Memories of an Old Barn – Saying Goodbye to Nassau Coliseum

On Saturday, April 25, 2015 at 6:01pm EDT, the New York Islanders closed down the Nassau Coliseum with a 3-1 victory over the Washington Capitals. Fans of the team hoped the doors would have stayed open longer into May, for a deep playoff run, but an Islanders loss two night later in D.C. ended the team’s season and over 40 years of hockey at the Nassau Coliseum.

If first impressions are everything it’s easy to understand why the Nassau Coliseum means so much to me. Many describe it as a prison, a sentiment probably shared by many former players and fans in the 1990s and 2000s. To those who may have braved attending a game during that time the prison analogy probably came to life with memories of the food choices in the various concourses which never seemed to evolve in the 43 years it served as host for Islanders home games. But for a 10-year-old boy from a sleepy town on the north shore of Long Island in 1980, the Nassau Coliseum was Oz at the end of the Yellow Brick Road, the pot of gold at the end of Hempstead Turnpike rainbow and bad food, bad teams and bad architecture only added to the charm of it for me.

Being a young sports fan on Long Island in 1980 was tough. The New York Jets were only starting to tease its devout, yet fragile fan base with optimistic mediocrity. The team highlighted its 1980 season by being the only team to lose to the notorious New Orleans Saints team, dubbed the “Aints”. At the same time, the New York Knicks missed the NBA playoffs by losing to the Philadelphia 76ers in the final game of the season on a last-second basketball by Dr. J, which was only made possible because the Knicks committed a turnover on an inbounds pass five seconds earlier with the score tied at 101–101. And the New York Mets, in a season the team dubbed, “The Magic is Back,” offset the optimism of drafting Daryl Strawberry with the first pick in the draft, by losing 38 of its final 49 games and finishing 5th in its division.

So even for the most optimistic and diehard 10-year-old sports fan in the world things didn’t seem like they were ever going to improve. Even the schoolyard rumors of a professional hockey team, one county over, that was supposed to not only be very good but also favored to win something rather spectacularly wimpy sounding called Lord Stanley’s Cup, got most of us very excited.

In 1980 (and for centuries prior probably), ice hockey was not very popular on Long Island. In fact the one ice rink in our county spent more time as a flea market than it did as a place to skate. Add to that, fuzzy, rabbit-eared, non-HD TVs of the day made hockey an impossible sport to follow. And yes, the U.S. men’s hockey team had just pulled off the Miracle on Ice 300 miles north in Lake Placid, NY, none of those heroes were playing locally for the supposedly great New York Islanders.

So I was pretty much set in my sports way on Saturday, November 8, 1980 when my uncle, a successful local accountant, arrived on my family’s front steps with four tickets to the New York Islanders game that night. The team was a client and one of his perks was season tickets. Like a door-to-door evangelist, he was prepared to convert not just my younger brother and I to the religion of the New York Islanders but my fresh-off-the-boat Irish stepfather as well. After much discussion, we agreed to go but not because the tickets were free or to satisfy the curiosity about the team but rather because my uncle promised us dinner at Houlihan’s before going to the game.

I was convinced going to the hockey game was the equivalent of eating my vegetables after being treated to the steak of going to Houlihan’s and getting my fill of mozzarella sticks and countless free soda re-fills. That night, after dinner, I was ready to go home and read my latest Hardy Boys book, play with my Star Wars action figures, pretend I was Lee Mazzilli and finally hitting the home run that brings the World Series back to Long Island. But my world was about to shift. Change for the better and make me dream of moving and living in the Nassau Coliseum for the rest of my life.


The first thing to capture my fascination was the stream of red tail lights lined up, waiting to pay to get into the parking lot of the Coliseum. Because it was right before Thanksgiving the red lights and tiny white huts with cashiers, where you paid to park, sparked a feeling of Christmas inside me. In an instant, everything felt charged with excitement only because the rickety cashier huts and a traffic jam matched the colors of Christmas in my head. And it was the only the start.

I saw the actual Nassau Coliseum two minutes later. It was lit in the distance with splendid orange and blue banners hanging from its roof. I must have looked like Tom the cat from the Tom & Jerry cartoons seeing Jerry the mouse trapped between two slices of bread. Eyes popping out my head in disbelief. Completely confused but equally as fascinated. The building looked so official. All the concrete lit up. The huge flags. So strong. Like a castle. It was the type of place where important things happened. I wondered if it was where the final scene in Star Wars, where Luke, Han and Chewbacca receive their medals for helping blow up the Death Star, was filmed. It looked that majestic to me.

The five minutes it took my uncle to find a safe spot for his pure white 200 foot Cadillac Bonneville felt closer to forever. It seemed right we needed to park so far from something so amazing looking. We simply weren’t worthy. And while my first inclination was to run towards the lights and banners as fast as I could get out of the back seat, there was far too many things happening around me to not stop and try to make sense of it all.

Why were so many people sitting around open station wagon trunks, drinking beers and chanting, “Let’s go Islanders! Here we go!”? Why wasn’t I wearing a white, orange and blue jersey with a giant hockey stick going through a drawing on Long Island? Why didn’t I have an oversized orange Styrofoam puck on my head? Why weren’t my cheeks painted with the words, “Islanders #1” on both sides?

I couldn’t believe the world my stepfather’s hand, which I was clutching hard, was dragging me through. I wanted to stop and watch it all. Soak it in. Try to make sense of what was happening and why. But like the mozzarella sticks earlier in the night the parking lot was just the appetizer.

I was heading toward a bright light. It was the first thing I remember about entering the Nassau Coliseum. From the giant player posters on the walls to the smells coming from the concession stands to the voices suggesting people to buy game programs or cotton candy, everything under these bright lights inside of the building seemed so much more vibrant. Still clutching my dad’s hand (which at ten is the most uncool thing you could do), we made our away from all the activity and into a short, dark tunnel which seemed to open up into a brighter white light. We walked up a ramp, on our tippy toes, trying to figure out where we were headed, what was waiting for us. As the ramp ended, it opened to the most incredible sight I had ever seen at that point in my life. An ice hockey rink.

The ice was perfect. Clear and clean as glass. The giant scoreboard hanging above it, flashed with red dots and pictures like the head of a giant robot.

We only had been seated for a matter of minutes when the Islanders, in blue, orange and white jerseys, came onto the ice to begin warming up. And the fans exploded. Jumping to their feet, fans screamed and cheered for their heroes. My eyes darted, looking for anything to clue me into why they were all going so crazy. I tried climbing up my dad’s arm, to whisper in his ear, “Why is everyone going nuts?” Just as he finished explaining everyone was just excited to see the Islanders the cheers changed instantly to a low, deep rumble, like a train approaching a crossing. Slightly frightened I another set of players joining the Islanders on the ice, the enemy, and the target of the boos, the Chicago Blackhawks. This was going to be war.

Practically hypnotized by both teams skating in rhythmic but separate circles warming up, I wasn’t ready for the lights to drop and a booming voice to invite us to rise from our seats and remove our hats. From the singing of the National Anthem to the introduction of the hometown starters, there wasn’t a moment that didn’t send goose bumps up my arms and have my feet tapping like I was getting ready to run for no other reason than pure anticipation of something even more incredible coming next.

Then the puck dropped. Sticks crashed together. Players yelled. Bodies crashed into walls and whistles blew. When the Islanders scored first, the Coliseum erupted. The crowd roared. Noise exploded from every inch of the arena and as I looked around, trying to take it all in I realized I was standing on my feet, screaming, too, pumping my fist like I had waited my entire life for that goal to be scored, to celebrate in that way. Settling into my seat, begrudgingly, a couple of minutes later, my feet started tapping again. I wanted another goal. I needed another goal. What was this place where things like this happened? Why would anyone leave? I wanted to feel the electricity from everyone around me. Get lost in the celebration. Scream as loud as I could and have my dad turn to me with a huge smile on his face and give me a high five. I wanted to live in the moment forever especially next to my dad.


Some might say we were lucky but I am convinced greater forces were responsible for the seven goals the Islanders scored that night. It felt like they never stopped scoring and in between periods when most fans headed for the bathroom, concessions stand or team store, I didn’t move. I wasn’t convinced more goals weren’t going to happen then, too. I cheered so hard and so long, all night. My last memory of the Nassau Coliseum that night was as we pulled out of the parking lot, leaning over the front seat to honk the horn on my uncle’s car to celebrate like thousands of other fans around us, because as soon as we hit Hempstead Turnpike I fell asleep, and didn’t wake up until the next morning.

I remember waking up the next morning, wondering if the memories of the night before were a dream. I remember jumping out of bed to look for my dad and brother to make sure they weren’t. Fully committed to sign up for a lifetime of Islanders games at the castle known as the Nassau Coliseum.

In the 34 years since that first night I have been back to the Nassau Coliseum many times. Along with Islanders games with family and friends, the Coliseum also became the backdrop for other seminal experiences like my first concert, circus, job interviews and in 2012 taking my son to his first hockey game. The Islanders won that night, too, and in watching him cheer with the same unbridled enthusiasm that makes children so magical, I realized the barn hadn’t lost any of its charm regardless of how good the team was.

And so in six months, the New York Islanders will start a new season in Brooklyn in the team’s new home at the Barclays Center. The team is improving and it will score its share of goals to the cheers of the 15,000 that will fill the arena. My son and I will be there and we will scream, too but no matter what the team wins or who they beat, nothing will top that night in November, over three decades ago, when the Nassau Coliseum opened one boy’s eyes and heart to the idea that magic can happen anywhere, even in an old, concrete barn just off Hempstead Turnpike.


Thank you Nassau Coliseum. You will be missed but never forgotten.

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Day 39 – June 9, 2010 – Will The Real Conn Smythe Winner Please Stand Up

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With the possibility that the Stanley Cup finals could end tonight, the question of who deserves the Conn Smythe Trophy rages on. Who has been the biggest star in the playoffs? Who has been most responsible for his team’s success?

In trying to form an opinion on who might be most deserving for the Trophy, I began to think about what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. Great players is the obvious first choice but with arguably the game’s biggest stars, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, out of the playoffs for over a month, this cannot be the deciding aspect. Hot goalies are always a popular factor but with this year’s Finals featuring the highest goal total in 29 years, this again cannot be the guide.


This year’s Stanley Cup Finals is teaching me (and probably a whole bunch of general managers) a valuable lesson – while stars might get your team national television coverage – they don’t guarantee wins. It’s the supporting cast and chemistry that matter the most.  This doesn’t sound sexy and won’t sell a lot of team merchandise but it makes for teams playing hockey in June.

Consider that in this year’s Finals, 25 different players have been responsible for the 40 goals scored. With the Blackhawks star front line responsible for only four goals, it’s been the lesser-known players like Dave Bolland, Duncan Keith, and Ben Eager that have put the team on their shoulders, and on the verge of the team’s first Stanley Cup in 49 years.

The Flyers’ story has been similar. With leading regular season goal scorers Jeff Carter and Mike Richards only tallying only one score apiece in the Finals, Flyer fans probably would have resigned themselves to another bridesmaid finish to the season. But players like Ville Leino and Scott Hartnell are the ones doing the little things needed to keep the team in the hunt for their first Stanley Cup since 1975.

Each team’s success, though, is about more than just having sixteen guys that know their roles and play them well. Another crucial element, it seems, is chemistry. The Blackhawk players like each other. Whether it’s playing video games or pranks on each other, it is easy to see how connected a group they are by just watching BlackhawksTV.

Similarly, the Flyers have spent the last six weeks rallying around each other. From fighting back to make the playoffs on the last play of regular season, to coming back from a three game to none series deficit AND a 3-0 goal deficit in game seven on the road in Boston, they have embraced the “whatever we need to do to win” mentality.

So whether the Finals end tonight or Friday it doesn’t really matter who wins the Conn Smythe Trophy. The biggest winners will be the fans. Not just those of the winning team, but of any NHL franchise because this year’s Playoffs have shown us that to be successful you don’t need one or two once-in-a-lifetime stars but rather a team of guys that play the game well and truly enjoy doing it together. Who couldn’t root for that?

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Day 37 – June 7, 2010 – Turning Canadian?!?

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Starting on the journey to learn hockey, I expected (and wanted) to learn what it means to love the sport, to understand what it means to be a fan. What I didn’t anticipate is that in process of learning about the National Hockey League, the players, the teams, and the tradition, I would also begin to develop a love for the country that is considered the birthplace of hockey, Canada.

It is true! No longer can I look at Canada and make jokes about the U.S. invading it for silly reasons, it’s perpetually cold temperature or the funny accent. As part of living hockey over the last month, I have started to not just be thankful of Canada for giving us hockey but wishing I was Canadian so it could be a bigger part of my life.

I will never stop loving my country and it’s amazing heritage, as hockey becomes a part of who I am so will a small part of the country it comes from. Trust me there is room.

My developing Canadian side is most evident by:

  • Wishing that Americans would celebrate a hockey victory the way Canada did after winning the Olympic Gold Medal

  • Working in ways to ask people if they have ever seen the movie Strange Brew and quoting lines from it whenever possible
  • Randomly humming O Canada
  • Rooting for the Montreal Canadians against the Flyers solely to give Canada a team in the Stanley Cup Finals
  • Starting to obsessively plan my Don Cherry Halloween costume only to realize no one in New York would “get it”

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Day 31 – June 1, 2010 – Love him or hate him?

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For me, the best part of the being new to hockey at this time of year is having the luxury of watching the Stanley Cup and not caring who wins; I’m just rooting for good hockey. This is certainly a different type of feeling than what Blackhawks and Flyers fans are experiencing, living and dying with every pass of the puck. The only challenge not having a team to root for during the finals is figuring out whether I love or hate Chris Pronger.

Without reading or researching, it would be easy to really dislike Pronger based on his antics during the first two games of the Stanley Cup. He’s taken cheap, after the whistle, shots on Chicago captain (and fellow Canadian national teammate) Jonathan Toews; cross checked Chicago big man, Dustin Byfuglien, dangerously to the neck; and stolen the puck from the Blackhawks at the end of the two Stanley Cup games that have taken place so far. Even taking into consideration his role as an agitator, and his team being down 2-0, this kind of behavior feels not below that of a veteran that wears an “A” on his jersey but amateurish.

And after some quick research it doesn’t look like Pronger’s good guy resume gets any stronger. As an Anaheim Duck, Pronger received an eight game suspension for stomping on Canuck forward Ryan Kesler’s leg with his skate. He also got national attention for a back of the head hit on Tomas Holmstrom that left the Red Wings forward needing 13 stitches.

Could Pronger be, though, one of those those guys that every professional sports has? Is he loved by his teammates and their fans and hated by everyone else? In a sport that only seems to get attention when either something huge or horrible happens, has Pronger been judged based on isolated incidents? He may have enemies, but rarely will you find a teammate not willing to support or appreciate him. And in most cases, it’s Pronger’s willingness to stand in front of the media and take the hard questions that makes him so valuable to his team.

During the Olympics, as a member of the struggling Canadian team, Pronger assured reporters that the national team would solve their issues. They went on to win the gold medal. During the last week of the season, when the Flyers needed a win in the final game of the season to make the playoffs, Pronger calmly told reporters it was just another challenge the team needed to overcome.
Take into account that his teammates named him team MVP, that he has been in the Stanley Cup finals three of the last five years (and the other two teams, the Oilers and Ducks, missed the playoffs the year after he left), and his puck-stealing attempts to get under the skin of the younger, less experienced Chicago Blackhawks, and maybe the question isn’t whether anyone should hate or love Chris Pronger but shouldn’t we all wish our favorite team had him?

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Day 26 – May 27, 2010 – Ten Reasons Stanley Cup Finals Need to Start Now

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It’s only been three days and I’m starting to go crazy! It’s one thing to be a truly educated hockey fan or prognosticator because that gives you the ability to compare the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers, rate the players, examine the styles of play, and match up the lines to pass the five days before the Stanley Cup starts.

For a new (and slightly rabid) fan it is different. Along with visiting every NHL team’s site every day for new content, read the pieces written by the great hockey columnists, practice how to stop while skating everyday (while walking to work), and watching game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series, these are the Top Ten signs that I NEED the Stanley Cup to start now:

1. Fell asleep one night debating whether I would touch the Conference trophy if my team won it.

2. Spent 20 minutes trying to convince a co-worker (and not a hockey fan) that the correct way to say Jonathan Toews last name is TAVES not TOWS.

3. Caught myself arguing with Skip Bayless (who was on TV) for not rating Duncan Keith losing teeth or Mike Richards’ short hand goal higher on ESPN’s “Canadian of the Week” segment.

4. Allegedly may have reached out to the Mayor of Huntsville, Alabama, to see how the city might celebrate if native son and Flyer forward Jared Ross wins the Stanley Cup (still waiting for that return call, Mayor Battle).

5. Repeatedly watch Kurt Russell’s pre-game speech as Herb Brooks from “Miracle” before heading into important meetings.

6.  Spent 30 minutes in front of the bathroom mirror deciding which 7 teeth I could live without, Duncan Keith-style.

7.  Have watched so much video of NHL games and interviews that sometimes a slight Canadian accent slips into the way I talk (honestly).

8.  Nearly watched “The Mighty Ducks 2” as part of a marathon of hockey movies.

9.  Started thinking up ways to convince my wife we should travel to Pittsburgh on January 1 to attend the Penguins/Capitals Winter Classic.

10.  Tried to figure out if holding my 18-month old son (26.5 lbs) over my head would be the weight equivalent of lifting the Stanley Cup (unfortunately no; the Cup weighs 34.5 lbs).

What are you doing to pass the time before the start of the Stanley Cup?

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Day 25 – May 26, 2010 – Do You Remember The Goal Heard Round The World?

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One of the best things about just beginning to learn about hockey is that no matter what game is on TV from any era there is almost a 100 percent chance that I have no idea who will win. So when the NHL Network airs the greatest playoff games from the 1979 Stanley Cup playoffs it is like I am watching it live.

While my lack of hockey knowledge will make for a summer of never getting bored with old games, there is also a down side. I don’t have those classic fan memories, the ability to reminisce with friends about where we were when we got the news that Gretzky was traded or when Crosby scored the gold medal winner in the 2010 Olympics.

Or where I was when the Goal Heard The World was scored.

For all the hockey video I have watched over the last three weeks, the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union has been some of the most fascinating. Just getting my head around two countries agreeing to play each other eight times over the course of one month on two continents to settle which team was the best in the world is difficult.

It was an event that when the games were on brought two countries to a complete stand still. It was competition in its purest form, two teams fighting to be called the greatest.

Unlike many hyped sports competitions that never lived up to the billing this one featured not only some of the most pressure-filled hockey ever seen but offered subplots that suited a movie more than real life. While the first seven games of the series would have been enough to call the Summit memorable it was the eighth and final game that made it a classic.

With the series tied at three wins each and one tie, the final game in Moscow would decide which team would be the best in the world. And boy did it deliver.

The drama started before the puck was even dropped. In something straight out of a Hollywood script, the Russians replaced one of the refs slated to call the game with another that they handpicked. And three minutes into the game he made his presence even more obvious by calling two extremely suspect penalties against Canada that resulted in an easy Russian goal. Later, the same ref awarded a 12-minute power play to the Russians after Canadian player, J.P. Parise, was called for a two-minute minor and ten-minute game misconduct for slamming his stick leading Parise to be restrained by teammates as he was in the process of raising his stick to hit the referee.

And it only got better. While the play was so intense that players from both sides were signaling across the ice to opponents that they were going to kill them the fuse on the dynamite wasn’t truly lit until half way through the 3rd period. When Canada finally tied the game late in the third period the Russian goal judges refused to light the red goal lamp, acknowledge that the goal was scored. Beside himself with anger, Canadian head coach, Alan Eagleson, jumped into the stands with the idea of getting to the public address announcer’s booth to make sure the goal was announced. In the process, though, he became entangled with members of the Russian Red Army who, as a result, decided to take him into custody. While being dragged out of the arena, Eagleson was saved by his players who jumped into the stands and started jabbing the arresting soldiers with their sticks.

And oh yeah then we had The Goal Heard Around the World.

With 34 seconds remaining in a tied game (a result that would have given the series to the Soviets due to goal differential), journeyman forward Paul Henderson somehow found space under the pads of Soviet goalie, Vladislav Tretiak, the Goal Heard Around the World had been scored, winning the Summit Series for Canada and sending a hockey-crazed country into a state of delirium.

Now that’s what I call a hockey game!

It may be only three weeks into this journey of discovering the NHL and hockey but discovering these events that make up the fabric of this great game are happening more often and I will never forget where I am when they happened.

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Day 23 – May 24, 2010 – Learning to Fall Before I Can Skate

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Twenty seconds into an interview with ESPN 970AM about my year-long adventure last week I made a rookie mistake. I talked about the Chicago Blackhawks scoring in the final QUARTER.


As soon as the word came out of my mouth I knew it was a mistake and one of the hosts let me know it, too. While escaping his full wrath because it was only my second week of learning about the sport, I realized it was time to step up the pace of my learning to avoid any more basic goofs.

It was time to learn how to skate. On ice. In front of people.

If anything was going to test my will to follow through on this adventure it was facing the embarrassment of stepping on the ice, on skates, having absolutely no idea what to do next.

Things didn’t start out well. Because it was my first time skating, the very competent instructors put me in figure skates to help my balance. FIGURE SKATES. It didn’t help that my class was composed of me and two women who were easily (note the word,“easily”) 30 years older than me.

Thirty minutes, three falls, a mandated change to hockey skates (YES!), and a complement on how well I stopped (while slamming into the wall) from Penny, my 70 year old skating partner, the only positive thing going for me was that I wanted to skate and skate and skate.

As soon as one push off on my left skate managed to glide me over the ice, I felt like a skater. I wanted to stay on the ice all night. I wanted to figure out how to flood the courtyard behind my building (even though it was 75 degrees) and hear my wife finally call me inside at midnight. I even caught myself watching the hockey lessons taking place down the ice like a little brother vowing to one day zip between cones, guiding the puck with my stick and letting rip a shot on goal.

Just like in my interview with ESPN Marquette, I will make mistakes while learning to skate, falling in front of both eight-year old speedsters and 70-year old spinsters, but I don’t mind. Every step so far in this adventure has been too much fun, too exciting to care. And we’re only in the first quarter ;)

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