By Peter Schwartz
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It would be fair to say that the Islanders’ first season in Brooklyn was a work in progress.
There were some growing pains, but as the Isles’ inaugural season at Barclays Center evolved, things certainly improved in terms of the fan experience. If the fans had concerns — whether it was the goal horn, the train service, the viewing of warmups from the glass, the customer service or just the overall atmosphere, the powers that be listened and made things better.
“There was a progression during the year,” said Fred Mangione, chief operating officer for Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, which oversees the Islanders’ business operations.
By season’s end, the players and fans became accustomed to their new home and the Islanders won a playoff round for the first time in 23 years, as John Tavares’ double-overtime goal in Game 6 against the Panthers gave the Barclays Center its first memorable Islanders moment.
The building was electric for those playoff games, and now the expectation is that the postseason atmosphere will be more commonplace as the Islanders get ready for Season 2 in Brooklyn.
“Our goal all summer was to pick up right where we left off with those playoff games and that same atmosphere,” Mangione said. “We feel that the experience is going to be even better.”
After a first season that was certainly an adjustment for Islanders Country following the team’s 43-year run at Nassau Coliseum, the curtain will be raised on Season 2 on Sunday when the Islanders play their home opener against the Anaheim Ducks. While the puck drops at 6 p.m., the fun will actually start a lot earlier than that.
The festivities begin at 3:30 p.m. with a fan fest on the plaza that includes a live DJ, interactive games, merchandise stands and appearances by Islanders legends, as well as the team’s mascot, Sparky the Dragon. The doors to the atrium will open at 4:30 for a happy hour with select concessions, and then the doors to the arena will open at 5 p.m.
Fans are encouraged to be in their seats by 5:45 for a special opening ceremony.
“I think when you walk in and you see the lights go out, you’ll feel like you’re right back where you left off when you left in May,” Mangione said. “We do have a couple of surprises, so we’re excited. It will be a spectacular night.”
While it’s Year 2 in Brooklyn, it’s the first season for new Islanders owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin. Not long after they took over July 1, there were reports that the new owners were looking to exercise the opt-out clause from the 25-year lease at Barclays Center to build a new arena next to Citi Field or Belmont Park.
Publicly, Ledecky has maintained that Barclays Center will be the Islanders’ home for years to come, and so far there has been tremendous synergy between ownership and building management.
“It’s been fantastic,” Mangione said. “They’ve been great partners, and we work together on a lot of initiatives.”
One of those initiatives may or may not be the proposed plan for the Islanders to play six games a season at the Nassau Coliseum, which is currently undergoing renovations and will also be managed by Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment. The plan is for a chat with Islanders ownership and the NHL about the proposal, which was part of the winning bid from developer Bruce Ratner to renovate the Islanders’ former home.
With so much on the new ownership group’s plate, that conversation hasn’t taken place yet.
“It’s an overall strategy we’ll do again as partners and figure out what’s best for the team and for the franchise,” Mangione said. We still want to make sure that they’re comfortable. We’re going to spend some time with them and walk through what we spoke about in Nassau.”
The new Coliseum is scheduled to open in April with a Billy Joel concert. But first things first, and that is the Islanders getting set for the start of their second season at Barclays Center.
The management at Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment has been working hard to ensure that the fans will enjoy a much improved overall hockey experience. The arena’s 2,300 part-time employees recently went through customer service training through the Disney Institute, and Leo Ehrline was named as the building’s chief experience officer.
No stone is being left unturned when it comes to improving the fan’s experience.
“From a building perspective, we’re more than excited,” Mangione said. “We’re ready to get going.”
Ehrline’s job will be to make sure that the experience of the consumer from purchasing the ticket, to going to the building, to arriving at the building, to going to your seat is the best it can be. When Islanders fans come to a game this season, they will notice a number of improvements.
*The team store has been rebranded as the “Swag Shop at Barclays Center” and will feature Islanders gear year round.
• Season ticket holders have received a lanyard with a credential that will make it easier for the arena staff to recognize them and make getting in and out of the arena bowl a faster process.
• The promotional schedule has been expanded with more giveaway nights, including a Starting Lineup John Tavares figurine, bobbleheads, Stanley Cup banner rally towels and a Bill Torrey bowtie. “We wanted to make gifts that were more unique and not just do a jersey giveaway or cap night,” Mangione said. “We think the fans will get very excited because they’re going to be great keepsakes.”
• There will be expanded LIRR service with the same number of trains that there were during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. There will be four trains after every game, including two direct trains on the Babylon branch and direct trains to the Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma branches. On the weekends, there will also be four direct trains to Barclays Center, two from Babylon and one each from Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma.
“We spent a lot of time with the LIRR at the highest levels,” Mangione said. “They gave us their commitment that they’re going to do it for the entire season.”
Just like last season, there will be travel ambassadors stationed on the plaza outside the Barclays Center subway station to assist fans. As more and more people become comfortable with getting to and from Brooklyn, the Islanders will be able attract more of their core fans from Long Island as well as new fans from the area.
“The ultimate goal is to really build this team into a tri-state area team,” Mangione said. “We know the roots are on Long Island, but for this thing to really grow, we have to get it into Manhattan, Queens and obviously into Brooklyn.”
The Islanders’ first season in Brooklyn was filled with drama and intrigue. From the fans and players getting used to their new digs to the Islanders dramatic opening-round playoff victory over Florida, it was a learning experience for everyone.
Now it’s time for Season 2, and the hope is that the team continues to grow on the ice while the fan experience continues to improve in the Islanders’ new home.
You can follow me on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @NYIslanders and @barclayscenter.