A New Lease on Life: Diehard Islanders Fans Ready to Welcome Their Team Home

Abbey MastraccoNovember 19, 2021

B/R Open Ice

Michael McNiff, a bar owner and resident of Wantagh, New York, on Long Island, was getting ready to go to a New York Islanders game at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum about 10 or so years ago, maybe more. He can't quite remember. A friend had invited him to the game, and as an "Islanders nut" and "anti-Rangers guy," he didn't refuse tickets.

As with many sports, there are rituals and routines that are performed prior to going to games. If you're a Long Islander, you probably know some of these well: the line of cars that snakes around to the Long Island Turnpike, drinks at the Marriott across the street, gatherings of friends wearing orange and blue in the parking lot.

It's quite a scene. Tailgates in front of the old barn looked and felt more like NFL games than NHL games. It was a spectacle visible from the Turnpike. The morning after games, several cars typically remained.

But this time, McNiff saw nothing. No cars, no crowds and only a few lonely business travelers inside the Marriott bar.

"He picks me up, we pull into the Coliseum and the Coliseum is empty," McNiff told Bleacher Report while sitting in his bar, The Irish Poet. "It turns out they were on the road."

The fact that the Islanders weren't even playing at home that night is fitting for this franchise. Home has been a relative term for the Islanders in recent years. There was the stint in Brooklyn at Barclays Center, which was built for basketball and made for a terrible hockey experience, with bad ice and an off-center scoreboard. There was a split schedule that had the team playing in Brooklyn and at the Coliseum. The 2021-22 season started with a 13-game road trip. There were threats of relocation to a city outside of New York.

But finally, the Islanders will return home Saturday, opening their brand-new, state-of-the-art building in Elmont, New York, called UBS Arena. It's a privately financed, 690,000-square-foot arena built with hockey as the priority. It's not far from the old barn, and inside it looks like a grown-up version with many of the same qualities of the Coliseum, including the ceiling, which is only three feet higher at UBS.

But the new building might as well be a world apart in terms of amenities.

So how do you bridge the gap between a building opened in 1972 and one in 2021? You use the fans.

Section 329 has been leading cheers at the Coliseum and Barclays Center for decades. They are vocal, they are visible and they even have a song about Josh Bailey (it's literally called "The Josh Bailey Song").

They are impossible to miss, and it's impossible not to join the fun. So naturally, the team consulted with them when designing and building UBS.

"They're the heartbeat of the crowd," said Brendan Burke, the Islanders' play-by-play announcer on MSG Networks and one of the voices of the NHL on TNT. "All of the cheers and chants that are a constant throughout the game generate from that section. They're very involved in the atmosphere. When you talk about the atmosphere of the Coliseum, it's not the building. It's the people. And that section certainly has a lot to do with getting everybody to join in on the party."

The Blue and Orange Army are a fan group that called Section 329 of the Coliseum home for many years. They chose 329 because it was right in front of where Bobby Nystrom scored the game-winner in the 1980 Stanley Cup Final. There is no 300 level in the new barn, but there will be a Section 329 just for them. There are other fan groups with different names, but they all join forces once the puck drops to create an atmosphere that is unique to Long Island.

It started in 2009, when James Fesselmeyer, a 39-year-old lifelong Babylon native, moved over to that section from 318. A fan of Liverpool FC, he had recently been to a game against Manchester United at Anfield and was inspired by the chants and songs prevalent in soccer.

"When I went out there, I was like, 'We should do this. We could do this,'" Fesselmeyer said. "That supporter section is about love and passion and cheering on the team and doing it in a fun way."

The Islanders opened the old barn in 1972. It's still there. It never really closed. It may never. It's a relic.

And much of it never really changed, either. The narrow concourses, the bathrooms the size of phone booths, the low ceilings and the smoking section were as synonymous with the rink as the banners that hung from that low ceiling.

The ceiling.

I asked several Isles fans at a Blue and Orange Army viewing party at The Irish Poet what they most remembered about the Coliseum. It was the ceiling. It felt as though it was going to come off when Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin and Pat LaFontaine scored goals. In recent years, we all looked up to make sure it was still there when Anders Lee or Bailey crashed the net to set up game-winning goals in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Unfortunately, the ceiling was also covered in asbestos and leaked frequently.

"It was a dive. It was falling down. But it was fun," McNiff said. "It might have been a dive, but it was our dive."

Times changed and renovations took place, but walking into the place always felt like a time warp. It might as well have been 1983, the last year the Isles won a Stanley Cup.

"Nobody forgot their roots," said Blue and Orange Army member Craig Richardson. "It's always been that way."

But NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters in 2017 that the dilapidated arena wasn't up to snuff. Brooklyn seemed like a suitable solution since a decent portion of the fanbase was already commuting to the city daily, but some fans refused to make the trek.

It wasn't home. Long Island is home. Long Island is where they wanted to be. When you go to games in Long Island, you see your neighbors, your friends, your kids' friends, fellow PTA members, your plumber, your accountant and your bar buddies.

It's just different in Brooklyn. The community feel was gone.

"The Islanders are like the Green Bay Packers of the NHL," Burke said. As a Wisconsin native, he would know. "It's not in downtown Milwaukee. It's in Green Bay, Wisconsin. There is no downtown Long Island. It's a series of communities. So it really is a team that belongs to the community, and it's something the people there really take ownership of. And they should. The Islanders and Long Island are kind of inseparable. They are a part of the identity of the island, and the island is part of the identity of the islander.

"It's a pretty cool phenomenon to have all of these people who feel as involved as they are."

Richardson, Fesselmeyer and the other members of the Blue and Orange Army at the watch party exemplify that. But McNiff does especially.

A native of Ireland, he came to New York in the 1980s to work in the bar business. He ran another bar and restaurant, The Wantagh Inn, for many years, and there were players, coaches and other Islanders staffers who would drop in from time to time. He knows what the team means to the community, and he's felt the excitement since they broke ground in Elmont.

The new arena is the only one in the New York market that was built specifically for hockey. There is a 23,000 square-foot locker room and player campus complex. The scoreboard is the largest of any arena in New York. It seats 17,000 for hockey and up to 19,000 for concerts and features outdoor terraces, lounges, clubs, eight ice-facing bars and 56 luxury boxes, which is an increase from the Coliseum but fewer than you'll find in most modern arenas. This one was built with a social fan experience in mind.

As for the bathrooms, UBS Arena boasts more of them per person than any other arena in the area—and yes, they are much larger than the ones in the Coliseum!

There was input from head coach Barry Trotz, general manager Lou Lamoriello and even the fans in 329. 

"It's like a new lease on life," McNiff said. "It's the perfect time. This is what we need. The outrage when they went to Brooklyn showed. Everybody was upset. But people are excited. And it's 15-20 minutes from here. What more do you want?!"

The only thing the Islanders and their fans have ever wanted is a home they could be proud of. After all these years, they finally have one in UBS Arena.