Some racegoers walked through the rows of parked vehicles to enter Belmont Park at the West Paddock Gate on Saturday, one of several entrances to the sprawling grandstand. If all goes to plan, that landscape will soon be vastly changed.
That’s where the planned new home for the Islanders would be nestled, between the grandstand, Hempstead Turnpike and the current LIRR station.
And while there were no signs of construction on Saturday, it wasn’t hard for Islanders fans in attendance for the Belmont Stakes to imagine returning for a hockey game.
“Yeah, I can envision it,” said Islanders season-ticket holder Melissa Strafford of Yaphank, standing near the Belmont rail on a brilliantly sunny afternoon.
“We need a stable place,” added the 34-year-old gynecologist, making her point with a pun. “We need something that’s ours. For me, Brooklyn is a hard sell.”
The Islanders split home games between NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum and Barclays Center in Brooklyn last season and that’s also the plan for this coming season.
NBC Sports, in its Belmont Stakes broadcast, mentioned the site as the Islanders’ future home and cited co-owner Jon Ledecky as being confident all was on track (no pun intended) for the arena to open for the 2021-22 NHL season.
The project, which includes an 18,000-seat arena, still needs final approval from Empire State Development, the Franchise Oversight Board and Public Authorities Control Board.
Both Ledecky and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman have stated the plan is for construction to begin this summer if all the approvals are received.
There has been some local opposition, one of the concerns being how the increase in traffic would affect the Elmont neighborhood.
Larry Levy, 60, of Great Neck, also a season-ticket holder, said he does not understand those fears.
“Look at how vast this is,” said Levy, looking across the infield to the backside of the 1 1/2-mile oval and the large parking area behind it. “I just want to see them sign some free agents. I don’t know if the arena helps. I just want it to happen.
“I work at RXR Plaza, across from the Coliseum so there’s no more convenient place for me, personally,” Levy added. “But I want them to have a home that’s financially viable.”
Barclays Center is convenient for Joe Buono, 36, who works in the financial services industry and lives in Brooklyn.
Still, Buono was enthusiastic about the Islanders’ planned move to Belmont.
“It’s not going to be Nassau Coliseum, nothing is,” said Buono, who runs Isles Blog and its related podcast and is also a season-ticket holder. “But it is on Long Island. Most importantly, for the Nassau and Suffolk fans, it’s a place to call their own. What’s the alternative? If this doesn’t happen, the team will be in perpetual limbo. They would continue to be a punchline. That would be demoralizing to the fanbase. This has to happen.”
Meanwhile, a new Islanders’ arena at Belmont Park would connect two of Joe Mussillo’s passions.
The Babylon-born equine dental technician, who has owned and operated Belmont-based Equine Services since 2012, is also an ardent Islanders’ fan.
He believes the project would be beneficial to both the team and the track.
“I think it’s a great thing,” said Mussillo, 34, who gave up his season tickets in 2015 when the team moved its home games from the Coliseum to Barclays Center. “I think people, on game day, they’ll come out to the races early, especially for the times that are overlapped, have a couple of drinks and go over to the game. I don’t see any negative. It will bring a lot more people. ”