At first glance, Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum is nothing special. Situated on Hempstead Turnpike, conveniently off the Meadowbrook Parkway and just down the road from Hofstra University, the archaic building has been the home of Long Island’s only professional sports team since 1972.
But its aged interior is unique. The building, with its pristine seating views and championship banners hanging in the rafters, has character. The locker room is tiny, probably one of the smallest in sports. Don’t even get reporters started on the press box, which is narrow and unimpressive. There’s even a distinct smell.
And yet, the New York Islanders managed to captivate the sports world at the old barn, once referred to as “Fort Neverlose“, winning 19 straight playoff series and four consecutive Stanley Cup championships from 1979-1983. A cadre of Hall of Famers, now immortalized in the rafters there, once called the Coliseum home. And some of the game’s all-time greats – Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Bobby Nystrom, among others – catapulted a meager suburban franchise to the heights of the hockey universe.
Saturday marked the final regular-season game at the Coliseum, as the franchise heads west to more modern confines at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center next season. To the Long Island faithful, who have called the Coliseum home for almost half a century, this is less than unsettling; it’s heartbreaking. Even with all its blemishes, the Coliseum is more than a mere building.
“You’d never think in a million years that this would go away,” Richard Vollmer Jr., whose family has had Islanders season tickets since 1972, says. “There are so many cities looking for franchises and to let one go away is a travesty.”
Vollmer, 56, was tailgating in the parking lot prior to the game with his family. They were all gathered around his father, Richard Sr., 80, who moved to South Carolina in 1991, but made the trip back north so he could experience the roar of the Coliseum one last time. Sporting an Islanders jersey and cap, Vollmer Sr. spoke fondly of his original memories of the orange and blue.
“In the beginning it was so special, yet it was so new,” he recalls. “No one knew what was going to happen. Then they got it. Who could imagine four Stanley Cups in a row? It was just magical. To see it all come to an end like this is kind of sad, but things change.”
“It is kind of upsetting they couldn’t figure out something here on Long Island,” Eric Vollmer, Richard Jr.’s son, adds. “This place has been great and I couldn’t imagine that it would come to this. It’s all I know. Every game I’ve been at I’ve been soaking it in, getting there early, hanging out and trying to embrace it. I’ve been to Barclays and it’s not the same.”
Across the parking lot, Roy Stillufsen, 67, who has also had Islanders season tickets since 1972, was with friends and family, reminiscing about the glory days. He recalls times when he could crack a beer with Islanders players after games at local bars, remembers when the idea of hockey on Long Island was a joke and the turning point in the late 1970s – when the Islanders became serious. He lived through leaky roofs above the rafters, technical malfunctions on the scoreboard, victory parades down Hempstead Turnpike, Bossy’s 50 goals in 50 games and Nystrom’s goal to clinch the franchise’s first Stanley Cup on May 24, 1980. He’s seen it all and he wishes he could do it all over again in the building he loves.
“I’m shocked and didn’t think this would ever happen,” he says. “Politics played a big part in this and I’m very upset about that. Long Island’s only professional team and we’re losing it, and it’s a team with a glorified history.”
The politics Stillufsen refers to came to a head in 2012, when Islanders owner Charles Wang – having lost his battle with the Town of Hempstead on multiple proposals that would have renovated the entire area surrounding the arena – chose to move the franchise from a blue-collar suburban community to the big city, which already has a decent NHL contender one borough over in Manhattan.
It was hard for Islanders captain John Tavares to speak about the historical significance of Saturday’s game – after all, his team had just lost a close one, 5-4 in a shootout, to a feisty Columbus club that was clearly out to ruin the party in Uniondale.
“The atmosphere was incredible,” Tavares, who had MVP chants thrown his way throughout the game, says. “It’s been great all year. They were humming out there.”
Sporting retro uniforms from 1972, the Islanders squandered a 3-1 lead in the third period. Even with chants of “We want home ice” ringing through the Coliseum, they fell short and the Washington Capitals clinched home ice for the teams’ first-round playoff series, which begins Wednesday.
The players knew better than to worry about where games are played. They’re happy to be in the playoffs in such a monumental season for the franchise. They’re happy to walk away with 101 points and 47 victories, their most since 1983-1984, coincidentally the last year they played in the Stanley Cup Final, when the Isles lost to Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers.
“I don’t think anyone projected we’d be where we were going to be today,” Islanders head coach Jack Capuano says. “I’m pleased with their efforts.”
Perhaps only Islanders general manager Garth Snow could have predicted the regular-season outcome. He made valiant efforts to improve the team’s roster and seems a lock for GM of the Year honors thanks to maneuvers that brought in goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who is in the prime of his career and won 38 games this season, offensive threats Nikolay Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski and defenders Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, both of whom won Stanley Cups with their previous clubs.
Asked if this group can get over the first-round hump and come out ready to play from the onset, unlike the initial stumbling block the team endured against Pittsburgh in the playoffs two seasons ago, Islanders alternate captain Kyle Okposo seems confident.
“Adding a couple guys that have won some Stanley Cups, it helps,” he says. “We’re a different bunch and we’re ready to play.”
And they better be. Because if you think the last regular-season game was emotional for the faithful, imagine what the final game ever will be like. One thing is certain: There will be 16,000-plus rabid fans in attendance on Sunday, when the Islanders’ first-round series against the Caps comes to the Coliseum, and they’ll all be looking to prolong the love affair just a little bit longer.
“We’re going to take the challenge and go into the playoffs like we have all season: one game at a time,” Tavares says. “Every opportunity is a challenge for us. We look forward to it and we want to rise to the occasion.”
“Even sitting in the dressing room before warm ups you can hear the crowd chanting. It’s great to hear and great to see,” Boychuk adds. “It definitely helps us when we’re out there and hear the crowd being loud like they are. I can’t imagine how they’ll be in the playoffs. It’s going to be fun.”
The team’s marketing department is using the slogan “Let’s make history one more time” on T-shirts and advertisements. For fans like the Vollmers or Stillufsen, that’s all they can hope for.
“It’s been a magical season,” Eric Vollmer says. “I’m glad we get to send the barn out in style. We get to rock it out for at least one more playoff series and hopefully four. Hopefully we close it down with a Stanley Cup.”