This time, a preseason game at Nassau Coliseum won’t only be about reliving the past.
The Islanders open their eight-game preseason schedule on Sunday afternoon against the Flyers at the Coliseum.
But, unlike last season’s one-and-done preseason return to their former home rink, the Islanders will also play 20 regular-season games this season and a minimum of 68 over the next three seasons as the team waits for its planned new building at Belmont Park to be built. It’s quite possible Nassau Coliseum will host more games than that if the Islanders and Barclays Center can end a relationship that has satisfied neither side.
So Sunday’s game will be the start of re-establishing a home-ice advantage at the refurbished rink, still tiny and outdated by NHL standards, but which is still a vivid reminder of the franchise’s four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83.
“It’s great,” said left wing Matt Martin, re-acquired this offseason after two seasons with the Maple Leafs. “I think part of this team never really left. I think (Barry) Trotz said the other day the real identity of the Islanders is at the Coliseum.”
“I remember the first time we walked in there,” added defenseman Thomas Hickey. “You see the Stanley Cup banners, all of them hanging there. There’s a feeling that comes with that. It’s a tradition we get back to represent when you go into that building.”
The Islanders play their first regular-season game at the Coliseum on Dec. 1 against the Blue Jackets and, starting on March 1, they play their final 10 home games there.
It will be the first games at the Coliseum that count since the Islanders beat Trotz’s Capitals, 3-1, in Game 6 of their first-round series on April 25, 2015.
A sell-out crowd of 13,917 created a playoff-like atmosphere at the Coliseum as the Islanders topped the Flyers, 3-2, in overtime in a preseason game on Sept. 17, 2017.
Sunday’s game, the start of a stretch of six games in seven days, is the only one on this preseason schedule at the Coliseum.
“I’m an old-school guy, I believe the team should be on the Island,” Trotz said.
“You think about the great teams, that was a building that you couldn’t go in there and win because the fans are passionate,” Trotz added. “You feel like the rink is actually smaller than you think it is. It’s the normal size but because of the fans, they’re on top of you, it just feels a little more cozy than it needs to be. That’s where the identity of the Islanders really is. I’m looking forward to the game on Sunday there and I’m looking forward to playing 20 games there just because of the history of the building.”
Of course, that means the Islanders will have to adapt to a split home schedule this season, with 21 games in Brooklyn.
“I know we play a lot of our games early on at the Barclays and the second half is more at the Coliseum,” right wing Jordan Eberle said. “I think if you ask a lot of the guys, the travel to the Coliseum is a little bit easier so, as far as the transition, it’s nice that we have half and half so we don’t have to go back and forth. I’ve only been here for a year but, speaking to people through the Island, they miss that rink. The season-ticket holders have a tough time getting to Barclays. You saw the passion they had for the exhibition game last year. A lot of people think we belong there.”
There are fewer and fewer buildings that can be affectionately termed “old barns,” in the NHL. The Red Wings moved out of Joe Louis in 2017, leaving Calgary’s Saddledome as the only comparable rink to the Coliseum, though the renovated Madison Square Garden is actually the league’s oldest building, having opened in 1968.
“Knowing we’re going to play 20 games there this year, it’s not only us excited about the opportunity to play there again but the fan base is fired up having their team back in its original home,” left wing Andrew Ladd said. “Kids that grew up and watched the Islanders and tailgated with their dads are now dads themselves.”
Manhasset’s Ryan Hitchcock had no idea after practicing on Saturday whether he would be in the game group for Sunday’s preseason opener against the Flyers at Nassau Coliseum.
But he had no trouble imagining how special it would be if he were in the lineup.
“That would be pretty cool,” said Hitchcock, 22, in his first professional season after four years at Yale. “The amount of games I’ve been to at the Coliseum, it would be a dream come true, honestly. Hopefully, one day I’ll be playing there being a member of this team full time but I guess the first step would be making an impact in the preseason and, doing it there, would be really special.”
But Trotz said Hitchcock’s potential homecoming would not play a role when he decided on the lineup.
“I don’t really worry about that at all,” Trotz said. “We’re going to take all the emotional stuff out.”
Hitchcock joined Bridgeport (AHL) late last season after completing his college career and notched three goals and six assists in 16 games.