By Daniel Friedman
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For me, April 21, 2015 began as any other day.
I went about my routine and, as was the case for any Islanders game I covered, left early to get to Nassau Coliseum, settle down in the press box and prepare my notes. Since this was a playoff game, I wanted to be there a little earlier than usual, in order to take in the magnitude of what I was about to experience.
Because this was not any other day, as I quickly realized. This proved to be my final visit to the Coliseum, a possibility I was certainly aware of at the time.
Before the game, I walked around the concourse, then around the entire seating bowl. I tried to capture every inch of the building and store each mental image.
After Nicklas Backstrom scored the overtime winner for Washington, after all the postgame interviews had been conducted, I returned to my seat in the press box, stared at the quiet, empty rink in my peripheral vision and began to cry.
Countless memories flooded into my head at supersonic speed.
I looked up into the 300 section behind the net at the north end of the ice and remembered my eighth birthday party. I looked into the 200’s behind the benches at center ice and remembered where my father and I sat, as he’d teach me how to identify every aspect, every detail of the game. I looked around the stands and recalled so many great experiences, seemingly in every section.
I grew up in West Hempstead, about a 10-minute drive from the Coliseum. For a six-year-old kid whose father grew up in Montreal, I didn’t have much of a choice but to put on my little Canadiens jersey and go to the games whenever the Habs came into Uniondale.
Curiously, despite the Islanders being dreadful in those early years – Ziggy Palffy aside – I wound up cheering for them every time they scored. Suffice to say, the Canadiens experiment did not last very long. I was an Islander, for better or worse.
I might not have witnessed the glory days of this franchise, but I sure felt like I had. And that’s the thing about being a resident of 1255 Hempstead Turnpike; history is everywhere, and not just in the aging facade.
I could hear the echoes from the cheers that went up for those Stanley Cup-winning teams throughout the building. I looked into the stands and could see the confetti flying through the air, just as it was in 1980. I looked around the goal crease and could see Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Clark Gillies penetrating the offensive zone and getting scoring chances. I looked at center ice and could see Shawn Bates getting set to take his penalty shot.
No matter where you look, you’ll find something – if you look closely enough.
And then I looked up to the rafters, a testament to that great hockey tradition which has been an integral part of Long Island since 1972, and felt like I’ve been in the building for every accomplishment those banners celebrate.
For me, Nassau Coliseum was always the place to go dream, to believe. It was the place where I learned everything I know about hockey, the place I went to get inspired when things were tough. It was like a second home for me.
Although I did not have the same experiences as the generation beforehand, I feel that mine has forged its own legacy; we have continued the traditions that have been going strong for over four decades. I am deeply saddened by the realization that the next generation will not have the same opportunity.
Barclays Center is a world-class building, but there is nothing like the Coliseum. There’s just no way to replicate that magical, energetic atmosphere. You simply don’t see it anymore in these new arenas.
Brooklyn is close by, but it’s not Nassau County. The fact is that Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray and County Executive Ed Mangano let an NHL franchise, let 43 years of history and pride walk right out the door. The Islanders were Long Island’s team, and now it’ll have to share them with Brooklyn.
Not only that – the county only got its act together and made a real push to get the Coliseum renovated once it was already too late. What a slap in the face to a franchise that has meant so much to this area.
Going to Brooklyn are the unforgettable memories and traditions of this storied hockey team. No more 7:11 of overtime, no more 50 goals in 50 games, no more epics, heroics or on-ice masterpieces. Goodbye to the penalty-shot game-winning goals and the outstanding goaltending performances. We bid adieu to the thunderous “Let’s Go Islanders!” chants that threatened to blow the roof off on so many occasions.
Many of John Tavares’ future accomplishments (and there will be plenty) will be celebrated several miles west of where his story began. Many of the team’s future accomplishments (of which there will also be plenty) will likewise be observed in Brooklyn.
Nassau County and Town of Hempstead politicians decided to let all of that slip away over finger-pointing and their own personal agendas. It is an unforgivable mistake that quite frankly should cost each of them their positions.
They talk, almost mockingly, about a new Coliseum and corporate offices for the Islanders in Nassau. They’re delusional. The Islanders are gone, and now it’s too late to get them back.
We had something great here on Long Island, but now it’s headed to Brooklyn. And, while I hold out hope that the Isles will one day return home, I won’t hold my breath – no matter how much empty rhetoric I hear from Mangano.
Goodbye, Nassau Coliseum. Thank you for 19 years of unforgettable memories, and for the other 24 years you gave everyone before me.
Thank you for being my home away from home.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI