LI Arena couldn't survive; Coliseum may be next

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Steven Marcus Newsday columnist Steven Marcus

Steven Marcus started at Newsday in 1972 and has covered high school, college and professional sports. He has

There was professional hockey on Long Island before the Nassau Coliseum and the Islanders. The only Lighthouse was the beacon directing boats around the island. No formal public hearings were convened about hockey. We already had the sport.

Pro hockey, such as it was, had its roots in Commack at the Long Island Arena. Those who think the Coliseum has run its course are way too spoiled or too young to know the way it used to be.

The Long Island Ducks, long before it was a name for a baseball team, were as minor-league as minor league hockey as you can get, but as entertaining as could be. They became the chief tenant at what the locals called "the Arena." It remains a storied slice of LI life in the memory banks of many fans.

Hockey shared the Arena with the circus, music acts and political rallies. John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy made appearances there. George Washington may not have slept there, but a pro hockey team just about did after its bus arrived about 11 p.m. for a game.

Every summer, the circus, in something out of a Hollywood B movie, pitched a tent next to the Arena. Elephants were stationed adjacent to Veterans Highway to lure customers and the elephants' odor could easily be detected by motorists in passing cars. The sideshow had a Tom Thumb-like tiny person (who might have been the circus owner's child), a two-headed snake in a jar of formaldehyde, the obligatory bearded lady, a miniature horse and other oddities. Coney Island in Commack worked just fine.

The biggest oddity was the Arena itself. Why were so many drawn to this decrepit facility? Easy to answer. The Rangers and MSG were an expensive road trip away (truer than ever today).

But the Arena was an acquired, tolerated taste. The heat inside the circus tent was rivaled only by the pervasive cold inside the Arena during hockey season. The heaters were similar to pretzel warmers; burning your head if you stood under them. And the smell, still noxious despite the cold temperatures, was a combination of beer, popcorn and, it seemed, leftover elephant odor. When it rained outside, it poured inside the Arena. Garbage cans were strategically placed to catch the runoff.

Depending upon your perspective, each of the 4,000 or so seats was either good or lousy. The hockey was bloodlettingly ugly entertainment, akin to professional wrestling at times. The second incarnation of the Ducks, the Long Island Cougars, had the same feel as the old Eastern League Ducks: Young players not good enough for the NHL, older players not ready to hang up their skates.

It made for a volatile mixture of frustration. The players had quick tempers. A bolt from the door on the penalty once went flying toward a referee. If memory serves, it caused a match penalty and suspension for the offender. An all-out brawl brought the Suffolk police and resulted in injuries and arrests for some bystanders. Those Friday night-like fights happened any night of the week. The fans loved it.

Time passed and the appetite for this type of entertainment waned. The incursion - that is how diehard hockey fans of the Arena era viewed it - of the Islanders and the Coliseum rendered minor league hockey extinct. The Arena hung on for dear life, supported by a flea market. The building still stank inside, evoking memories of what were some very good old days for many of the fans. Eventually, the Arena was torn down and replaced by a shopping center.

The Coliseum is the current punching bag, but the Arena and its demise should serve as a cautionary tale. Professional hockey will not remain on LI if enough people do not see the light.

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