Suddenly, it's the hockey that matters at the Coliseum

John Tavares of the New York Islanders stands

John Tavares of the New York Islanders stands during the national anthem. (Jan. 19, 2013) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

Mark Herrmann

Newsday columnist Mark Herrmann Mark Herrmann

Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988,

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It's the hockey, stupid.

That should be the motivational slogan burned into every Islanders executive's desk, the way "It's the economy, stupid" became the winning mantra during Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign in 1992.

Not long after that, the Islanders' universe became dominated by real estate talk. The NHL standings often took a back seat to speculation about developing the land around Nassau Coliseum. After nearly 20 years, those days are over, what with the Islanders having announced they are moving to Brooklyn in 2015. So much for location, location, location. Now it is all about the hockey.

This is a relief for the Islanders, and a challenge.

It is a relief to know that they won't be going to Quebec or Hamilton or Kansas City. Their games still will be on the same TV channel and their fans still can watch them in person (just be sure you hustle to catch the last train out of Atlantic Avenue at 11:55 p.m).

It is a challenge because the organization has no more excuses. For the only NHL team that has gone since 1993 without winning a playoff series, the Coliseum has been cited as a hindrance, a distraction or both. That's done. Hockey comes first now. As it should have all along.

Saturday night, Opening Night, was all about hockey. It was time for celebrating the present, not getting misty about the past. A season was starting with a game against the Devils; a great sport was back after a long lockout. There was hope for everyone, including the Islanders. In the locker room, the optimism went beyond this year and the Nassau border.

"I think it's great for everybody -- great for us as players, for the organization and especially the fans," said John Tavares, the franchise's new cornerstone. "We all know the tradition and the history of the Islanders and how important this franchise is to the NHL and to the community here. Obviously, we're moving a little bit down the road, but we're fortunate that we're staying in the Long Island area. We're bringing some stability and certainty for the team and removing that cloud that was hanging over our head."

Good news for the fans: Because team owner Charles Wang did not have to spend a dime to build a new arena, he ostensibly can spend much more on players and scouting. And it is a given in 21st century sports that teams need the extra revenue streams that new buildings bring. The Islanders are the only one of the nine major traditional sports teams in the New York area not playing at the moment in a new or refurbished facility.

No one doubts that the Islanders need new digs. "As a visiting player, it was not the greatest. The facilities weren't up to some of the other standards," said Brad Boyes, the former Blues forward who made his Islanders debut Saturday night.

But the Coliseum became a repository for all the team's troubles, a convenient scapegoat. There were suggestions that no major free agent ever would set foot in such a decrepit place. We have two words for anyone making that argument: Fenway Park. History says free agents would play in an old boxcar if they got enough money and had a chance to win.

A good product makes for good business. The view from this peanut stand always was that the organization's best strategy for getting a new arena was to build the best possible team. There is no way to know for sure, but if the Islanders were a Stanley Cup contender, couldn't you imagine people storming Hempstead Town Hall before letting the team leave town?

Barclays Center is a nice place, but it is not going to draw people on its own. The Nets committed to more than $300 million in player salaries to ensure fans would show up. So the Islanders need to pick themselves up off the salary floor. Whether they play in Brooklyn or Saskatoon or Timbuktu, they will go nowhere unless they put a good team on the ice.

It's all about the hockey.