Homeward Bound Four: This Time It's The New York Islanders

Pat Keogh
January 31 2017 08:00AM

The New York Islanders may have signed goaltender Thomas Greiss to a three-year, $10 million extension on Monday, but there was another bit of news that evening that perhaps piqued the interest of Isles fans. 

Bloomberg News reported that people familiar with the financials of the Barclays Center organization have let on that a financial projection shared with potential investors indicates that the stadium, currently home to the New York Nets and a lucrative concert venue in its own right, would make more money without the Islanders. According to Bloomberg’s sources, the fact that the Islanders aren’t set to contribute any revenue after the 2018-19 season is a “clear signal that the team won’t play there”.

While both the Islanders ownership and the Barclays Center declined to comment, the report adds yet another wrinkle to the Islanders’s quest to find a permanent home following their relocation from the crumbling Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The team’s average attendance is the third worst in the league, coming in at an underwhelming 12,828 per game, and the team has had a tortured relationship with the arena from the start. 

Being built expressly for basketball and concerts, the Barclays Center in its hockey configuration contains sections where parts of the ice, including the near goal, are obstructed, and players have complained about the quality of the ice, which is reportedly serviced by PVC pipes rather than steel. There’s a quizzically placed SUV by one of the entrances to the ice with the best seat in the house, reports that fans have clashed with arena staff, and a general feeling that the barn simply isn’t that – a true home for an ice hockey team.

Now, to play devil’s advocate, Arthur Staple of News Day hasexpanded on the whole issue on Twitter, explaining that while the relationship between the team and the Barclays Center hasn’t always been friendly (with conflicts arising over marketing, scheduling, and even who pays for media meals) the idea of relocation is a last resort for both the team and the league, with Staples’s sources describing the whole fuss as a non-story. He suggested that the Islanders have always been the second fiddle at Barclays, and that issues such as fan sight lines and poor ice aren't unexpected as a result of that relationship. That said, he went on to say that ownership and the NHL view leaving New York as a "last resort" so even if the Islanders at Barclays collapses entirely, there will be other options. 

As a recently relocated-to-Brooklyn, die hard Rangers fan I found myself making the trek to the Barclays Center to catch the Rangers/Islanders game back on December 6th. It was my dad’s idea, a way to get familiar with my new home borough, and a chance to celebrate one of hockey’s great rivalries. I’ve always found the animosity between the Rangers and Islanders to be much more genuine than those rivalries found with the Devils, Caps, or Penguins (at least as of late), with Rangers/Islanders clashes only coming second to Rangers/Flyers games in terms of ill will and high energy hockey.

While the Rangers ultimately lost (good things don’t happen I guess) I had a good time, always enjoying hockey and a chance to see how other fans experience the game. Ultimately though what I observed, aside from the absurdity of the concession stand selling “beef brisket” that was actually sausage (I still feel misled), was a general sense of ennui arising from the Islanders fans there. For a Rangers/Islanders game it was oddly quiet, with the most vocal cheering coming from one particular section that had a giant drum in it and fans desperately trying to stoke the crowd. All of this was quite different from the vibe at the Rangers home opener where they beat the Islanders – that crowd was rowdy, contentious, and made the game almost more than a simple contest. My experience at the Barclays Center was certainly much different from my one visit to the Nassau Coliseum, where I witnessed the last ever Rangers/Islanders regular season game played at the arena.

On that evening, where I was venturing behind enemy lines with my dad as well, we started our journey boarding the LIRR in Penn Station. The train ride was raucous, with fans of both teams chatting it up and engaging in light pre-game banter. Even the journey out to the Coliseum felt different, with the only way to get there being to first disembark from the train in Hempstead, then take a cab to the arena. It was a strange sojourn on a rainy day, but eventually we found ourselves on one side of a hotel that bordered the arena parking lot – the hotel’s lobby acting as the unofficial meeting and drinking point for fans arriving to Islanders games it seemed. After pushing through the bustling hotel lobby to the other end of the hotel we were finally in the Coliseum parking lot, with the stadium at the far side, where fans were tailgating and getting ready even in the cold, wet weather.

Now, I must admit that my fond memories of the experience have a lot to do with the fact that the Rangers won the game and Kevin Hayes scored a particularly nice goal where he just dunked the puck on the goaltender after receiving a beautiful stretch pass from Mats Zuccarello. It was great fun singing the Rangers goal song with fellow Blueshirt faithful when they scored, but only because the Islanders fans were equally as obnoxious with their “YES! YES! YES!” chant when they scored. Despite the fact that Isles have perhaps the worst goal song in the league, it still felt real and organic when the opposing fans cheered on their team in an attempt to drown out the Rangers fans who were spoiling their fun. On the way out of the arena, which reminded me of my brother’s home rink growing up in the way that it smelled like rubber and sweat in the best way possible, fans were erupting into arguments over the standings and the impending post-season. We caught a cab back with two friendly Edmontonians, with whom we continued to trade insults and talk hockey. 

Now that we’ve seen the ghosts of Islanders arenas past and present through the eyes of one dumb hockey nerd, let’s take a look towards the future. Obviously there’s the potential for the Islanders to work out whatever issues they have with Barclays Center currently, build a robust fan culture, and make the inter-borough rivalry with the Rangers better than ever before. Given Arthur Staples’s credibility on the Islanders beat I’m inclined to think this is a definite possibility, but there’s a few other scenarios flying around out there as well. 

The first one up on the list is the Belmont Park scenario, which gained some steam this summer after plans for a 25,000 seat soccer stadium at the site were scrapped. No town or village zoning or approval process is necessary to build on the site, and an Empire State Development spokesman said that the state is now looking “beyond the scope of the original request”, per a Newsday report. With the newly available site looking for a tenant, and the Islanders potentially on their way out of Barclays, there could be a match here. 

The next possible non-Barclays outcome is that the Islanders find themselves sharing a site with their fellow Blue and Orange team, the New York Mets. According to Newsday, the new ownership group for the Islanders has had discussion with the Wilpons, the majority owners of the Mets, about potentially constructing a new hockey arena in the parking lot next to Citi Field. Given the history between the Wilpons and New York Islanders part owner Scott Malkin, with the two knowing each other trough previous real estate development projects, it’s not implausible to think that the Islanders could build a stadium next to Citi Field to make their permanent home. Still, right now it’s just an idea, and the Islanders would have to go through the full process of triggering their opt-out clause with the Barclays Center. 

There is another possibility however – moving back to the Nassau Coliseum. The New York Post reported in August that Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano is “supportive” of the Islanders moving back to the Coliseum, which is undergoing a full $260 million renovation. The Coliseum is also operated by Mikhail Prohorov, who according to the Post also supports the idea of moving the Islanders back to their former home, rather than losing them to a competitor. This would likely be the most well-received by fans, getting the best of both worlds with a good-as-new stadium in the same homey location where a hockey dynasty once lived (and died).

In the end it’s going to take a lot to take the Islanders away from the Barclays Center given the substantial interests at stake in keeping them there – the team receives an average of $53.5 million a year in exchange for control of business operations, including ticket and suite sales. It’s also doubtful that the league or the team want to deal with the drama of relocation yet again, and you can bet your bippy that Gary Bettman doesn’t even want to hear about the idea of the Islanders moving to a different city. In any event the team isn’t likely to move for at least another few years, so the ghosts of the old Coliseum will have to make the trek out to Brooklyn for strange concessions, lacklustre fan culture, and poor ice conditions, all while dreaming of a day when the Islanders can rock the house, any house, once again. 

Because if they can't figure it out, surely somebody else will jump at the opportunity. 

I would buy a John Tavares Hartford Whalers jersey! Oh man, and those Nordiques uniforms? But let's not get that far ahead of ourselves. 

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