UNIONDALE, N.Y. — It’s a little after 5 p.m. ET on June 17 and the sun is shining out on Long Island. Puck drop for Game 3 of the 2021 Stanley Cup semifinals is more than three hours away, but that hasn’t stopped the Islanders’ faithful from beginning their own pregame rituals in the Nassau Coliseum’s parking lot. Some are setting up tents while others are lighting up the grills. Music is filling the air from car radios and the band nearby playing WAR’s “Low Rider” as adult beverages are being cracked open.
“This is the most incredible sendoff that we could have ever hoped for, to be playing hockey for the Stanley Cup championship in June,” said Alex Klein, sporting an Islanders tank top in front of his Jets-turned-Islanders decorated minibus. “There’s nothing better than this.”
Of course, a spot in the Stanley Cup Final and a chance at the franchise’s fifth championship would be better. It’s been 38 years since the boys sporting orange, white and blue sipped from sports’ greatest trophy. That happened on the same ice the team raised their sticks up to salute its fans after a last-second save by Ryan Pulock in Game 4 on Saturday and a dramatic come-from-behind 3-2 win in Game 6 on Wednesday that forced a winner-takes-all showdown.
“That building that went into overtime smelled like cigarettes, and now it smells like beers,” winger Anthony Beauvillier said after his overtime winner that was celebrated with beer cans (some empty, some not) being thrown on the ice. “That place was going crazy.”
Now, comes the waiting (which, as the great Tom Petty once said, is the hardest part): Friday’s Game 7 result will determine whether Wednesday’s game was, in fact, the last one in that building — officially, and finally.
The building nicknamed “Fort Never Lose” should have actually been called “Fort Never Close.” It always seems to have one last dance. Back in 2015, what is currently the second oldest building in the NHL, closed its doors after an Islanders win in another Game 6 before the Isles fell in Game 7 to the Capitals. And, as we now know, the subsequent move to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center was temporary, and a back-and-forth between the two arenas began until the team decided the full 2020-21 slate would be held at the Old Barn.
But in 2021, the doors are definitively closing at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
“It’s bittersweet to see them leave. I’m very happy they have a new home but I’m not happy I’m leaving here,” said Victoria Dee, a member of the Blue and Orange Army, the franchise’s supporters group perched in what was section 329 before the renovation between 2015-17 and is now (technically) 229.
Beginning next season, the team will be lacing them up at UBS Arena at Belmont Park. While the new rink was designed to mimic the atmosphere at the Coliseum — the low ceiling that makes the barn special is being raised just three feet higher in the new building — there’s something about old hockey rinks that new digs just can’t quite replicate.
“Very unique atmosphere. The passion of the fans. How loud it gets. The sightlines of the Old Barn. It’s such a great place to watch a hockey game,” said Michael Blizzard, who was at Game 3 with his brother-in-law’s Jonathan and Thomas Lovaglio.
If you’ve never been to the building on Hempstead Turnpike, the now aluminum-finned building, that atmosphere has long been admired by players and fans across the NHL.
“For me, it’s the loudest building I’ve ever played in,” said Shawn Bates after revving up the crowd outside the arena and is often reminded of his game-winning penalty shot in Game 4 of the 2002 Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Maple Leafs. “It’s effective for the team. Once the fans get behind the team it kind of motivates them to get better and better and it works.”
It worked in Game 4 (also a 3-2 win for New York) and, in particular, Game 6 as the team was down 2-0 and began to claw its way back halfway through the third period. If you looked around at that point, it appeared as if nary a soul — 13,917 faithful — were seated the rest of the way. The chanting started to build and grow — “Let’s Go Islanders,” they shouted — as moms, dads, kids of all ages, pushed their team over the edge. Their hope for another day, that deafening roar, enveloped everyone in the building.
“Incredibly loud. We bring the noise every game. It’s electric. The building actually vibrates and shakes,” remarked Craig Richardson after showing off two Islanders tattoos, one being the iconic circular logo.
There have been some lean years in that building and for its faithful, but also some huge moments.
After breaking into the NHL in 1972, in just the club’s eighth year of existence, the Islanders won the Stanley Cup on an overtime goal by Bob Nystrom.
“I had gotten a scalpel out of the trainer’s room and I sat in the bathroom and I actually cut a notch in my stick signifying that I was going to score the goal,” reminisced Nystrom, whose No. 23 hangs from the rafters, on the phone with Sporting News. “Sure enough, I was lucky enough to score the goal after a beautiful play by Lorne Henning and also John Tonelli.”
He added later on: “We cried, we just congratulated each other right in the corner. It was just a magical moment. It was something that none of us will ever forget.”
Neither will the fans, including NHL Network’s E.J. Hradek, who grew up in Westchester County cheering on the guys from Long Island and was in the building that day.
“When they scored, the place just erupted and I could just remember yelling ‘It’s in!’ And going crazy like you do when a team clinches a championship,” he said. Hradek was in the 300s behind that fateful net and has just one regret: “It was such a crazy environment, fans jumped over the glass … and I was kind of mad at myself, I should have run down and jumped over.
“[But] then I can remember the Cup coming out of the tunnel and there was not a whole lot of pomp and circumstance, it came out and it was almost like it was levitating.”
That win in 1980 was the first of four straight by Nystrom and the Islanders — which Nystrom appreciated because he never got to touch the Cup on the ice back on that May 24 day — and only the 1982 Cup was secured on the road. Nystrom mentioned that the clinching win in Vancouver just wasn’t the same without the fans.
“I think that everyone is like family when you’re in the building,” said Seth Godnick. “I also don’t think you get the corporate vibe that you get in a lot of these other cities. These are real, just normal blue-collar folks just going to a hockey game.”
While those were the only years that ended with drinking out of the Holy Grail of trophies, the memories in the building runneth over. There was Bossy’s 50 goals in 50 games in 1981; Bryan Trottier scoring eight points (five goals and three assists) against the Rangers in 1978; Al Arbour’s unforgettable 1500th game coached; John Tavares’ game-winning goal in 2013 that secured the Isles first home playoff win in 11 seasons and his memorable return as a member of the Maple Leafs in 2019.
And now, there is this 2021 Stanley Cup playoff run.
“The building is kind of hard to kill,” said Hradek to Sporting News. “It’s got a lot of character and it’s had a lot of memories and a lot of history. At the end of the day it will be different, even though they’re going into a beautiful new facility, it won’t be the same in terms of the, let’s say, the coziness of the fans and the players because it’s such an old school building.”
If this is truly it for the Coli, it’s been quite a sendoff for a building that’s just as blue-collar as the fans that trek to it. (Heck, even the ice crew wears blue coveralls and hardhats.) The last year has not been easy for anyone but the heroics of Game 4 and the beer-showering overtime victory in Game 6 have helped add to the memory bank for Islanders fans.
“It’s kinda, basically, in the heart of Long Island so, this is why it’s our place, it’s our barn.”, ” said Charley Mcanulla, who was sporting a Steve Thomas jersey from the 1992-93 season, a blue and orange wig and a blue and orange dyed beard, when asked what makes the Coliseum special.
Yes, the fans. The building is brick and mortar, an inanimate object. It may be closing its doors to hockey but it’s just a building. It’s truly the fans that make it special. And, on a summer night on Long Island, they chanted “Var-ly” for Semyon Varlamov and sang “Pag-eau, Pag-eau, Pag-eau” for Jean-Gabriel. They serenaded the longest-tenured Islander Josh Bailey by twisting DJ Otzi’s lyrics for “Hey Baby” and asking if he’ll score a goal. And there were some “warm greetings” for the visitors, too.
They stood and cheered long after the beer cans littered the ice and the players went into the locker room to head to Tampa Bay. They stayed and soaked in the friendly confines one more time, because, after 49 years, if this was it, it was quite a memory.
After all, as they all sang along with Long Island’s own Billy Joel less than an hour prior:
“Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody, and you’ve got us feelin’ alright.”