By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
UNIONDALE, N.Y. (WFAN) — Obviously the Islanders need a new arena. I won’t take up this space trying to make a losing argument for why they don’t. We all know the multitude of reasons why they do. We all know if they don’t get one somewhere on the Island this franchise will in all likelihood be calling another state or country home after the current lease runs out in 2015.
However, there is something positive to be said about the old barn off the Hempstead Turnpike. It’s antiquated for sure. But when Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum is the stage for meaningful hockey you forget all about what it doesn’t provide.
The Coliseum is really the last major professional sports venue in the area that you can go to and not feel overwhelmed by the crush of all things corporate. Then again, that’s probably one of the main reasons why the Islanders have been ill-equipped to spend the type of money needed to be competitive on a yearly basis and in fact lose reportedly between $10 million and $20 million per season. Though many fans believe a team can’t win without at least moderate to average spending, the Isles are on the verge of at least proving the financial bottom line doesn’t have to be the true bottom line if the goal is to reach respectability and beyond.
Again, long term they need a new arena because in the grand scheme of things the fan base has waited too long to simply be mediocre or to sneak into the playoffs. No one is disputing the fact that a consistent revenue stream generated by all the bells and whistles of a new facility is a must. I just think this notion that their current home is an acceptable excuse why the Islanders cannot be a solid and reputable franchise is nothing more than a convenient copout. In the short term the critics need to look beyond the building and focus more on the building blocks.
I took my son to his first hockey game on Saturday and we sat dangerously close to the ice for the Islanders’ 5-2 win over St. Louis. I have to say, no matter how insignificant the team has been in the playoff standings over the last (fill in the blank) number of seasons I still enjoy myself every time I go to the Coliseum, and part of me gets a little angry when the building is referred to as the “Mausoleum.”
Maybe it’s because of the many positive memories I’ve had in the place. Perhaps it has a little to do with the arena’s accessibility. I live in northern Westchester and it always seems to take about an hour to get there, regardless if it’s a night game or matinee, as was the case Saturday and then Sunday against the Devils.
Maybe it’s because for the longest time parking was less than $10 or because you could tailgate with no problems and even find sand and ground up sea shells in your spot. What’s more, because the team has struggled for so long to recapture that which it once owned the patent on, you can take your kids to a game at a bargain rate. The team has many discounted-ticket games and I would advocate supporting the franchise as it continues to try to keep good relations with the public. However, if you want to sit close to the glass, you can readily find those seats at a huge reduction simply by searching the Internet.
You should do it now, too, because all signs point to this team being very good soon. Of course when that happens the prices will once again rise. In the interim, however, there’s great value if you find the right deal.
I know the price tags inside are murder, but that’s to be expected. It’s not like you’d be able to get a beer for a few bucks if the place was state of the art, nor would the Isles be giving food and memorabilia away. But if you can get your tickets for cheap, you’ll obviously have more means to splurge a little once you get inside.
The Coliseum’s problem has never been with seating. There is not a bad view anywhere. The sightlines have always been exceptional. If you pay attention to the game you won’t miss a thing. The building’s problems stem from a lack of luxury suites, which speaks to about .001 percent of the fan base but are vital to the franchise’s well being, and the narrow corridors between gates. Let’s face it, if you try to walk around the Coliseum it will take you far more time than the 15 minutes between periods. Long lines for concessions and run perpendicular to flow of foot traffic, which creates chaos. There are also far too few bathrooms and no places to sit down to eat or drink unless you go downstairs.
Again, these are all things that appeal to many of today’s average fans and not the hockey purists. But, they are problems nonetheless and when combined with an on-ice product that has been constantly in a state of rebuilding, it’s hard not to blame a good percentage of the fans for staying away. Heading into Tuesday night’s game against Toronto the Islanders have the lowest home attendance in the NHL — by a lot, averaging 10,471 over their 34 games. In case you’re wondering, Phoenix is No. 29, packing in roughly 1,200 more fans per game.
An even more alarming statistic is the fact that the Islanders have played in front of just 64 percent of their arena’s 16,250 capacity on a nightly basis, down from 78 percent last season and 85 percent in 2008-09, when, ironically, they had the lowest point total in the NHL. Most of the reasoning for the drop-off can be attributed to the economy because the team itself has consistently improved since.
This downward trend wasn’t always the case. There was a time when the Isles were the rarest of sports franchises, an American-based NHL team that thrived in, of all places, suburbia. Think about how rare it is for a team to have an identity when its home base is located near a beach, neighborhoods and malls and not the glitz and glamour of, say, Midtown Manhattan. Remember, this isn’t the NFL, a league that could put a stadium in a swamp or next to a landfill and still have the place sold out each and every weekend. Uniondale is also not Green Bay, an anomaly if there ever was one. The NHL often needs to piggyback off the NBA in major markets, let alone smaller ones. The Islanders don’t even do that.
And, yes, even though the Coliseum is only about 30-45 minutes from Manhattan, it is still in a small market. It’s next to impossible to even get a game on the radio on my side of the bridges.
But what many people don’t know, or have forgotten over the years due to the team’s growing pains, is the Coliseum can be an electric place when the Islanders succeed. I get into this argument all the time with people who think it’s en vouge to rip the Isles’ fan base as “dwindling” or “non-existent.” I still believe there is not a more passionate group of fans anywhere in our area and there are certainly more than enough to fill an arena on a nightly basis. I think the Isles’ core group of supporters is bigger than the Devils’ and that’s good enough because, let’s be serious, they are not going to approach a world-wide product like the New York Rangers in name recognition.
But the point is they don’t need to. I, for one, would much rather have the Islanders be “my thing,” than “everyone else’s thing.” I’m sure there are many out there who feel the same way. Many of those fans for whatever reason are just disenchanted right now, or financially feeling the pinch. That doesn’t mean they will stay that way.
It’s really never been about “if you build the new stadium, they will come.” There’s no guarantee of that no matter how pretty the place is. We’ve seen it before. A brand-spanking new arena is a flavor of the month one season and then a ghost town the next, sometimes through no fault of its tenants. The Islanders, with a few tweaks to personnel this offseason, can be really good next season. And if they are, where they play will hardly be to bother. The Coliseum’s storied history proves this fact.
Back in 2002, when the Coliseum was 30 years old and considered on the first few of its last legs, the Islanders played in an epic seven-game Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Maple Leafs. And though they lost that final game up in Toronto, that series remains one of the NHL’s most intense in recent memory. The arena rocked in a way that still resonates with the faithful to this day. Fans still can’t wait to talk about the sounds that reverberated off the walls that playoff season the Leafs came to town.
The Isles won every game in their building and I still maintain the second Shawn Bates’ penalty shot zipped past Curtis Joseph’s right shoulder to win Game 4 it was perhaps the single loudest moment in the building’s history, maybe even a tad louder than Mike Bossy’s OT winner in Game 1 of the 1981-82 Stanley Cup final or even, dare I say it, Bobby Nystrom’s Cup-clinching goal on May 24, 1980.
When you watch the Bates goal listen closely to the commentators. They speak of how the Coliseum sounded that night. And there’s reason for optimism that it will sound that way again, before a decision on a new arena becomes reality or the politicians destroy that which has become a symbol of Long Island pride for four decades.
Heading into Sunday’s shootout loss to the Devils the Islanders had the second-most point in the East since Dec. 16. It’s obvious the 14-game losing streak that cost Scott Gordon his coaching job will almost certainly cost this team a playoff spot. But it’s important to note that this season has been just the third year of what many believe is a four-year rebuilding project.
There is absolutely no denying the fact that with John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo, Blake Comeau, Frans Nielsen, P.A. Parenteau and Josh Bailey up front, and Travis Hamonic, Andrew MacDonald, Jack Hillen and eventually Mark Streit along the blue line — not to mention a farm system with more than its fair share of talent — this team is poised for a long run of a lot more than respectability. It just needs an infusion of a few veterans. Not even stars mind you, just guys who have been through the playoff wars. The Islanders need just a few healthy Doug Weights to show them the way.
If GM Garth Snow gets the go-ahead from Charles Wang to spend a little more than he’s accustomed, which is never that much but not because the owner doesn’t have the passion, don’t be surprised if the Coliseum erupts again next season as it has during countless seasons over the last 40.
And when it does, take some time to drink it in — because it’s not written in stone anywhere that the next building will have that same visceral feel.
The old barn still has it where it counts and it’s just waiting patiently to clear its throat. Don’t ever let the naysayers tell you otherwise.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini.
Agree with Jeff’s take on the Coliseum? Have some of your own memories or opinions to share? Please tell us about them in the comments section below.