UNIONDALE, Long Island - Nearly 2 1/2 years after last playing at the Nassau Coliseum, the New York Islanders are back on the ice at their refurbished former home Sunday.
It's just for one day - for a preseason game against Philadelphia - but that didn't matter to fans clamoring for the team's return from Brooklyn. They showed up early to tailgate and participate in pregame festivities outside, including a museum truck and a virtual reality Zamboni experience, and to take pictures with the Stanley Cup.
"It's nice to be back home," said Andrew Gagnon, a student at nearby Hofstra University who arrived at 9 a.m. to tailgate. "This is where the four Cups were won. All that history is here. I saw a sign that said, 'This is home, not Brooklyn.' That's how everyone feels."
Daniel Fisher, a Deer Park resident who has attended every game for 15 years, agreed.
"It'll be good to see them in the Coliseum again," he said. "It's almost like old times. Got here early, 8 o'clock, tailgating. That's how we roll."
The Islanders' last game at the Coliseum, now called NYCB Live, was on April 25, 2015, in a 3-1 victory over Washington in Game 6 of the first round of the playoffs. They were eliminated in a Game 7 loss two days later, and began playing at Brooklyn's Barclays Center the following season.
Claire Harding, a resident of Huntington and president of the Islanders Boosters Club that she says has been around since the team's inception in 1972 was also glad to see the team back at the old arena where it played for the franchise's first 43 years.
"The atmosphere right now is the same as it used to be," said Harding, who was joined by her husband Gary and two friends. "I haven't been inside yet. I'm sure it will be different. ... We'll make our own fun, enjoy our friends."
The fans greeted the team with a strong ovation when the Islanders took the ice for pregame warmups about 35 minutes before the game, and roared when they came back out for introductions shortly before puck drop. The cheers continued while a video on the scoreboard showed the team's four championship banners and highlights of Stanley Cup wins.
The arena was renovated and reopened earlier this year with a capacity of about 13,000 for hockey, less than both the 16,170 it had previously and the 15,795 currently at Barclays Center.
The team's move to Brooklyn was announced in 2012 after a failed attempt to secure public financing for a new arena on Long Island, and zoning approval was rejected for a privately funded development plan that would have included renovations to the Coliseum. It was announced as a 25-year deal and appeared to secure the Islanders' future in New York amid talk the team could move to another city.
However, the lease has an opt-out clause with a January deadline that either side can exercise. If the Islanders choose to leave, they can do so as early as after the upcoming season, while either side can terminate the deal effective at the end of the 2018-19 season.
Islanders fans have expressed displeasure with Barclays Center, home to the NBA's Brooklyn Nets, from the start, citing many obstructed seats and poor sightlines for hockey. It's also further away from the core of the team's fan base on Long Island.
"For all of us who live further east than here, in Suffolk County, it's just hard to get to Brooklyn, especially during the week," said Gary Harding, a season-ticket holder for 28 years here but only goes to about four or five games a season.
Possibilities for the team's future include building a new arena either at Belmont Park or near Citi Field in Queens. At the end of July, the Empire State Development issued a much-anticipated request for proposals (RFP) to develop the land next to the racetrack at Belmont Park. The Islanders are believed to be among those interested in submitting proposals, with a Sept. 28 deadline for submissions. There is no timetable for a decision to be made.
Empire State Development put out an RFP for the same land in 2012, but scrapped all proposals a year ago.
"Hope it happens," said Michael Molloy, who along with two friends was among the early tailgaters. "As long as there's a parking lot where you can tailgate and you can drive to games. There will be public transportation. It has to be a hockey arena.
"They can't move the team.. We're a dynasty. It can't happen."
While some fans have been calling for the team to return to the Coliseum on a full-time basis, Harding only endorsed that on a temporary basis, possibly while another arena is being built.
"It's here, but unfortunately it's not home anymore," he said.