Three little words can fill an entire arena and describe a whole occasion. No one even had to say them, either. On a night marked by playoff-caliber choruses of “Let’s Go Islanders!” the magic words were the ones everyone was thinking: “Where they belong.”
The Islanders were home, truly home, for the first time since April 2015. Technically, the team has had plenty of home games since then, but let’s be honest. The fans had not had a single one in 3½ years until Saturday night at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum. That is why there was so much anticipation, so much hearty noise, such a full house for a real game on Long Island, their real home.
What the crowd realized and what it expressed with its hearts, lungs and tailgate parties before, during and after this 3-2 Islanders win over Columbus is that the Islanders were born and shaped as a Nassau-Suffolk team. The overwhelming majority of the fans still live on the Island. When they learned that 21 games this season would be played at Nassau Coliseum, they pretty much chose to stop going to Barclays Center. And who can blame them?
To a ludicrous degree, the franchise violated the first rule of business by making it tough on the customers to get the product.
It’s reminiscent of the joke our old buddy Stan Fischler told about a longtime commuter gasping with a heart attack and having a priest beg him to make a confession in order to tip the balance between going to heaven or hell. The commuter replies, “Father, I don’t care where I go, as long as I don’t have to change at Jamaica.”
Players and fans were spared the train ride and the shivering on the platform Saturday. Everyone could identify with defenseman Thomas Hickey, who was asked how long the ride would be to the Coliseum and said, “About six minutes.”
Plus, people love the place. “A lot of them grew up knowing the Coliseum as the Islanders' home, going to games, taking part in all of the tailgating and everything that leads into the game,” said Josh Bailey, an Islander for the past 10 years. “The atmosphere is just unmatched.”
“I tell you what, if it’s like that every game, it will be something pretty special,” Scott Mayfield said. “I think the fans spoke, they wanted us back. We wanted to be back here. It’s better for us, better for our families. That atmosphere is going to help us a ton. We scored one, the building erupted and I think it carried us.”
Saturday night and the next 20 games in Uniondale are a rare gift, considering most of us never thought we’d see hockey there again.
It was a first night to recall previous first nights at the Coliseum (for this observer, it was seeing Rick Barry score 45 points for the Nets against the Pittsburgh Condors and watching the Islanders lose their inaugural game to the Atlanta Flames, both in 1972). For many people, Saturday was about Stanley Cups and shot clocks and chili and Shawn Bates.
But it was not only about nostalgia. It was about forever. It was a vital sign that the people running the show know that the Islanders-in-Brooklyn didn’t work and never will. This re-opener was a symbol of a long-term future on Long Island at Belmont Park (or, if that doesn’t work out, in Ronkonkoma).
No one is suggesting the Coliseum is nirvana or a panacea. It is not like a benefactor who solves all your problems. It is more like a trusted old friend who takes you in and puts you up when you need a hand.
Then again, it sure can get loud, such as when Anthony Beauvillier scored to make it 2-2 late in the second period and even more so when Casey Cizikas put them ahead in the third.
“Even in warmups, the crowd was electric,” Johnny Boychuk said. “You could see a couple of their players looking into the crowd thinking, what the heck is going on here?”
Cal Clutterbuck knows the Islanders belong here for a very practical reason.
“It drives home the fact of what a special place this is,” he said. “You play here all season, it’s worth 10 points.”
“It’s just a great place to play hockey,” Matt Martin said. “The atmosphere is the best in the league, in my opinion.”
Most important, it is on Long Island. It is home, where the Islanders belong.