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.