TAMPA — National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman, reflecting on the last time the league held its All-Star Game here, looked back at that transcript from 1999 and saw that he had optimistically reported working with Nassau County to find a new home for the Islanders.
“Some things,” he said Saturday evening, “just take a little more time.”
He added that the agreement to build a new arena at Belmont ranks among the highlights of the league’s current season. But first, there will be a temporary, part-time home that the Islanders were trying to replace 19 years ago. Bettman acknowledged, “The Nassau Coliseum has been given a nice refresh in terms of the way it looks, but it’s still the Nassau Coliseum.” He did not mean that as a compliment.
Fair enough. Still, there is no denying the quirky charm of the old barn that will be formally re-introduced Monday. If there were an All-Star game for arenas with character, Nassau Coliseum would make the first team.
“I loved it,” said Peter Laviolette of the Predators, one of the four coaches in the All-Star Game Sunday afternoon. He was a rookie head coach in 2002, when the Coliseum shook with excitement and noise for a playoff series against the Maple Leafs.
“It was probably one of the greatest playoff experiences that I’ve ever been in,” said Laviolette, who has since won the Stanley Cup. “It was physical, there was so much emotion, so much energy. And the games that we played in Uniondale, I don’t know if it’s because the ceiling is low, it was one of the loudest (buildings) that I can remember. It was awesome. I’ll always remember it.”
Bryan Trottier, wearing his Islanders 19 jersey at an All-Star related autograph signing session outside Amalie Arena, said, “Well, the Coliseum for me has great memories.” More important, he was quick to say, is the emotional charge it always has carried for the people who watched him and his teammates hoist the Cup — and the fans who succeeded them.
“When the Islanders come back for a game, like they did in preseason, that atmosphere can be contagious. It can pull you in pretty quick,” he said. “With that energy, that spirit, I wish them great success. I’m really excited.”
John Tavares reiterated what he has said all along, that the Islanders home rink will not be the one factor in deciding whether he will re-sign. But let’s put it this way, from the sound of his voice Saturday, the prospect of a few, a bunch or a lot of games in Uniondale will not hurt.
He thought back of his first career game and his first goal (on the same night), on scoring in overtime to beat the Capitals in the playoffs, on the final game there, an emotional win that forced a Game 7 in Washington. “There are a lot of great Nassau Coliseum memories,” he said. “It’s a special place.”
Jon Cooper, coach of the Lightning and coach this weekend of the Atlantic Division squad, attended many games at the old Coliseum when he was a student at Hofstra. It was where he gained a foothold into pro hockey. His appreciation of the place took on a whole new dimension once he began coaching. He could not name a place that was tougher on a visitor.
“When Nassau Coliseum was packed and those fans were chanting and doing their thing, it was an intimidating place to play. It’s been a way of the league now with arenas getting fancier. I understand, that but it has taken away a little bit from the environment. And that was one thing that place had. It had an environment. It was like the old Chicago Stadium or the Boston Garden, the Montreal Forum. That arena had that type of feel,” he said. “I was sad to see it go and hopefully it gets to come back.”
So it will, at least for a while, at least occasionally. It is better than nothing. Better than changing at Jamaica. If Nassau Coliseum still is Nassau Coliseum, that will be fine with us.