TODAY'S PAPER
Good Evening
Good Evening
SportsHockeyIslanders

Opening night for UBS Arena and Islanders' new home gets rave reviews

Passionate Islanders fans packed the seats for the first hockey game at UBS Arena at Belmont Park. Newsday's Steve Langford reports from Elmont. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost, Mark LaMonica and Kevin P. Coughlin

The doors opened on the brand new UBS Arena in Elmont at 5 p.m. Saturday afternoon, and by 5:05, the first chants of "Let’s Go Islanders" could be heard reverberating inside the cavernous new venue.

Decked out in team regalia, fans waved, cheered and even hugged as they made their entrance. Above them, on the main concourse, a large painted wall spelled out the words they’ve longed to see for decades: "Welcome Home!"

"It's absolutely beautiful," said Ed Martin, 52, of Plainview, a season ticket holder since 1993. "They did an incredible job. I'm going to miss going to the bathroom in the old port-a-potties in the [Nassau] Coliseum, but this place is fantastic. ... We deserved it. We waited a long time."

A long time, indeed. The journey included an over-extended stay at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and a much-maligned stay at Barclays Center, but the Islanders finally have their new home on Long Island.

The night would not go perfectly, however. The Islanders lost, 5-2, to the Calgary Flames in the UBS Arena debut. Still, the day began with a sense of jubilation as fans waited outside, the line snaking all the way to the parking lot. Once the doors actually opened, there was little evidence of the last-minute fixes that were happening right up to the final moments.

And for that, the fans were demonstrably thrilled. With good reason, too.

This marks the culmination of a long struggle that began with the failed Lighthouse Project and other false starts meant to give this team an adequate hockey arena on Long Island. UBS Arena, by contrast, was built to be far more than adequate.

The sprawling, 700,000 square-foot arena, which seats 17,250 for hockey, cost $1.1 billion – the result of a partnership between New York Arena Partners, Sterling Project Development and Oak View Group – and is part of greater development in the Elmont area. Capacity for basketball will be 18,000, while it can hold between 15,000 to 19,000 for concerts.

Puck drop was at 7 p.m., but the fervor in the stands began long before that, when the Islander goalies took the ice, followed by the rest of the team, which skated during warmups as fans packed against the glass, holding up signs and cheering.

The night officially started with Jiggs McDonald, the Islanders TV play-by-play man for three of the four Stanley Cup years, announcing, "Ladies and gentleman, can you believe this? First and foremost, welcome home."

What followed was a tribute to the Islanders' history, starting with a thank you to Charles Wang, the former team owner who fought tirelessly to keep the team on Long Island and build a new arena, but died of lung cancer in 2018, years before his dream was fulfilled.

The chants started then and didn’t abate until the presentation of colors by the Elmont fire department, and the national anthem was performed by Nicole Raviv, who led a sing-along that was quickly taken over by the packed stands. Afterward, eight former Islanders, including seven from the Stanley Cup-winning teams, walked to center ice for the ceremonial puck drop, which was performed by John Tonelli passing the puck to Bobby Nystrom, a nod to the 1980 Cup-winning goal.

All the while, spectators held up phones. They took pictures and videos of the game, yes, but also of the walls dedicated to Islanders past, of the wide concourses, speckled with bars and meeting areas, and even while standing in line for food. The hot attractions were the Heineken Lounge, a club-like enclosed space on the upper concourse with pumping music and flowing beer, and "Big Chicken," the chicken sandwich stand owned by Shaquille O’Neal.

Construction of the venue started in 2019, but the story of the Islanders’ search for home goes back far longer, to the early 2000s, when Wang championed the Lighthouse Project, which was meant to build them an arena suitable for an NHL team. That project was approved by the county in 2006 but met its bureaucratic end in 2010.

The team continued to play at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, but the venue's lack of amenities, long bathroom lines, and, pivotally, limited seating, meant their days there were numbered. They moved to Barclays Center in 2015, but that, too, proved to be a wrong fit: The arena was too far for many of the team’s Long Island-based fans, and sightlines were poor, as the venue was built for basketball and concerts. Eventually, the team split time between Barclays and the Coliseum before moving to the Coliseum full time -- an allowance only made by the NHL because a new home was coming.

"It was the vision of Charles Wang to bring us here," said Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky, who was greeting fans in the parking lot. "He stood in this parking lot and said, Jon, this is center ice. …This house was built not because of one person, but because of a lot of people’s vision … (but he also) deserves credit. He tried to keep the team on Long Island and tried to get a building on Long Island and we finally got it done."

Ledecky said he wouldn’t watch the game from the owner’s box, but would instead be patrolling the concourse, making sure things went smoothly.

"I want the feedback," he said. "When I was at the Coliseum, I was asking 400-500 fans a night, ‘What do you want in a new building?’ We’ve tried to deliver but there are going to be pain points. And Islanders fans are the most vocal fans. I love that they feel they can approach me and tell me what’s going wrong."

That was reflected in some of the choices in the new arena. Where the Coliseum often had long bathroom lines, this venue boasts 68 restrooms, including the most women’s restrooms in the NHL. There are 12 family bathrooms and an additional three sensory rooms for those with sensory-processing issues, like PTSD, epilepsy or autism.

There are a number of private suites and clubs, along with two outdoor terraces and eight bars facing the bowl. Additionally, there are 13 food markets and six concession stands, with water and hot dogs going for $8, chicken tenders and fries going for $15, and beer going for $16 or more. For those taking the train in, there were shuttles from the new Elmont-UBS Arena LIRR station; there will be shuttles, too, from the Emerald parking lot, which is farther from the event site.

"It’s going to be bumpy in the beginning," Ledecky said earlier this week. "We’re going to learn lessons in the beginning. But over time, it’s going to be fantastic."

With John Asbury

New York Sports