The February Escape to Montreal, Part 5: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum

Uniondale, Long Island, NY (Map)

Winter 2013-14


Leaving from central Staten Island, there was a bit of stop-and-go traffic and wrong turns, but nothing that slowed us much more than my wandering in the woods amongst the ruins. Merging onto the Staten Island Expressway, we passed over the impressive and expensive Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, then exited onto the Belt Parkway where Coney Island was off in the distance and eventually we passed JFK Airport as well. This was all new to me, as I had only been to part of northern Long Island before.

The highlight of it all was our destination. After pulling off of the Southern State Parkway, driving along a forgettable road of apartment complexes and auto shops, finally the home of the New York Islanders appeared as we passed under an elevated walkway for Hofstra University. I had planned and daydreamed about getting out here through multiple forms of transportation, looked at hundreds of Google StreetViews, and reiterated that it was worthwhile to visit even if Geordie said it wasn't the greatest - and now, I was stopped at a red light and could see the famous and archetypal sporting coliseum off to my left, across lengthy parking barrens.

Curving around the arena, I would miss the first couple of parking lot turnoffs, but as the place is surrounded by a sea of asphalt, I'd manage to turn in on the third opportunity and put us closer to the arena itself, a savoured fact on this frigid night.

My late arrival meant that there wasn't a hint of daylight left in the sky, leaving me to try and steady my camera on electrical boxes and fences, while my fingers grew ever-increasingly numb. My friend Yaz is a better time-manager than I am, as he took plenty of awesome exteriors during the earlier golden hour.

The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum sits about 1/4 of the way out on Long Island, about 40 minutes from New York City, in the suburban hamlet of Uniondale. The arena and its 6800 parking spaces takes up 63 acres of land, where this land used to be home to part of the Mitchel Air Force Base until the base was declared surplus in 1960. The entirety of the land would later become home to the Islanders' arena, Hofstra University, Nassau Community College and the Mitchel Athletic Complex.

The arena's dedication was held on May 29th, 1972, but the first event was held months earlier, a New York Nets American Basketball Association game on February 11th, 1972. These Nets would go on to be led by Julius Erving (Dr. J) to ABA championships in 1974 and 1976, with both of these championships being won in the coliseum.

Joining the NHL as the 15th or 16th team in 1972, the New York Islanders would revive Nassau Coliseum's tradition of winning in the 1980s.

The Islanders built a prolific team in a short window of time by drafting skilled players, instead of growing impatient and trading for other teams' castoffs. Drafting Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies, Denis Potvin & Bryan Trottier all with first round picks through the 1970s, the Islanders would need to work through growing pains, but eventually became the last dynasty that the NHL has ever seen, with Stanley Cup victories in 1980, 81, 82 and 83. Every one of those was won here at Nassau Coliseum, except for 1982.

Unfortunately for Isles fans, they were decent through the rest of the 1980s, but after beating Pittsburgh in the 1992-93 conference semi-finals, they haven't won a playoff series since (a span of over 20 years).

Nassau Coliseum stands as one of the group of five "old" NHL arenas still in use, with the Calgary Saddledome being the youngest (1983) of this group, then there being a large jump to the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim (1993). Of those five "old" arenas, Madison Square Garden (1968) was massively renovated and overhauled, while Edmonton is building a replacement for Rexall Place (1974), Detroit is building a replacement for Joe Louis (1979) and Calgary is planning and has concepts for a Saddledome replacement.

The Islanders' last year with Nassau Coliseum as their true home would be this current season, 2014-15. After that it's a move 25 miles west to the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, an arena built strictly for the NBA basketball Nets, but which will be modified and dealt with to create a more modern home for the Islanders.

So I still had the start of 2015 if I wanted to see the famous Nassau Coliseum - along with the option of 6 games in 2015-16 apparently - but I worked out this trip in planning and figured it would be a good time to finally visit the Coliseum and not let it get too close to the deadline. Nassau's closing would be my last chance to see an NHL game in one of these expansion era arenas, something that I didn't want to miss like I did with the group of Original Six arenas, such as the Boston Gardens, Detroit Olympia, Chicago Stadium, etc.

Logging into StubHub prior to this trip, I knew that the Islanders resurgence of late meant better attendance, so I was a bit worried that I might be left paying Red Wings prices for tickets.

What's that? $42 for 2nd row seats? You have got to be kidding me!

Thinking about that pricing while I sat near the glass, I felt like I should be at some Quebec Junior Hockey League game, but then I'd look around at the 13900 people around me and the size of the seating bowls realizing again, that I was somehow sitting this close for professional hockey.

I had to laugh that this was my friend Shahlene's introduction to the NHL. She's in for a rude awakening if she ever goes to Detroit, Toronto, Pittsburgh or Boston for a game.

In addition to the experience itself, I could even scout players for my fantasy team. Like Brock Nelson!

(He didn't look all that impressive, but I still drafted him again this year because he kept dropping and dropping. He's been okay.)

There is a small part of me that feels regret towards maybe not getting the most authentic Nassau Coliseum experience by sitting in those amazing seats. It was as if we were part of the game and the ice took up the majority of my field of vision, instead of hearing and seeing the fans around us, getting more of the arena's unique quirks.

On the other hand, it was quite the experience to see Phil Kessel get plastered into the glass 6 feet in front of me.

My friend Yaz is a stadium nerd like me, so as we had joined him upon going to our seats, we later went for intermission walkabouts, where I saw plenty of the rink and supplemented fleeting views from the cheap seats. Where I'm normally slightly awkward about snapping pictures of corridors and close-ups of seating areas, having a similar buddy alongside certainly helped (as did being at an NHL arena instead of a NF Hockey arena, haha).

When talking about if it was worth coming down here to see this arena, the question has to involve the ease in coming here. I'm usually in Ontario at least once during the hockey season, so I could have easily rode the Greyhound out here and flew out of JFK on one of these trips. I also have friends in Philly, Boston & NY, so there's that combination trip option as well. To me, I don't find Long Island to be that far off of a place. It was easy enough to work into this trip with a mere drive to the south, which also rewarded me with better weather, lighthouses and drives through Upstate New York & Vermont.

Seeing the rink itself was definitely worthwhile. I know people refer to it as antiquated and a dump and this and that, but it cheerily reminded me of my youth and the few games I've attended at Joe Louis. As someone who enjoys old structures and visiting places before they're gone, I cherished being able to walk the halls, stairs and entranceways of Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. In addition, this is one of the last rinks that doesn't have a corporate sponsor - it has been the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum for all my life, not changing its name every 10 years or whenever there's a bank merger. It holds value to me in that it seems much older because of the lack of name changes, even though you may say I need to smarten up and simply tell myself that Rexall Place is still the Northlands Coliseum or that Scottrade Center is still the Kiel Center.

As for who won the game, it was tied at the end of regulation, with the Islanders' Lubomir Visnovsky putting it away in overtime!

There was a row of Maple Leafs fans sitting on the glass just to our left, who were so excited and boisterous whenever the Leafs scored, but were hilarious to watch when the Islanders eventually won in overtime. One of them even threw his peanuts onto the ice in a hissy fit and was roughed up by security, much to our amusement.

Yaz asked us if we wanted to form a convoy to his place 30 minutes north of NYC, but with needing gas and navigating the intricacies of NYC highways and having a GPS, I knew it would be easier to simply punch in his address.

It sure was cold as we stopped, getting gas on the outskirts of Queens, while shielding my hands and face with fabric and trying to rush the fuel into the vehicle. From there it was easy going along the highway, following the GPS through elaborate instructions until we ended up in this handsome New York State village.

Having a 12 hour drive (plus border clearances) ahead of us the next day & therefore having to get up at 6am, I wanted to stay up with Yaz and have beers and check out his awesome jerseys and artifacts, but I'm useless when I don't get a certain amount of sleep. With having to drive straight north I had to catch my z's, so I also had to be somewhat rude.

Sunrise would come soon enough.

Continue to Part 6...


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Backcountry Snowshoeing to Bakers Brook Pond

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The February Escape to Montreal, Part 4: Staten Island's Farm Colony

Newer Update (this series):
The February Escape to Montreal, Part 6:

1 - Venue Facts - Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum
2 - New York Islanders - Wikipedia
3 - List of National Hockey League Arenas - Wikipedia

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