*For one day only in the preseason.
The Islanders are indeed taking the ice at NYCB Live, the building known as the Nassau Coliseum for the 43 seasons the Isles played there, for Sunday’s preseason opener against the Flyers. Even though it’s one preseason game and not anywhere near a full-blown return to Long Island for the team, its players and coach recognize what Sunday will mean beyond a chance to shake off some rust.
This is a homecoming of sorts. And with the Islanders pursuing a new arena at Belmont Park while still renting space at Barclays Center, there may not be too many more opportunities to see the Isles in their renovated old barn.
“It’s probably the first time a lot of the vets are saying they want to play the first preseason game,” said Cal Clutterbuck, who scored the last goal in Nassau Coliseum, an empty-netter that sealed a Game 6 win over the Capitals in the first round of the 2014-15 playoffs. “Definitely a lot of people are talking about it around town, I spent a lot of my summer here so there’s been a buzz about it since it was announced.”
Clutterbuck will not play Sunday but John Tavares will. Tavares will get a chance to center his new top line, between Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle. Josh Bailey, the only current Islander who’s played more games in the sweater (and in the Coliseum) than Tavares, will also play.
“You think about it as kind of the same old Coliseum and it’s obviously going to be a little bit different,” Tavares said. “There’s some things that’ll be similar, but I assume the walk to the dressing room from the underground parking garage will be a little different. There’ll be some good memories that come back, some new nuances that are different. It should be a great atmosphere. That place means a lot to the organization, to us as players and obviously to the fans and people of Long Island. A good way to start off the preseason.”
Doug Weight is trying to find a balance with Sunday’s game in appealing to the Long Island crowd — the attendance will be close to the 13,000-seat capacity for hockey in the renovated building — and trying to get in the needed evaluations during his first training camp as head coach. His team has only had two on-ice days of work and faces the Rangers at Madison Square Garden Monday, so Weight could only do so much.
“I grabbed a couple guys and said look, it’s a great building, it’s a legendary traditional part of our team, but you can’t dress,” Weight said. “We’ll have other opportunities to play in some great venues. It’s not the be-all, end-all. They understand the predicament. But it’s going to be cool. One of the most storied franchise’s place to play. We’ve had some great moments there, though honestly not enough to our liking.”
The dynasty era still lives on in the minds of many longtime fans, but Weight’s point is clear: In the recent years, there were too many Coliseum disappointments. Players like Clutterbuck, Tavares and Casey Cizikas recalled the two playoff series they played in during the Coliseum era, the 2012-13 first round against the Penguins and that seven-game series against the Capitals in 2014-15, but both ended in defeat.
Still, it was home for four-plus decades. Tavares is putting off contract extension talks until he, like many fans, can see some clarity on where the Islanders will play in the future. So perhaps Sunday will mean more to him than it would have otherwise.
“The two playoff series we had there were off the charts,” Tavares said. “I played my first ever game there, scored my first goal there and that’s something I’ll never forget. Just being that old type of arena, there wasn’t as much corporate stuff as there is now. That family atmosphere the Coliseum brought, the tailgating outside, all that stuff brings back good memories.”