Islanders' time at Nassau Coliseum is coming to an end

ByKatie Strang ESPN logo
Saturday, April 11, 2015

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Perhaps the most diplomatic way to describe the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum is to call it "outdated," though many other pejoratives spring to mind.

It is indeed an aging, decrepit, old barn that is sagging at the seams, remarkable as something of a historical relic when contrasted with all the sleek, soulless facilities gaining popularity today. It is utterly unlike the sparkling, state-of-the art digs that await the team in Brooklyn, where the New York Islanders will begin the 2015-16 season in their new home, the Barclays Center.

Built in 1972 and borne out of a political battle between the Federal Aviation Association and Nassau County executives, the ... let's just saymaturity of the Coliseum is evident in just about every inch of the 409,963-square-foot arena. Every creaking, syrup-coated crevice of those aluminum stairways, every grease-stained chair backing, every fluorescent-lit, paint-spackled, hospital-like hallway is a world-weary badge of honor.

You could call the Coliseum a dump. You would not be wrong. But to Islanders fans, it is their dump. Despite all its aesthetic deficiencies, it is still a hallowed building steeped with history and tradition.

These days, the rinks' similarities are so dizzying they all seem to blend together -- cavernous, modern, luxurious. Islanders legend Butch Goring remembers when he first came into the league in 1969. You could walk into every arena, eyes closed, and immediately know where you were when you opened them. The Coliseum might be the last of that distinctive ilk.

"Every team knows," Goring said of walking into the Coliseum. "No one second-guesses."

Sure, that means jokes about crumbling ceilings and ill-equipped visitors' dressing rooms, but it's still a daunting stop for any opposing team. The intimacy of the place, with fans practically on top of the ice, makes for one of the most intimidating environments in the league.

"I always felt small there," said former New York Rangers forward and former Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee, who swears the visitors' bench was higher than at any other rink. Maybe it was gamesmanship, or maybe he just imagined it that way.

Then, of course, there was the noise.

Despite all the structural shortcomings and cosmetic inferiorities, the Coliseum has exceptional acoustics. When the team is good and the place is packed, the din is enough to rattle your teeth. Some of the current players experienced that for the first time in spring 2013, when the Islanders made a surprising series out of a lopsided, first-round matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"I really did feel like a kid," Islanders forward Colin McDonald said of the superlative crowd support.

That is something those players will not soon forget. Goring can still recall the incredible cacophony that set the stage for the team's first Stanley Cup championship in 1980 and the elated, almost feverish euphoria that followed that iconic Bobby Nystrom goal scored 7:11 into overtime on May 24, 1980.

"Oh, man," Nystrom told at a special Islanders alumni event Friday night designed to raise money for both Pat LaFontaine's and Steve Webb's charities. "In warmup, I almost broke into tears, because you know what? Philadelphia had cheered so loud the night before, I guess there was some leaflets on the seats that said let's not let those Philly fans outdo us. I swear to God, I never heard a building so loud. I remember my throat quivering a little bit and I thought, you can't cry, it's the playoffs!"

"From an hour until the game ended [and onward], it was nonstop. I don't know how many people ever sat down," said Goring, now the team's TV color commentator. "They never stopped screaming. It was such a display of excitement."

After the acoustics, the Coliseum's next best attribute has to be its unparalleled sightlines, which make for very few bad seats.

"The building wasn't perfect, but it was perfect for hockey," veteran sportscaster Jiggs McDonald told in a recent phone conversation.

Like any ancestral home, with creaking floorboards and temperamental faucets, the Coliseum has its quirks and nuances.

Among those is the notorious kick-plate near the Zamboni entrance. No matter how much longtime ice worker Roberto Borzomi, who looked after the surface for 37 years, labored on those boards, the flaw remained.

"Down at the Zamboni entrance, the kick plate never seemed to be aligned, no matter what," McDonald explained. "They've worked on those doors year after year and always the tendency for the puck, when it's moving left to right, is to hit that and pop out. It never went around the entire end boards and back up to the blue line; it always seemed to have that tendency to kick."

Ice level is where renowned hockey photographer Bruce Bennett made his name by capturing some of the most iconic moments in team history and preserving them with his lens and keen photographic eye.

Atop his list of favorite snaps is one taken in the 1980s. The black-and-white photograph shows Denis Potvin throwing his legendary hip check and upending Guy Lafleur, who is suspended in midair.

"You had these two superstars colliding," Bennett said. "That's the power of the shot."

Working within the bowels of the Coliseum for 40 years, 22 of them as the team's official photographer, Bennett has grown familiar with all of the nooks and crannies of the place. If he needs to move quickly from one end to another, he can do so with the simplest of shortcuts -- darting beneath the stands.

There are times he holds his breath as a defensive reflex after the asbestos scare of 2012, though he admits it's more superstition than anything. But he's grateful for the (relatively) low ceilings, which help to assuage the anxiety of climbing the catwalk to assemble the strobe lighting and remote cameras he uses from above.

But more than any of the infrastructural quirks that allow him easy movement, he was most grateful for the people he has worked with and around over the years. The veteran security guards, who recognize his shock of wavy gray hair and grant him access through the hallways with a wave and a smile. The fan who sits 30 rows behind his assigned photography and approached him at a grocery store to say, "Hey, I know you."

"It's just funny. Over the last month or two, you think more about those people," Bennett told "A lot of those people you basically won't see again. It's tremendously sad."

It is the many people who have allowed such a place to throb with life, even when age and time threatened to weaken its will.

Ask Jiggs McDonald about the array of characters he has encountered over the years, and it makes for a colorful group.

There was security guard Willie O'Connell, who became especially helpful with a raucous contingent of Rangers fans in the stands.

"Just as good an Irishman as you can find, and man, he could look after things if it got out of control," Jiggs McDonald recalled.

Father Dan Bitsko, who was always standing in the runway for a high-five. He was a volunteer fireman who officiated wedding ceremonies for a bunch of the players and baptized some of their children.

"He certainly heard plenty of confessions too," McDonald added.

There was also anthem singer Joe Duerr, whose rousing rendition was always something to behold, though it varied.

"[They] could be a little off-key, depending what time he left work," McDonald said with a chuckle.

Also vital to the broadcast crew was Scoreboard Steve, who had up to four transistor radios on him at all times. Steve would run up to the table to keep the media apprised on scores elsewhere around the league.

"He was our Internet in 1970," McDonald said.

After decades of calling games from the Coliseum, McDonald has witnessed the gamut of human emotions -- the thrill of victory, the devastation of defeat.

He has seen the vestiges of time affect both the building itself and those who fill its seats.

"We saw families grow up there," Jiggs McDonald said. "We saw a divorce or two behind us. There were friendships we still cling onto."

This is not to paint the Coliseum as some idyllic throwback without its warts. It's time has come, and very few will argue that.

"I certainly won't miss the men's room," former Long Island Ducks player Buzz Deschamps said.

Deschamps, 75, who spent many years at the Coliseum as a hockey equipment rep after his playing days, lamented the restrooms' poor design. Even so, he will be sad to see the place fade into obscurity.

Deschamps' three sons were stick boys, and they got a home visit from the Stanley Cup each championship year.

Those are the memories that make the place special. Those are what bred such a zealous fan base. Those are what make people sad to see the Coliseum go.

Of course, the impending move, which follows years of political wrangling and multiple failed efforts by current owner Charles Wang to keep the club on Long Island, comes just as the team is really getting good.

Bruce Ratner, who owns the Barclays Center, is putting money into renovating the Coliseum and the adjacent area, and according to a Newsday report this March, "Ratner will control all programming decisions." Maybe the Islanders will come back for a few games, but it's hard to imagine those events will be much more than ceremonial. (A Barclays Center spokesperson said the plan is to bring six games to Long Island, including preseason and regular-season games.) Even Nassau County legislative officials seem skeptical of the team's ever returning, considering the club's 25-year lease with Barclays. As minority leader Kevin Abrahams said this past month, "That ship has sailed."

With the Coliseum's final season coming to a close Saturday, the reality of the situation has begun to sink in, and with it comes a newfound appreciation for a venue that has endured almost decades of derision. People are really starting to recognize and embrace the Coliseum's charm. True fans know how much it will be missed.

"I think it's heart-shattering," Nystrom told "That's the best way I can describe it. Here's something that is the fabric of Long Island. It is the fabric of Long Island. I can't tell you it's not. The fact is that we, as a community, have to understand that if we're going to grow, we need this here. And we let it go. It hurts."

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