To Preserve the Past, Islanders Needed to Move Forward

Kevin Schultz

No matter how you feel about the Islanders move to Brooklyn announced yesterday, it hit you like a ton of bricks. Whether you’re pro or con to the issue, you knew Brooklyn was a possibility and that Nassau County’s handling of the Islanders has been a mess with owners and politicians over more than a dozen years acting on behalf of themselves and their interests rather than doing what’s right for fans, the team, the Coliseum and the County. But none of us saw Wednesday’s announcement coming; certainly not quite so hard or so fast.  It was a slapshot to the gut that elicited all kinds of responses in Islander County from anger and sadness to joy and excitement.

Seeing many of the statements from the Islanders Hall of Fame Alumni and long-time fans upset at the situation lacks a certain perspective, but it also carries a certain weight of memories, history, and the character of what this franchise has been for so many on Long Island for so long, through the good times and the bad.

“The more I think about this, the more it makes me sad,” Denis Potvin told the Hockey News. Bob Bourne, Clark Gillies, and Jiggs McDonald also had quotes reported that made them sound less than thrilled. Potvin and other players won four Stanley Cups at the Nassau Coliseum, with McDonald calling all the action. Thousands of Long Islanders watched them do so first hand at the Coliseum.

The news hit home for everyone today and it hit hard. Maybe it hit you when a text from the old friend who you used to go to games with and since moved away or maybe it was from someone in your life who has never followed hockey, but with all the extra attention this was certainly the biggest day in Islander county in decades. For me, it was when dad texted to say he was excited about the new arena but there were “a lot of memories at the Coliseum as a dad and for us [at NVMC].”

There are many memories and nostalgia that are important to this team and its fanbase and none of it should be forgotten. The history and memories should be preserved, remembered and celebrated as they have been for 40 years.

Now, we can be sure that they will be celebrated for another 25 years – in Brooklyn.

Without the Barclays Center, we could easily be lamenting the outright destruction of this team and it’s rich history being packaged and shipped off to Quebec, Kansas or elsewhere.

Once upon a time, the Seattle Supersonics were owned by the CEO of a local coffee empire. The CEO eventually sold the team to Oklahoma Oil Barons and the Sonics, well, the Sonics are now just history. The Islanders could have easily suffered the same fate. Cashing out this team would have been easy.  The Islanders could be the NHL’s version of the Super Sonics. Instead fans will be able to watch the same team, the same prospects, the same logo, the same colors, for years to come rather than watching from afar as another fanbase finds out what comes next in this new chapter of the New York Islanders history.

For current and future generations of fans to relive their team’s rich history – and hopefully create new history – the Islanders needed to leave Nassau County once and for all.

There was no ‘plan b’ that would work in the final months or years of the team’s Nassau lease. There was no savior developer or County Executive whose master plan could reverse decades of mismanagement, political footballing, and selfish interests that handcuffed the team not only on the ice but also in their seemingly never ending quest for a new arena.

Here’s how long this sad arena saga went on: In 1998, owners Howard Milstein and Stephen Gluckstern – who rode in on horses of listening at fan forums and painted big arena dreams – slashed player payroll, tried to have the Coliseum condemned and attempted to have the team start the season on the road until their demands were met.

Wrote the New York Times 14 long years ago:

The immediate issue, unfolding over the summer and now threatening to hang over the 1998-99 season, has been the safety of the Coliseum. The Islanders say the arena is a hazard; the county says it is not. But it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the Islanders’ safety concerns are somehow related to their expressed desire for a renegotiation of their current lease and a new arena that could be built and ready for action in three years.

”All we want is to be able to compete on the same footing as the other teams around the country,” said David Seldin, the president of New York Sports Ventures, which bought the Islanders in February for $195 million. ”To survive we’ve got to attract more fans, and that means not only better players, but a state-of-the-art arena.”

Mr. Seldin said the franchise was currently losing $11 million a year. 

You could have written those words any time in the past two decades, changed a few names, and no one would know the difference.

We’re now 14 years past that point in time. The cold, hard truth is that there was no end in Nassau County. Not the Lighthouse Project — Kate Murray murdered that — not a public referendum as NIMBYs wouldn’t let that pass,  and not a last-minute salvo with all options exhausted.

Since 1991 when then-owner John O. Pickett Jr. tried to unload the team to anyone with a checking account – as former owner and crook John Spano showed, that’s about all you needed – the Islanders have been a tumultuous ship in the waters of Nassau, save for a few odd bits of good news and good play on the ice.

From the New York Times in ’91:

“If you take the expansion criteria, we wouldn’t qualify right now for expansion,” Torrey said of his team’s less-than-lucrative and outmoded venue. “But I can’t visualize someone moving the team from a New York market to a smaller market.”

It reads again like a time capsule from any year since; ‘the venue isn’t any good and we can’t make due with it’. What may be most amazing is that the venue was cited as out-dated in 1991, 21-years ago, at the very beginnings of the modern arena and stadium building boom of the 1990s.

This was a situation that left the Islanders with no plan, no future, no way to preserve the history, no viable way to move forward and create a new history.  The team, right along with the Coliseum, has rotted and was dying a slow death. Whether you blame a current owner who wouldn’t spend, free agents who wouldn’t sign, horrendous General Managers, corrupt and self-interested politicians, NIMBY voters, or someone else entirely, the last two decades have been a viscous cycle that has fed on itself with no end in sight.

In one day, there’s stability to what has been a very rocky ship.

Brooklyn is a way out, a way to start anew without abandoning the rich history and tradition; placing it a 45-minute train ride away.

There’s no guarantee that the Islanders will become a perennial winner in Brooklyn. They’re not going to all of a sudden be able to afford every free agent on the market. But it’s going to be a lot better. There’s a shiny new arena in a major metro area with over 100 suites, the key to unlocking arena revenue in the 21st century. Finally, at long last, there will be no more articles about the Islanders trying to escape a decrepit Coliseum.

There’s new hope and most importantly these are still your Islanders, that you’ve followed your whole life. These are still your parent’s Islanders, who they took you to see when you could barely walk. These are still your friends Islanders, who you watched with your buddies growing up.

Maybe they moved further away but for too long everyone involved suffered. It’s not going to be easy for the people that spent incalculable amounts of time, money, and effort on this team in Nassau County.  But these are still your Islanders and they will still be here – just on the other side of town.




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