In eighth grade, Ray Larkin went with his family to the very first New York Islanders game. It was October 1972, at the Nassau County Coliseum and Larkin saw hundreds of other games there over the next five decades, most as a season pass holder.
But after all these days and nights in this cramped and free place, Larkin’s environment changed dramatically on Saturday. He and his wife, Sue Larkin, helped their beloved team usher in the next era of Islanders hockey in the sleek new UBS Arena in Belmont Park, a venue so luxurious and stylish that fans accustomed to the drab old building might wondering if they had walked around the wrong facility.
“It’s beautiful,” said Ray Larkin, a Garden City real estate agent. “We have waited a long time for this. “
The opposing team he saw in 1972 were the Atlanta Flames, the predecessor of Saturday’s visiting team, the Calgary Flames, whose center, Brad Richardson, entered the record books as as the first player to score in the new site.
Richardson’s goal at 4:05 of the first period helped Calgary win, 5-2, in Game 1 at UBS Arena in Elmont, NY, as the shorthanded Islanders, minus five regulars who had been put on the Covid-19 roster, played their first home game of the season after 13 road games.
“It’s been a messy 24 hours because of the Covid thing,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “But it was a great atmosphere. It’s a new school building that feels like it’s old fashioned when you’re on the ice.
The last time the Islanders skated out of their rink after a game that counted was in the midst of a storm of beer and water bottles, shoes and a pair of glasses, all thrown on ice cream by exuberant fans celebrating an overtime victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning in June.
This was not the most fitting way to say goodbye to the arena which, however old-fashioned, has hosted four seasons of the Stanley Cup championship and has helped stamp the team and its fans with their identity. disjointed and loyal.
For better or for worse, this identity has undergone a tremendous facelift.
“It was a great transition for the closure of this chapter of Island hockey,” said Trotz. “I hope we forge a new chapter at Belmont here.”
The new $ 1.1 billion arena is nestled next to Belmont Park Racecourse, about seven miles west of the old building and just a few yards from the Queens-County border. Nassau.
It has around 17,000 hockey fans and is a shining example of the latest trends in sports arena design, with a few nods to the old barn that helped make the Islanders experience so distinctive. for most of the past 50 years.
The roof is low, just a few feet higher than the old one in Uniondale, to help recreate that hovering, overheated atmosphere of the smaller room; and the banners hanging from it recall all the glory the islanders created in the old building.
“It feels like the Colly genre, with the roof low,” said defenseman Scott Mayfield, referring to the Nassau Coliseum. “But that’s the state of the art.”
Murals and banners marking the triumphant days of yesteryear are spread throughout the building, along with other touches meant to put a smile on die-hard fans. There’s even a Section 329, tucked away in level 200, which recreates the famous section that has hosted many of their most enthusiastic fans over the years. It has unpadded seats and railings that make it easy to stand up while playing.
“I can’t believe they did that,” said Phil Fairbanks of Newburgh, NY, a season ticket holder in Section 329. “Have a little bit of the old feeling.
The developers of the arena are convinced that all fans of persistent sentimentality can hold out for the old Colosseum – if there is any – will quickly be replaced by the joy of comfortable seats, clean surfaces, a large space in the halls and enough bars and restaurants for people to spend. long after entering the building.
“What we’re trying to do is build another iconic facility that’s part of New York fiber,” said Tim Leiweke, managing director of Oak View Group, which is co-developer and operator of the ‘arena. “We’re not just Nassau. We are the New York subway.
Over the following weeks and years, fans will choose the things they like and don’t like about the new rink. But on Saturday there were mostly smiles and expressions of wonder as they crossed the threshold of a new era.
“Wow,” Sue Larkin said. “This is different.”
The brickwork on the facade is a nod to the nearby racecourse, allowing the new building to blend into the historic surroundings. But the structure also looks like Citi Field, the home of the Mets, which is not surprising since Jeff Wilpon, the former Mets co-owner who built the stadium, is also a co-developer of UBS Arena.
Fans walk into a large hall, which alone cost around $ 50 million. It features two murals depicting iconic images of New York City, Long Island, Belmont Racetrack, and the Islanders, all centered around the Stanley Cup Trophy.
There will be more than hockey. The establishment will also host concerts. and Leiweke said the Islanders, as owners, would derive huge financial benefits from these dates, unlike the Nassau County Coliseum, which the team did not own.
“They are about to have their best economic year ever,” said Leiweke, “by far”,
Leiweke boasts that the arena has more bathroom space per guest per capita than any other arena like this. This is likely to resonate with many fans, especially those who missed goals while queuing.
“You couldn’t get into the bathrooms in the old place,” said Thomas Beyer, a 58-year-old financier who now lives in Rye, NY. “This building was fine, but it’s about time. It’s time to to move on.”
Player facilities are in line with virtually any new arena built to pamper athletes – they are luxurious. Islanders have a small cloakroom to change into civilian clothes and a main cloakroom where they put on their equipment. Nearby are aquatic therapy facilities, a classroom with stadium seating and a large video board, weight rooms and dining areas, as well as a shooting range – about the size of the lunge zone in front of the goal, equipped with a plastic floor and a net.
Leiweke said Lou Lamoriello, the Islanders’ president and general manager, has been closely involved in the design of all areas where players and staff meet. The dressing room also has a digital ribbon bulletin board for Trotz, the coach, to reinforce messages to players before and during matches.
The message to fans was equally clear: Prepare for a whole new identity.
“These fans deserve a house like this,” said forward Kyle Palmieri. “It’s an incredible building. This atmosphere was electric. This is not the outcome we were looking for, but the fans have come.