fans scamper down the aisle just to find out how much time was left in the period.

But, like most arenas, the uppermost rows will be where the die-hards sit. In and around Section 229 is where you’ll find members of the Blue and Orange Army, who bring drums and other noisemakers and lead some of the more creative chants you’ll hear in NHL circles. They’re given credit for the “Yes chant” that all Isles fans now perform after their team scores, and they’ve got songs and shouts for specific players and situations. Sit near them and you’ll be entertained no matter how the game goes, we promise.

When it’s time to find food and drink, you won’t find too many adventurous options. Nathan’s hot dogs are sold at nearly every stand — you aren’t far from Coney Island, after all — while the two Mister Softee ice cream stands are very popular. Click here for more detailed food options.

If the main concourse is too crowded, find the escalators near the JetBlue Overlook that lead down to the “Lower Level Food Court” — the food and drink options are mostly the same, but there’s more space for people to move about and less crowded bathrooms.

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