Islanders return to former home to play Blue Jackets
UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The first game of the season between the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets matches two Metropolitan Division contenders in a clash that could certainly impact the playoff picture come April.
But everyone knows the main attraction Saturday night will not be the teams but the building in which they’re playing.
The Islanders make their long-awaited return to Nassau Coliseum, which was the franchise’s home from the team’s debut in 1972 until the spring of 2015, when they host the Blue Jackets.
Both teams were off Friday after playing Thursday, when the Islanders fell to the host Boston Bruins 2-1 in a shootout and the Blue Jackets beat the visiting Minnesota Wild 4-2.
The Blue Jackets (15-8-2) and Islanders (12-9-3) will enter Saturday separated by just five points. But the standings will be secondary for the first of the Islanders’ 21 scheduled games at their new/old home.
As Islanders coach Barry Trotz walked into his post-practice press conference Friday afternoon, he began talking about the Coliseum before he even fielded a question.
“It’s home,” Trotz said. “Guys are excited. They did a good job. Looking forward to tomorrow. I think everybody is.”
Well, maybe not everybody. In typical John Tortorella fashion, the Blue Jackets head coach — who spent dozens of nights in the cramped bowels of the Coliseum as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers — was decidedly less nostalgic when talking about the Coliseum earlier Friday.
“I’m anxious to see the renovations,” Tortorella told reporters in Columbus. “I hope they put, in the coaches’ room, instead of a 40-watt bulb, they put in maybe a 75-watt bulb because you couldn’t see.”
Everyone figured Nassau Coliseum — long a relic among NHL arenas for reasons well beyond its damp and darkened locker rooms — was finally and officially a thing of the past when the Islanders moved to Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the 2015-16 season.
But Islanders fans, most of whom reside on Long Island, never warmed to the idea of taking oft-delayed trains or enduring traffic jam-filled commutes to Brooklyn. Nor did they enjoy the lack of atmosphere at Barclays Center, which was built for basketball and “features” an off-center scoreboard as well as thousands of obstructed view seats behind one of the goals.
In three-plus seasons at Barclays Center, the Islanders have never ranked higher than 28th in the NHL in average attendance.
Nor did players, most of whom also reside on Long Island, ever really embrace the commute or the substandard conditions. The Barclays ice is known as the softest in the league because the building is heated by plastic pipes, not metal pipes, and to refit the building with metal pipes would require closing the arena during the summer concert season.
The Islanders began plotting their return to Long Island last December, when owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin won a bid to build an arena on state land currently housing the Belmont race track at the Nassau/Queens border.
In January, the Islanders announced they would split their schedules between Barclays Center and a refurbished Nassau Coliseum, which is operated by the same management company as Barclays Center, until they are ready to move into the new arena at the start of the 2021-22 season.
While nothing is official, it is widely believed the Islanders will play their entire home schedule at the Coliseum starting next season. The new Coliseum only seats 13,000, but a packed Coliseum will look much better than a nearly-empty Barclays, where this year’s average announced attendance of 10,447 said one thing and the eye test scanning acres of empty seats said another.
“I think the guys that have played in this building have really great memories of it,” Trotz said. “I think everybody recognizes that it has great significance on the Island and for its fan base.”
There’s a little bit of serendipity to Saturday’s festivities. The Blue Jackets were the opponent for the Islanders’ supposed regular-season finale at the Coliseum on April 11, 2015, when Columbus posted a 5-4 shootout victory.
And Trotz, in his first year as New York’s head coach, was the head coach for the Washington Capitals during the supposed final game at the Coliseum on April 25, 2015, when the Islanders extended an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series to a decisive seventh game with a 3-1 win.
Cal Clutterbuck, who iced that win with an empty-netter in the final minute, is one of nine players from that team still with the Islanders.
“I remember being at the press conference (at the Coliseum) for the Belmont announcement and talking about potentially coming back here for some games and here we are,” Clutterbuck said. “So it’s exciting.”