Barn legacy: Nassau Coliseum
The New York Islanders were born in 1972, playing home games in the newly built Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in little-known Uniondale. When they won four consecutive Stanley Cup titles from 1980-83 the arena was dubbed Fort Neverlose, and it — not the far more famous Madison Square Garden 30 miles away in Manhattan or Yankee Stadium in the Bronx — was the center of New York’s sports universe. But as memories of those championships faded, so too did the building’s charm. In 2009, as rumors spread that the team would consider moving — even playing an exhibition game in Kansas City that September — NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said, “There is probably no worse major league facility right now in North America than the Nassau Coliseum.”
By then, the franchise was already several years into its quest for a new home. In 2004, then-owner Charles Wang, developer Scott Rechler and Nassau County officials unveiled the Lighthouse Project, a $3.75 billion development. It would have transformed the venue into two 31-story buildings connected by a footbridge and an adjacent 150-acre mixed-use space. The project never materialized because county residents voted against it in 2011.
A year later, the Islanders announced they would leave Long Island and move to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center at the end of the team’s lease in 2015. In August 2013, venue owner Forest City won a bid to renovate the aging arena, eventually spending $180 million on an upgrade that was completed in 2017.
On Dec. 1, 2018, the Islanders played their first game back in the Coliseum and for the next two years split home games at the barn and the Barclays Center. One year ago this week, Nassau County approved a new $1.3 billion complex in Elmont, on the Nassau side of the border with Queens, that will include an arena that can seat 17,000 for hockey as the new home of the Islanders and 19,000 for concerts. Late last month, the team announced the facility will officially be called UBS Arena at Belmont Park, and the Islanders will move in for the 2021-22 season.
The Coliseum’s days as one of the last completely publicly financed home arenas of a major U.S. pro sports team are numbered, although proposals have been made to keep the building going even after the Islanders leave again. Nearly 50 years after its unveiling, and as the NHL dropped the puck to resume its current season, those involved in shaping the arena’s history reminisce about its past.
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■ Bob Nystrom, Islanders winger (1972-86): The first time I went to the Coliseum was when I signed my contract. They were still doing work on it. We went inside, and I was dumbfounded. … I was sitting there with my mouth open.
■ John Tonelli, Islanders winger (1978-86): In 1978, I was playing in the World Hockey Association. When our season was over, they were in the playoffs playing the Maple Leafs in Game 7. I walk into the Coliseum, and the place is just buzzing. You could feel the electricity.
■ Nystrom: When I got drafted, I was actually working framing houses back in British Columbia. The draft day, I think, was on a Friday. I went straight from work to a bar, and we were having a beer. My dad called me. When I got on the phone, he said I had gotten drafted by the New York Islanders. I said, ‘Who the hell are the Islanders?’ They were a new team. He said they were in New York. My first thought was, ‘Oh, gosh!’ All I had heard about was crime in New York. I said, ‘I got to buy a gun.’
■ Tonelli: When the puck dropped for that first game I attended, there wasn’t an empty seat in the building. Every ounce of standing room was taken. It was incredible. I was 100% sold.
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From the bowl shape and the made-for-hockey sight lines, to the fans’ close proximity to the ice and a less-than-extravagant exterior, the Coliseum had its own share of unique characteristics. That made it a memorable place for some and less appealing for others.
■ Mike Liut, former NHL goaltender, current managing director, Octagon Hockey: There was no history to the building. It was about the team. When you were playing the Islanders, the Nassau Coliseum was nondescript, right? It looked like [Philadelphia’s] Spectrum. They all looked the same. They were just round.
■ Jon Ledecky, current Islanders co-owner: It wasn’t perfect. The bathrooms and the concessions had some issues.
■ Frank Borelli, longtime season-ticket holder: There were only two levels going up, so if you were on the top seat looking down, you had a great seat. The sound in the building always impressed me. It just seemed louder than any of the other buildings.
■ Tonelli: You got to be friendly with the man that painted the ice, the ushers, the people that tended to the gates. [The painter] always used to be yelling at me at the end of practice to get off the ice. His name was Roberto [Borzomi]. From the time you entered the arena as a player, typically we’re entering the arena hours before, you’re saying hello to everybody like you’re family. He was a celebrity at the Coliseum.
■ Tonelli: There’s no doubt the fans played the biggest part in making the Coliseum an event, like a family gathering in a large way.
■ Peter Wang, Gensler principal and architect, who worked on the interior revamp of Nassau Coliseum that concluded in 2017 (no relation to former Islanders owner): The great thing about it was the fact that the arena and the sight lines for the arena were designed for hockey, so fans loved it. It had a great kind of place in the hearts of all the Islanders fans. So, they dealt with all of what it lacked, the long lines at the concessions, the long lines of the bathrooms … but it was part of the experience.
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After losing in the conference finals four times from 1975-79, the Islanders finally broke through. From 1980-83, they won four consecutive titles, becoming the last team in men’s North American sports to accomplish that feat.
■ Nystrom: When we went to Philadelphia for the first Cup, we played in their building the game before we won. Their fans were really into it. When we came back home for the sixth game, there were some messages on the seats saying like, ‘Let’s not let those Philadelphia fans outdo us.’ They cheered throughout our entire warmup. I swear to god I had chills running down my back. I almost broke into tears. … It was probably the most memorable experience playing hockey. After we won, all you could hear were horns honking all over Long Island. We got home at about 8 o’clock in the morning.
■ Liut: What was so special about the arena? The four Stanley Cups. The reputation as a place is created with winning. You had to walk past [the Islanders’] dressing room before leaving. [Edmonton Oilers legend Wayne] Gretzky has a great anecdote. They lost [the 1983 Cup Final in] four straight games. When he’s leaving, he’s dreading having to walk down the corridor — it was a wide corridor — but you could see they were whooping it up. They had just won the Stanley Cup. You could see right into their dressing room. There wasn’t a long corridor, secluded, big double doors. There was none of that. It was just a bigger room. … When he looks in, these guys were all iced down and they were having some celebration, but essentially they just got beat. The way he tells the story is that they’re walking out of the building thinking they played hard and now he just saw what playing hard looks like. That was the only real nuance to the building.
■ Nystrom: We had the greatest relationship with our fans. Most of us came from small towns up in Canada or even in Sweden. We fit in so perfectly with Long Island. There were so many working-class people in that area. We always felt that we were in that category. … When we had that [championship] parade down the Hempstead Turnpike, everyone came out. We were riding in pickup trucks. It was the greatest thing ever. Everyone was throwing us beers.
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The dynasty ended with the Islanders’ loss to the Oilers in the 1984 Stanley Cup Final. They haven’t been back to that stage since, and it wasn’t long before the Coliseum was being called the Mausoleum for its sparse, quiet crowds and the team’s dreadful play. Charles Wang kept the franchise on Long Island, resisting possibilities from Kansas City and Quebec City, but even the move to nearby Brooklyn in 2012 left the team’s diehard fans from towns like Garden City, Hicksville and Oyster Bay feeling as if they’d been abandoned.
■ Wang: When the Islanders were playing at Barclays, the fans from Long Island hated it because you couldn’t drive in or if you did drive in, you’d be sitting in traffic for ages. Otherwise, you’d have to hop on the Long Island Railroad. Less than dependable, right?
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Still, those fans never gave up on getting the team back for good. In August 2013, Forest City Ratner and SHoP Architects were awarded the Coliseum’s renovation project. After the privately financed $180 million facelift brought the arena into the modern era, the Coliseum eventually reopened on April 8, 2017.
■ James Lester, former executive vice president of sports and entertainment development at Forest City, who led the renovation of Nassau Coliseum: It was an RFP process conceived by the county executive, Ed Mangano. The two finalists were up to [Nassau Event Center]. … The county executive and the county knew that oftentimes RFPs are awarded and then the details of the specific transaction are renegotiated through the document process. So, in this particular case, we had to fully negotiate and execute the documents before he selected the bidder.
■ Brett Yormark, ex-CEO of Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment (former owner of the Coliseum): I worked very closely with Bruce Ratner and the Forest City team, when we ended up effectively renovating the Coliseum. When the Islanders left, [Nassau County was] left with an arena that was obviously very dated, and in some respects, antiquated.
■ Lester: Our project was a renovation of the Coliseum and a small entertainment-based retail development [next door] to act really as a catalyst for the rest of the development on the site, kind of like at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. And the idea with the entertainment piece was to sort of get something started, create a destination, then see what you have and then sort of build it out over time in phases. But the first lease, essentially, was the Coliseum and about 200,000 feet of development.
■ John Cerone, principal of SHoP Architects, who worked on the exterior redesign of the Coliseum: The big story was the design elements, and the way that we also delivered it. It was a fully digital 3D model, the same way cars and airplanes are modeled.
■ Wang: It was very dated. There was maroon or burgundy quarry tile on the floors, cinder block walls, concrete block walls that were painted blue, white and orange, the blue and orange being the Islander colors. Over the years, banners had started to proliferate from the ceilings. We tried to maintain all of the good things while addressing the aspects of what was lacking.
■ Cerone: We had access to the original set of drawings of Nassau Coliseum. The good news was, first of all, it’s way more sustainable to resurrect a facility like that and give a new life rather than tear it down. [Forest City] wanted to breathe new life into this arena, which at the time was a pretty dated-looking structure, but it had really good bones. It had these four-by-four-foot thick concrete piers, 32 of them around the building.
■ Lester: We wanted to have sort of similar identities, too, between Brooklyn and Nassau, as we thought about creating sort of an overall brand and at the time, the concept was to expand even further. So we did a few things. One, the facade itself. The other concepts sort of were implemented throughout the design. So, terrazzo floors. At Barclays Center, there’s terrazzo floors. Similar concept to Nassau, but it’s sort of more reflective of the Long Island environment. So, you talk to the architects, the facade itself resembles the reeds of the marshes and Long Island and the shore and things like that. And it has more of a light and airy type of feel.
■ Yormark: Long Island, in some respects, had been underserved in the area of sports and entertainment for quite some time, even when the Islanders were playing there. The building was old, they weren’t really getting the amount of shows that they did early on when the Coliseum was first built, and we felt that, given the demographics in the marketplace and the density of the market that, if you build it, they’ll come.
■ Cerone: We wanted to create this skin that references history and the spirit of flight. That area has a very rich aviation history so in that spirit of space, we wanted a beautiful chrome-plated stainless steel aircraft with that sort of reflective silver texture or materiality. It was a nod to that “Flight of the Navigator” feel to it, but at the same time, that sort of picket fence of vertical striations, which was a nod to the beach and the sand dunes and beach grass of Long Island.
■ Yormark: When [Forest City] took on the Coliseum and started renovating it the strategy at that time, because that was pre-Belmont, was that it was very complementary to Barclays, so that we could cross-book.
■ Cerone: We designed it, and it was all prefabricated pieces. Kind of an IKEA erector set, they’re assembled and snap fit in front of the place they’re going to go.
■ Wang: There’s a beer garden that was incorporated as part of the entry experience. There is a VIP club that was utilizing a kind of a windowless basement space. The whole concessions program, whose theme was the taste of Long Island and similar to what they did at Barclays with the Brooklyn-based food venues that were brought into the Barclays experience in Brooklyn. Here, it was Long Island taste, and they partnered with a lot of the local Long Island microbrewers. There were some locker rooms that we upgraded; the party suites were also completely renovated.
■ Yormark: We put a lot of resources into the building to contemporize it and to give people in Long Island a reason to come back. If you look at Pollstar and Billboard, for venues of its size, it has been one of the top in use in the country since the renovation took place. We reopened with Billy Joel.
■ Cerone: It’s fun to see the reviews of it now with having given it a new skin and the revamped interiors. People seem to be really favorable about that.
■ Borelli: There were tears in our eyes when it reopened. … I can just remember the crowd. It was crazy, crazy loud. You don’t experience that in other arenas.
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The future of the arena is once again in doubt. The team was to play all of its home games at Nassau Coliseum in 2020-21, but in June, Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of building operator Onexim Sports & Entertainment, announced that he plans to shut the arena down indefinitely and wants investors to take over the arena’s $100 million in debt. Oak View Group said it has made an offer to solve the issue. It’s just another twist in the fate of a building that has had more changes than a line shift.
■ Lester: [The Coliseum is] sentimental to a lot of people on Long Island. And there is a path where it could exist going forward. Having a competitive venue [UBS Arena] in the county obviously makes it more challenging.
■ Yormark: Even with Belmont, the Coliseum/NYCB LIVE still has a purpose in that marketplace and can be very complementary to Belmont. It’s a smaller venue, the economics are very good. … And the original notion was that it was going to be a concert venue that also had other sports events, not necessarily a core tenant like the Islanders. It can certainly coexist.
■ Wang: I would expect [the Coliseum] to be part of civic life because even though the Islanders had always played here, this was a main venue for music, in particular. All the big names that we’ve ever heard of have come here to play. They fly to New York and then they take a helicopter out here because it’s like a 10-minute, 15-minute helicopter ride if you go.
■ Cerone: There’s a lot of hometown spirit in that one with Billy Joel playing it a lot. There was sort of this love-hate affection for it. It was very dear to Long Islanders’ hearts. They lovingly referred to it as the Mausoleum.
■ Borelli: I’ve seen Paul McCartney there, Queen, Led Zeppelin. Memory after memory of concerts and sporting events I’ve seen there over the years. My first concert there was Elvis Presley in 1975.
■ Tonelli: There’s people who come up to me and say, ‘You made my childhood at the Coliseum. You made my childhood fun.’ Older people who said, ‘Boy, those were the days, I couldn’t wait to go to a game.’ It was the event during those times.
■ Ledecky: I ran into [Washington Capitals star] Alex Ovechkin at an event awhile back, and he told me the Coliseum was one of the loudest and intimidating arenas he had ever played in.
■ Borelli: For us to lose it, it’s like moving away from your first home. Me having a business across the street, it’s extra personal to me. When you say the Italian restaurant near the Coliseum, being here 65 years, it’s like a landmark for us.
■ Nystrom: Change is a necessity. The players want a building. They don’t want to have to move back and forth. They want to set down roots.
■ Ledecky: When I think of the Coliseum, I think of the passionate fans, how loud it was, the Islanders’ seventh man. The Belmont project, UBS Arena, was developed with Nassau Coliseum’s intimacy and hockey focus in mind. It was also a great place for music. In that spirit, UBS will be the place made for music but built for hockey.
■ Tonelli: When I walk into the Coliseum today, there’s a great feeling. They’ve refurbished it, so it’s not too antiquated. The memories, the nostalgia, you can never replace those. The new Belmont owners today are trying to capture every bit of emotion and feeling from that Coliseum.
■ Ledecky: We took the things that were not working at the Coliseum and corrected them for the UBS Arena but didn’t lose the fabric of what the Nassau Coliseum meant to the Islanders and the fans.