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

Updated: January 31, 2017 at 8:00 am by Pat Keogh

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

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.