The year was 2012, and time was running out for owner Charles Wang and the New York Islanders. The lease on the Nassau Coliseum would expire after the 2014-2015 campaign, leaving the club without a future home. Wang initially had designs on building a new arena and revitalizing the Nassau County section of Long Island through the Lighthouse Project, but political opposition quickly derailed the plan.
With his options limited and the team facing the prospect of relocation, Wang chose the next best option; a move to the newly constructed Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. On the surface, the Islanders would get what they wanted. They would remain in the New York market and play in a venue that housed all the amenities the Nassau Coliseum lacked. But the arena itself contained several caveats that made it a less than ideal hockey venue.
For starters, the Barclays Center was not designed with hockey in mind. Its horseshoe configuration limited the building to Brooklyn Nets basketball, college hoops, and concerts. Putting hockey into a basketball arena was like fitting a square peg into a round hole, but technically workable. The then-Phoenix Coyotes played their first seven seasons in the American West Arena beginning in 1996 and endured the constraints of playing in a venue constructed for basketball to bring a hockey team to the desert.
Although playing hockey in the Barclays Center could work from a mechanical standpoint, the result was less than ideal. Since an NHL sized rink is roughly twice the size of a basketball court, the jumbotron would hang over one of the blue lines. One side of the arena was entirely obstructed from the nearest goal, forcing fans in the section to either watch the game on the big screen or on their phones. Other seats in the arena had sightlines either obstructed by railings or facing away from one end of the ice, forcing fans to turn their neck sideways to follow the action.
Since there were fewer available seats due to the unusual configuration, Honda purchased ad space in one of the corners, where a white SUV sat for virtually every game. Another issue in the building was the ice surface. Unlike most NHL arenas that have steel piping, the Barclays Center has PVC piping, which causes fluctuation in the ice condition, especially later in the season when the outdoor temperatures increase. The result is ice that causes skating and the puck to stall, as seen during the 2019 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Carolina Hurricanes when goaltenders Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney limited the Islanders to just a single goal in two games in Brooklyn.
Despite the inherent inconveniences with the building, the Islanders’ move to Brooklyn helped the club establish a more significant presence in the New York City metropolitan area while continuing to maintain their Long Islanders roots. After years of struggling to find a radio station outside of Hofstra University, the Islanders would broaden their reach signing deals with sports stations WFAN and later WEPN to broadcast their games. Public transportation made games more accessible to fans residing in the five boroughs of New York City since the arena sits adjacent to the Atlantic Avenue transit hub.
The Islanders also had great success on the ice at Barclays Center going, 85-47-21 in 153 regular-season games played. Their most storied moment in the arena came in Game 6 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Florida Panthers when John Tavares’ wraparound goal in overtime clinched the Islanders’ first playoff series win since 1993. Additionally, Ottawa Senators defenseman Thomas Chabot and Islanders forward Kieffer Bellows scored their first NHL goals in the venue.
While it seemed as though the Islanders established themselves in a new home, there was a prevailing belief that their tenure in Barclays was a temporary solution. New owners John Ledecky and Scott Malkin felt that the team’s long term viability was only secure in a state of the art building they could call their own. With that goal in mind, the Islanders announced their intention in December 2017 to build a new arena designed for hockey in Belmont Park and move into the venue by the 2021-22 NHL season. The Islanders worked with New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and the Barclays Center to move the majority of their games to the now refurbished Nassau Coliseum in the interim until the completion of the arena.
The team officially returned to the Nassau Coliseum in November 2018 to the widespread approval of the fans and players, who would not have to travel 34 miles on the Long Island Railroad for games in Brooklyn. Although architects downsized the arena after the Islanders’ move to Brooklyn, the Nassau Coliseum served as the ideal temporary home for the franchise until the Belmont move. It also maintained the sightlines and charm of the place that once housed four consecutive Stanley Cup championships in the early 1980s. The overwhelming success of the return to the Nassau Coliseum enabled the NHL to have the team play full-time in the arena after March 2020 while the new arena is being built, and no longer split the home schedule between Long Island and Brooklyn.
The Islanders will leave behind a complicated legacy in Brooklyn. While the arena was never an ideal venue for hockey, it prevented the team from having to relocate to places such as Kansas City, Quebec, and Hamilton, each showing interest in obtaining NHL teams in the past. Moving to Brooklyn added more value to franchise from a business standpoint to the extent that the team was able to have a stable ownership group in place, and the resources to contend at the highest level.
The hiring of Barry Trotz and Lou Lamoriello fortified the commitment of cultivating a sustained hockey culture. Although the Islanders’ tenure in Brooklyn wasn’t the perfect solution, it allowed the franchise to buy the time they needed to take the necessary measures to return to the prominence of the past.