How a hockey team and its beloved arena skated into the hearts and memories of Long Islanders
BY Jake Basile
It was 1971 when Patrick Dowd walked into the great concrete building in Uniondale. He was with his father, and together they made their way down a long corridor that opened onto a vast domed arena. Surrounding him was a many-tiered loop of empty seats. He peered into the cavern below, where orange-clad workers were lugging steel beams and wooden planks, materials that would have been too heavy for him to even try to push. The new Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum was the biggest thing the 11-year-old with light brown hair had ever seen.
“I didn’t know I was looking at my future home,” he says 50 years later of the place that he would come to look at as his home away from home.
Pat – as he’s known – didn’t return to the massive concrete building again until Sept. 27, 1972. The narrow outer concourse boasted little in terms of concessions, only the basics in hot dogs and pretzels, and virtually nothing that even hinted at fan interaction – no team t-shirts or jerseys. That’s because on this night, Long Island’s first professional hockey team was making its debut. The team was the New York Islanders and they were taking on Pat’s favorite, the New York Rangers.
Pat’s father was president of Security National Bank, which funded the scoreboard over the new team’s logo at center ice, and the father and son were given a tour. The logo features an orange silhouette of Long Island resting in a sea of royal blue. Above the fish-shaped island, the letter “N” of New York melts into a “Y” shaped like a hockey stick. The word “Islanders” wraps the lower edge of the crest.
They sat 10 rows off the ice and as the first puck was dropped at the new arena, Pat took in the scene. The Rangers, the team he dreamed of working for as a broadcaster, were steamrolling the home squad. But the victory meant little as the young fan was bothered by the many unoccupied seats and by all the spectators in the visiting team’s jersey.
“This didn’t sit well with me,” he recalls. “Long Island needed fans.” Pat had walked into the Coliseum a Rangers fan, and despite the new team’s loss, he left an Islanders fan. “I took heat for it,” he says. But after a few years, the team improved. Fans in Islanders gear filled the seats as their hometown team skated to a dynasty era, winning four consecutive Stanley Cup championships between 1980 and 1983.
There is little doubt which team Pat roots for today. The 61-year-old nondenominational chaplain who does crisis management work with law enforcement agencies turned his Bay Shore basement into a “man-cave,” as he calls it, and covered it top to bottom in Islanders history. The mint-green paint of the walls is hardly noticeable behind blue-and-orange t-shirts, jerseys and hats, paintings of the Coliseum, and souvenir towels from playoff games. A rectangular, golden-brown desk flanked by a set of drawers that hosts bobbleheads of Islander greats like Dennis Potvin and Mike Bossy, game-used pucks, and newspaper headlines like “4 Straight” and “Yes, Yes, Yes” as well as many other highlights since 1972. Hanging from the ceiling are miniature replica banners of those glory days.
In June 1971, National Hockey League President Clarence Campbell toured the same unfinished arena. Fearing that the rival World Hockey Association would place a team in the new stadium, Campbell sought to beat it to the punch. The future was stirring in the 63 acres of Mitchel Field, a former Army airfield in Uniondale, a Nassau County suburb of 23,000. The airfield, decommissioned in 1961, had sprawled over the Hempstead Plains, a once 60,000-acre expanse of grassland. Today, suburbanization has left few spots untouched amidst housing developments, malls, and even a horse racing track.
But in 1971, in an area now surrounded by a Marriott Hotel and office buildings, there was nothing but a burgeoning arena. By the 1972-1973 season, the National Hockey League’s expansion reached Long Island. The nomadic New York Nets of the American Basketball Association performed at several small arenas around Long Island. They, too, found a home at the Nassau Coliseum.
Bulldozers, jackhammers, and concrete mixers ushered in a new era of entertainment. The whirring and slamming of construction brought new life to suburbia. Thousands of Long Islanders who previously had to take the train to New York City or endure Manhattan traffic for a big event now could look around the corner. A beacon of leisure rested on an ocean of asphalt and concrete. Funded by Nassau County, the arena belonged to Long Islanders.
Doors opened on Feb. 11, 1972. The 82-foot-tall ivory-colored oval sat on a rectangular sidewalk bed. Cars funneled into the sprawling lot of 6,000 spaces. But under the white ceiling of the 44,000-square-foot building, many of the 15,000 blue and forest-green seats stayed empty. About 8,000 spectators watched the New York Nets inaugurate the arena by conquering the Pittsburgh Condors. An LED scoreboard with bright yellow lights kept track of the game and a large screen offered instant replay as Long Island fans kept coming back to support the Nets. Led by Long Island-born superstar, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, they witnessed two American Basketball Association championships between 1972 and 1977.
Meanwhile, musicians rushed to the new suburban stadium just 30 miles from Manhattan. Three Dog Night played the first concert at the Coliseum on April 29, 1972. The next night, 16,500 people packed the arena to see Johnny Cash. Elvis Presley played five sold-out shows between 1973 and 1975. For up and comers like Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult to the biggest names like Neil Young and The Grateful Dead, the Coliseum became a top destination. But no musician left a bigger impact on the Coliseum than Billy Joel, who grew up less than 10 miles away in Hicksville. Today, the Piano Man’s banner hovers over the arena, commemorating his 34 sold-out shows since 1977.
But the Islanders struggled out of the gate. The team embarked on an historically poor opening season in 1972-73, celebrating a meager 10 wins at home. Tickets were cheap and easy to get.
Pat Dowd took full advantage.
“Whenever my Dad wasn’t going, my friends and I would buy tickets for a couple of bucks,” he recalls from the desk of his man cave. “The arena would be so empty we could sneak anywhere. You couldn’t find a bad seat, though.”
Pat didn’t play much ice hockey. In the neighborhoods and cul-de-sacs of Cold Spring Harbor, where he grew up, street hockey was the game of choice. Teens and tweens wearing red-white-and-blue Rangers jerseys gripped their Sher-Wood and Koho wooden sticks with thick winter gloves. On weeknights after school, the neighborhood would be filled with the sound of scraping wood against pavement. Pat was the lone player in blue and orange.
But this didn’t last. The Islanders defeated the Rangers to win its first playoff series in 1975. Attendance at Islanders’ home games increased and Long Island’s team accumulated the fans Pat believed it so badly needed. Rangers-at-Islanders games stopped looking like home games for the Manhattan team.
His street hockey pals even started trading their blue-and-red jerseys for blue-and-orange ones.
Stacie Moisa loved the packed houses. She loved hurrying through the main doors into the aroma of fresh, buttered popcorn and cotton candy. She loved hearing the pops as she waited on the long bathroom lines, staring at the white wall, striped with blue and orange. She loved that no matter how many people pushed against her in the narrow, maroon-tiled concourse, she never felt crowded. When it was time to watch the game, she loved the view of the rink regardless of where she sat.
She’d only been a hockey fan for as long as the Islanders existed. During the team’s inaugural season, her parents purchased season tickets, a tradition she kept for 40 years. During warmups, she’d cling tight to her father, their hands interlocked as they navigated down the stairs. They loved to watch the helmetless Islanders skate in circles, firing pucks at a vacant or occupied net. Once the game started, the nine-year-old understood little of the competition below her. But a wave from a platinum-blonde rookie named Bobby Nystrom, a future Islanders Hall of Famer, secured a fan for life.
“Back then, they didn’t have the high glass surrounding the rink,” she recalls. “So during warmups, all these kids would dangle their game programs over the glass for autographs. I would love to wave at the players as they came by. And one time Bobby Nystrom gave me a smile and a wave right back.”
Stacie chuckles at the memory. “I was a goner. I was nine years old and I was completely in love with him. It’s moments like that where I felt it was our team.”
By 1979, she’d watched enough hockey to know the Islanders were on the cusp of greatness. All it took was some Wendy’s chili.
On Nov. 13, the Islanders squared off against the Rangers. The home team lead 5-2 and chants of “We Want Chili” reverberated through the capacity crowd. As part of a promotion with the team that season, Wendy’s was offering fans a free bowl of chili if the Islanders scored six goals on home ice. With 12 minutes left in the second period, tough-guy Wayne Merrick came through. “CHILI” flashed in yellow across the LED scoreboard.
The score was 8-2. The unintelligible stadium chatter ceased as an announcement bellowed from the PA system. If the Islanders scored 10 goals, double chili.
Chants of “double chili” rang out as the team recorded a ninth tally. With the clock down to the final seven minutes, Islanders captain Dennis Potvin boosted the goal total into double digits, doubling the beef-and-bean bounty. “DOUBLE CHILI!” blinked across the screen.
Stacie remembers those sellout games well. “It was one of the first times I just walked around the arena and took it all in. I appreciated what I had. The arena was small, but it was ours.”
Her intuition proved correct. Greatness awaited the Islanders. In fact, it found them four times: first on May 24, 1980.
Stacie squirmed alongside her friends in the upper bowl as the Philadelphia Flyers eclipsed the Islanders’ two-goal lead, sending the game into overtime. If the Islanders scored first, they’d win the NHL’s holy grail, the Stanley Cup.
She began her usual routine. She scurried down the stairs to the outer concourse. There was little conversation. The 58-year-old retired teacher remembers the scene as if she’s watching it unfold on instant replay.
“You could feel the anxiety in the air. People couldn’t sit still. If they weren’t walking to the bathroom or grabbing a snack, they were pacing back and forth. We were down to the last goal. We knew the players felt the pressure and we did, too.”
The fans rose to the occasion. The floors of the arena vibrated with chants of “Let’s Go Islanders” during sudden death hockey. The low ceiling heightened the intensity, delivering the cheers down to the ice.
The players matched the energy. Islanders forward John Tonelli slid a pass between two orange-and-black Flyers defenders. Bobby Nystrom chipped the shot on his backhand. The twine rattled. Stacie watched as her hero made history.
“And the roof blew off that damn barn,” Stacie says, reliving her favorite moment as an Islanders fan.
As the players piled on top of Nystrom, fans embraced each other. A mass of humanity jumped up and down. Cowbells clanged, air horns honked, and those without instruments used their vocal cords. “IT’S OURS” flashed on the scoreboard.
Within minutes, spectators dressed in everything from work clothes to Islanders jerseys flooded the ice. Nystrom received hugs of gratitude from the Long Island faithful as the Stanley Cup was escorted onto the ice. The coveted trophy is a bowl atop a cylindrical foundation – a 34-and-a-half-inch-tall, silver-and-nickel symbol of immortality. Warriors in blue and orange effortlessly hoisted its 35 pounds above their heads.
The fans still in the stands watched. Some cried, some held loved ones, some screamed, and some stood silently in awe of their role in history.
Outside, traffic on Hempstead Turnpike stood still as the party continued into the street. “We Are The Champions” by Queen blasted from car radios. Strangers piled into each other’s cars. The Islanders honk of “bum bum bum-bum-bum” echoed throughout suburbia.
Stacie poked her head out of a car window and observed the scene. She remembers one man in a convertible shouting, “I’m a Rangers fan, but this is fun.” No one wanted to go home.
Stacie watched on TV as the Islanders won the Stanley Cup in 1981, 1982, and 1983. Fans created a new nickname for the Nassau Coliseum: “Fort Neverlose.”
Pat Dowd didn’t witness any of these victories from the seats of the Coliseum. Tickets were a hot commodity and when available, prices were steep. But it didn’t stop him from sharing the moments with friends and family.
“Everybody was on the same page,” he says. “That building was my first sweetheart. And that team brought it and Long Island legitimacy.”
Long Island had its team. Long Island had its fans. Long Island had its own sports identity: the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and the New York Islanders.
In 1999, Stacie Moisa gave birth to her second child, a daughter she named Kim. Even before she could walk or talk, Kim’s tiny hands clasped infant-sized Islanders sticks. Her first onesies sported the familiar logo. The half-hour drive from her Commack home to the Coliseum meant little to the three-year-old besides vanilla ice cream cones. According to Stacie, she would dance to every song. She rarely paid attention to the on-ice action, besides one fight during which she yelled, “KILL EM!”
At the dinner table, Kim didn’t talk about her day. At bedtime, she didn’t care much for fairy tales. Instead, she’d ask her mother, “What was it like when Bobby Nystrom scored in game six?”
She dreamed of experiencing her own moment of Islanders history.
Family discussions only frustrated Kim. Her parents and grandparents talked trades, signings, and the dismal play of their favorite team. She wanted to contribute but had little to say.
“What place are we in?” Kim would ask.
“We’re last,” her father usually replied. Kim could only wonder why.
When Kim attended games, she walked through the same doors her mother ran out 20 years before. She held her mother’s hand, easily maneuvering through the sparsely crowded concourse that Stacie once soldiered through. The smell of popcorn remained. They settled in the old green-cushioned seats, free from any elbow-room struggles. On a Tuesday night at the Coliseum, capacity might not reach 60 percent.
“This is embarrassing,” Stacie would tell her daughter, sighing. “Nothing like it was, Kimmy.”
By 2001, the Islanders had won only four playoff series since 1984. Last place became a familiar position.
At seven years old, Kim wasn’t bothered by vacant seats and frequent losses. She hated whistles. She only understood “icing” when it was on a cake.
Nonetheless, Kim was undeterred. With every whistle, she asked why. As players were ushered to the penalty box, she’d tug on her mom or grandma’s jersey, asking, “What did they do?”
Soon, the names and rules became familiar. She developed a first favorite: Islanders forward Trent Hunter, #7.
Her eyes dampen as she remembers her “Memaw,” as she calls her grandmother, presenting her with her first jersey. A youth small, navy-blue, polyester jersey with an Islanders logo.
“I was part of something. I wanted to be like my grandmother and mother, and carry on the tradition,” says the recent nursing school graduate. “We didn’t need anything fancy or huge, just a place to be together.”
But knowledge and love of the game came at a tough time. Little money poured into the second-oldest NHL arena. Outdated player facilities and league-low attendance hindered big-name signings. Long bathroom lines, unremarkable concessions, a cramped concourse, and sticky floors lost their charm when the team didn’t perform. The arena’s great sightlines meant nothing when the team was hard to watch.
“It felt like our team was slipping away,” Stacie remembers. “Games were just games on a schedule. I told all these stories to my daughter and it didn’t feel like she would live them herself.”
Once again, Stacie’s intuition won out. In 2004, Islanders owner Charles B. Wang proposed a $3.75 billion renovation called “The Lighthouse Project,” with its nucleus being a modernized Coliseum. When the Town of Hempstead rejected a zoning change in 2009, the project was canceled. The fate of the Coliseum shifted into the hands of Nassau County voters. On Aug.1 2011, a do-or-die proposition was on the ballot for a taxpayer-funded $400 million revamping of the arena. The Islanders had finished another last-place season when the referendum began.
Pat Dowd and Stacie Moise had no say in the future of their beloved Coliseum. They lived in Suffolk County, watching helplessly as the vote was tallied. The Nassau Coliseum, once the county’s crown jewel, was tossed aside by its residents. Its memories were clouded by a losing team playing inside a great white eyesore, a relic of days gone by.
Stacie’s voice waivers. “It was our Coliseum, too.”
But memories had no dollar value.
The Islanders’ exodus from the Coliseum was looming at the conclusion of the 2014-2015 season, when the team’s lease with the county would expire. The 2015 playoffs were borrowed time for Fort Neverlose. It had been 22 years since the Islanders won a playoff series and they couldn’t win one on April 25. If the Washington Capitals secured the victory, the Islanders’ season would be over.
More than 16,000 fans filed into Nassau Coliseum prepared to say goodbye. If the Islanders succeeded, the tiebreaker would go to Washington. Regardless of when or where the team’s season ended, the Coliseum’s days were numbered.
By 11:00 a.m., four hours before game time, the tailgate was in full swing. Pat Dowd sat in the bed of a pickup truck. In the adjacent two parking spaces, a blue-and-orange tent housed a grill and a plethora of coolers. A brunch of bacon, eggs and beer assuaged the anxiety for a few moments.
Pat was more nervous than he cared to let on. “Everyone knew tonight could be it. All we could do was hope. Hope and cherish it.”
Beside him with her feet dangling over the exhaust pipe was 14-year old Logan Dowd. The then-stay-at-home father raised each of his four daughters to be super-fans, taking them to games since they were in diapers. Logan, in her orange Denis Potvin jersey, the same player’s sweater her father was known to wear, was the lucky one with a clear schedule. His wife was also a fan, but never loved the in-game experience.
Five 18-inch-by-12-inch foam board signs held together by two large, blue clips leaned against the inside walls of the truck bed. This paraphernalia, along with his signature retro Potvin jersey, made, and still makes, Pat recognizable to his fellow Islanders fans. They call him “Sign Guy.”
The first photograph of Pat as “Sign Guy” appeared in Newsday 10 years before in a story by sports reporter Alan Hahn. The words on the sign – written in blue and orange marker and stenciled by his second eldest daughter, McKenzie – were directed at Charles Wang, the Islanders’ owner: “HEY MR. WANG I’LL PLAY FOR FREE!”
When an NHL player strike occurred in the 2004-2005 season, the league faced cancellation. Pat mentioned that if he were on the Islanders, he’d play for free. Eight-year-old McKenzie took these words to heart.
The two wanted to amplify their words. When the Islanders’ minor league affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers – now named the Bridgeport Islanders – hosted a game at the Coliseum, Pat and McKenzie marched around the concourse with their sign.
Smiles and high-fives from disillusioned hockey fans delighted the father-daughter duo and inspired their motto: “If you can’t be positive, what’s the point?”
After dozens of signs, a few newspaper features, a News 12 television interview and a video about Pat produced by the Islanders, “Sign Guy” was a big deal when he strolled into his old stomping grounds for what could have been the last time. He was used to being the focus of photo-ops and shouts of approval from nearby fans.
The boards were ready for brandishing at game six. Pat liked to tease the visiting team, so the Capitals were greeted by the words “CAPITAL PUNISHMENT NIGHT,” accompanied by two Islanders logos. Pat flaunted a sign that read, “CLOSE THE BARN WITH A 5TH CUP.”
And of course, he carried his “ALWAYS BELIEVE” sign, decorated with pictures of the team’s four Stanley Cups. He brought it to every game.
To Pat, the two words mean more than a message about a sports team. “It’s life in general. Some days you win, some days you lose. The worst thing is not thinking you have a way in a difficult situation. It’s the first thing I say after a loss, but it’s also the first thing I say when things get tough.”
April 25 was a win. The Islanders defeated the Capitals 3-1. When the final horn blared, the eruption of cheers shook the old barn, as the arena was sometimes called. The crowd’s synchronized jumps rattled the old tiles beneath them. The endless pounding of a single drum kept everybody in sync. Nobody minded the tight quarters.
Outside, those who tailgated before the game brought out their chairs and the party started again. Car horns played the familiar “Let’s Go Islanders” tune. No one wanted to go home.
“I was a little kid with my dad when I walked in there,” Pat says. “I saw concerts and roller derbies. I took dates there. Then, I took my kids there. It’s all come full circle.”
Two days later, the Islanders lost game seven to the Washington Capitals.
In a last-ditch attempt to keep the Islanders local, Charles Wang struck a deal with the Barclays Center in 2012. Beginning in the 2015-2016 season, the Islanders were to play in Brooklyn, where Barclays Center management would take over business operations on a 25-year lease with an opt-out provision after three years.
For the first time, Stacie and Kim didn’t renew their season tickets. Pat purchased his own. He designed a “Home Sweet Brooklyn” sign for opening day.
Every map clearly shows that Brooklyn is part of the long, fish-shaped island the native Americans called Paumonok. Although Brooklyn as well as Queens are as much a geographic part of the 1,700 square miles as Nassau and Suffolk, only the latter two are considered “The Island.”
With the team’s move to Brooklyn, a train ride replaced a short car ride on a local highway for most fans. Once at the arena, spectators might have found stark black-cushioned seats or a steel railing where a net should’ve been. Tickets sold with “obstructed view” warnings had the same section numbers as some of the best perspectives at the Coliseum. For those in the upper deck, the ceiling hovered high above them, a hollow space devoid of energy.
The off-center jumbotron was a reminder that the building wasn’t meant for them.
Ice hockey wasn’t considered in the blueprints for the Barclays Center. When ground broke in 2010, 620 Atlantic Avenue was to house only the New York Nets. The Islanders were married to a building that wasn’t meant for them.
After just a few months at Barclays, the Islanders drew some of the smallest crowds in the league.
When the Islanders wrapped up their morning skate in East Meadow on a December day in 2017, a then-21-year-old photographer named Dennis DaSilva hopped on the 12:30 p.m. Long Island Rail Road train out of Mineola, the seat of Nassau County. After a transfer at Jamaica Avenue, he arrived at his destination. In his blue-collared Islanders shirt, Dennis climbed the stairs at Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn.
The corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues – where Barclays Center is located – is an urban nerve center. Manhattan-esque highrises infiltrate the skyline and the sidewalks are jam packed. Hot dog stands and halal trucks feed customers dressed in suits, scrubs, and basketball jerseys. Dennis’ pace exceeded that of the yellow taxis that populate downtown, blurring the Starbucks, Citi Bank, and Men’s Warehouse he passed.
The Barclays Center is an architectural spectacle. Three loops of rusted steel protect the arena’s glass walls. The glass is visible between the gaps of these metal, crimson waves. The lower two bands combine to form an oculus, an overhanging circle that extends beyond the entrance of the building and above the sidewalk. Affixed to the front are the words “BARCLAYS CENTER” in sky blue. The roof is alive with sedum plants called succulents that form a three-acree green cap to absorb rainwater as well as sounds from within the building.
Inside, streaks of fluorescent lighting from the black ceiling reflect off the polished dark-marble floors. Blue and orange are nowhere in sight.
Dennis loves his job. In a letter he wrote to himself in 12th grade, he expressed his dreams to work for an NHL team. But when he began studying actuarial science in college, he didn’t think he’d ever be photographing his favorite squad. A community relations internship with the Islanders required him to take pictures of a youth outreach event. A simple task turned into a career.
“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says.
With 2018 around the corner, the Islanders aimed to improve a mediocre start to the season, which would have made Dennis’ job much easier.
“My job is to capture the moment when the roof blows off,” he explains. “It’s not always what’s on the ice, but what’s around me. It could be a father and son at their first game together. It could be an engagement. It could be a military hero of the game. It’s all about showing the fans we care about their moments and their perspectives.”
Come puck-drop, Dennis journeyed through what’s known as ice level. With his camera at the ready, he waited for the big moments: a goal, a hit, a fight. When looking for fan shots, he zipped across the inner concourse. He’d crouch below his subjects or prop himself on a seat to hang above them, instructing them to scream, jump, or clap. Capturing a reaction was not as difficult as framing a shot without a cluster of empty seats.
“You couldn’t just pack the family in the car and go here,” he says of the trip to Brooklyn. “On a weeknight with school or work, some people could be getting in past midnight. It could be a tough sell to go to a game.”
It was a 30-minute ride from Dennis’ childhood home in Islip to the Nassau Coliseum, so hockey games were often on the evening agenda when he was a kid. In a luxury box courtesy of his father’s friend, Dennis experienced his first playoff game in 2013 from the comfort of a black leather chair. Being waited on was cool, but the atmosphere hooked him.
“I never felt a building shake like that before. It was a rinky dink place, but that didn’t matter. It’s who’s in there and what’s in front of you. It was home. Barclays never felt like home. It was the Nets’ house and we were the tennant.”
For the Dec. 21, 2017 matchup against the Anaheim Ducks, a 28-year-old electrician named Will Chiarucci was nestled into an upper corner of Barclays Center in section 329.
In 2009, a small group of Islanders fanatics banded together with the goal of raising the volume at the arena, beginning with a modest “Let’s Go Islanders” chant. Coining the name “Blue and Orange Army” – BOA for short – they saw their ranks grow. Finding a home in section 329 of the original Coliseum to maximize affordability, they became an official fan club. They are as much a staple at Islanders’ home games as the Islanders.
And on that early winter night, they baptized Will into Islanders superfandom.
Growing up in the 90s, the Queens native chose the New York Yankees as his priority team. His introduction to the Islanders and the Coliseum was a rivalry game against the New York Rangers. Will, wanting to oppose the Rangers-fan friend he tagged along with, decided to root for the Islanders.
“Who doesn’t want to antagonize their friend a little?” he jokes.
Islanders superfandom evaded Will until he agreed to meet a new friend in 329. He knew little about BOA, but the massive drum, cowbell, and American-flag-themed Blue and Orange Army banner were hints. So were the uniforms the soldiers wore – striped “Section 329” scarves draped around their necks and Islanders Santa caps perched atop their heads. Will already sported the most important item, an Islanders jersey.
The second the puck hit the ice, the drum thundered. “Let’s Go Islanders” chants radiated from 329 to all other sections. Even in a sparse crowd, Will was part of a mob scene. The Islanders allowed two goals in the first period, but BOA didn’t quit. They called on the Islanders, who mustered an impressive comeback, but fell in overtime.
Impressed by the fans’ tenacity and determined to join their ranks, he purchased season tickets in 329 for the 2018-19 season.
Meanwhile, the Coliseum underwent its long overdue renovation between 2015 and 2017. The Islanders completed its final full season in Brooklyn with another missed postseason. But at last, the Islanders were coming home.
Dec. 1, 2018 is now part of Islanders history. Exactly 1,317 days after the team last played non-exhibition hockey at the Nassau Coliseum, the ice was again decorated in blue and orange. Excited fans belted out the national anthem. Bright white stadium lights illuminated the ice at the new New York Community Bank Live: Home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Islanders play-by-play commentator Brendan Burke reminded viewers at home of the importance of the day.
“1255 Hempstead Turnpike. Nassau Coliseum. Fort Neverlose. The Old Barn. It’s been called many things over the last 46 years, but one thing every Islander fan calls it, is home. Home’s a simple concept, but it has become overly complicated for the New York Islanders over the past four seasons. This place may look slightly different, but it is as it should be. The ceiling is low, emotions are high, and once again, it is full of fans and full of memories.”
The place did indeed look different. The bland concrete exterior, laden with advertisements for Optimum, had been replaced by a convex swoop of sleek aluminum fins that made it look as if a UFO landed where a hockey arena used to be. Vertical panes of sheet metal house a modernized interior of dark-gray walls, reflective flooring, black ceilings, and wooden accents. The burgundy tile floor and striped walls of blue, orange, and white were already a distant memory. The original 1980-1983 Stanley Cup banners were moved to an off-site practice facility. Replicas waved above the ice. It was a full house of 13,914 spectators – about 2,000 fewer than the last sellout in April 2015.
Will Chiarucci didn’t hear the announcer’s words. He stood above his seat in section 229, the same area where 329 used to be. White tape covered the “2,” so it read 329.
The roof, along with its black pipes and beams, hung a mere dozen feet above him. Will wore a Blue and Orange Army scarf.
With the first shift underway, the BOA chants began. The whole building responded. “Let’s Go Islanders” exploded from all angles, suffocating the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets.
“The players embraced the energy,” Will explains. “At a spiritual level, the building didn’t change. How often does a sports team get to go back to its roots? It’s like going to your grandparents’ house. You’re meant to be there.”
Pat Dowd fidgeted in his front-row seat. Pressed against the glass was the special sign made for the day: “LONG ISLAND IS REALLY HOME.”
Kim Moisa only attended a few games in Brooklyn, but she was at the Islanders’ homecoming, boasting a new identity. She is known as IslesGirl3 on Islanders Twitter and Youtube, where she hosts a podcast called “Kim in the Crease” to discuss the Islanders. It’s easy for the petite Kim to get ensconced by a crowd, but her bright blue and orange lipstick distinguished her.
“I remember seeing all these guys getting attention for painting their faces and chests, but my mom wouldn’t let me do face paint. So, we compromised on blue and orange lipstick,” says Kim, explaining how she got the nickname, “Lipstick Girl.”
Meanwhile, Dennis DaSilva prowled for shots. The photographer recalls the most important lesson from that night. “This was the night I realized the importance of focusing on the 360. The fans were on a different level that night. It was their homecoming, too.”
The Islanders dropped the first two goals of the game, trailing without a goal as half the game elapsed. The Nassau Coliseum’s first goal in almost 1,900,000 minutes was waved off by the referee. Cheers were cut short and replaced by a melodic chant of “asshole.” Silence overtook them as a referee skated to center ice.
“The call on the ice is overturned. We have a good goal.” An asshole no longer.
“They let loose. It was built up for a long, long time,” Dennis says.
Within minutes, the Islanders tied the game. Forward Casey Cizikas delivered the game-winning tally in the third. It was an underdog win for an underdog team.
Cizikas glided onto the ice for a postgame interview. Few fans left early to beat the traffic.
“I got goosebumps going down my body right now,” he said as he looked up and motioned to those showering him with screams of appreciation. The 329 drum pounded. “Because of all these people here that support us.”
The Islanders’ magical season extended into the playoffs. They swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in four games, poaching the Penguins on Coliseum ice for the first two.
After game two, the sellout crowd stuck around to watch goaltender Robin Lehner’s interview. “You guys aren’t loud enough,” he told the crowd. As he exited the ice, he applauded the fans, who gave it right back.
Round 2 was played at Barclays Center due to the limited number of luxury suites at the renovated Coliseum. The Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Islanders in the two games played there. Hurricanes defenseman Calvin DeHaan, a former Islander who played at Nassau Coliseum, didn’t mind the trip to Brooklyn.
“It’s great for us. It kind of negates the home-ice advantage to a certain extent. I’ve played there and it’s loud and you do feed off of that.”
For the 2019-2020 season, the Islanders were slated to play all potential postseason games in Uniondale. This time, Covid-19 separated the Islanders from home. They competed in two different playoff “bubbles” in Canada.
Will and the Blue and Orange Army hosted several “beachgates,” where Islanders supporters united to watch their team from nearly 1,000 miles away. At Cedar Point Beach on the South Fork of Long Island, 30 Islanders fans sat socially distanced in
front of a projector screen. Jerseys were draped over the backs of beach chairs as shoreline winds wafted the BOA flag that usually decorated the Coliseum wall. They chanted, cheered, and sang as if they were in section 329.
“We needed to bring that Coliseum energy somewhere,” Will says. “It’s just one of the things that are special about the Isles community.”
The Islanders conquered the Philadelphia Flyers to reach its first conference finals since 1993. Unfortunately, the road stopped there. The Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Islanders, moving on to win the Stanley Cup.
But eight miles west of the empty Nassau Coliseum, construction rumbled on Hempstead Turnpike. Steel scaffolding and caution tape surrounded a concrete bowl. A partial roof, which would be completed within a few months, shadowed a portion of the vortex. On Nov. 20, 2021, the finished $1 billion, 18,000-seat stadium welcomed home Islanders fans. Built by the Islanders for the Islanders, UBS Arena at Belmont Park ended an era of vagrancy for the New York Islanders. Once again, the future stirs in Nassau County.
But there’s still one season left at the Coliseum.
It was late afternoon on May 26, 2021 when Dennis combed the tailgate scene for fan pictures. Cortland University student Ashley Butcher and Long Island University Post student Joe Lonegro were playing a game of cornhole with friends. Several older fans they had met earlier in the day drank beer, soaking in the late spring sunshine.
Dennis knows some of the best shots occur before the action. He approached the octet.
“My name is Dennis, I’m a photographer for the Islanders,” he introduced himself. “You guys seem like you’re ready to go. How about a picture?”
Joe and Ashley scattered to fetch their friends and their prized props, cardboard cutout heads of their
favorite Islanders. The crew bunched together in front of Dennis.
“Alright, I’m gonna get nice and low and I want you guys to lean down at me and just go crazy,” Dennis instructed. “Scream, flex, hold up your signs. I don’t care what you do, just be loud.”
“It’s gonna be awkward with no other noise,” Joe said, chuckling.
Dennis assumed his position. “It’ll be an amazing picture. Trust me.”
The hodgepodge of hockey devotees heeded his advice and formed an arc around the photographer. They screamed and shook their signs. The older men knelt in front as sunshine leaked through the spaces between them. Dennis held down the shutter and within seconds, a memory was made permanent.
The Islanders had a chance to win a playoff series on Coliseum ice for the first time in 28 years.
The Penguins’ Jeff Carter broke through in just over a minute into the game. In another arena, this might’ve subdued a crowd, but not this one. As Dennis says, “Islanders fans are cut from a different thread.”
Just four minutes later, the Islanders scored the equalizer. Only 9,000 spectators were allowed in due to Covid-19 restrictions, but they sounded like 100,000.
As the midpoint of the game approached, Brock Nelson tied the game for the Islanders at 3-3. The fans wrapped up their signature “Yes, Yes, Yes” chant and prepared to sit down. Before they could, defenseman Ryan Pulock rifled a puck into the Penguins’ goal. No one at home could hear the commentator’s words; they were overtaken by the crowd’s crescendo.
It was hugs, high fives, and the waving of orange rally towels in section 235. Joe Lonegro embraced his grandfather. The first time Joe sat in this building he was on his grandfather’s lap.
The Islanders preserved the lead and won, 5-3. “That’s what the Coliseum does to its players,” Joe says. “It shows the players that we have no doubt in them so that the players don’t doubt themselves.”
In the same place two weeks later, the Islanders shipped the Boston Bruins home with a season-ending loss. The Islanders were out for revenge. It was another conference finals matchup with the Lightning.
Another two weeks and it was the Islanders that faced elimination. It was hard not to think about April 2015. The team stared down the barrel of defeat, and the fans braced for a second goodbye.
The unnatural silence during the second period was broken by Jordan Eberle. The winger, who hadn’t scored in six games, revived the spirits of the blue-and-orange faithful. They trailed by one heading into the third.
The Islanders fired away, peppering Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy with shots. The scoreboard was a timebomb. For every second that slipped away, the knot in each fan’s stomach tightened.
Scott Mayfield is known more for his fists than his hands, but an unusual year calls for unusual heroes. The 6-foot-5-inch-tall defenseman loaded up a shot from the edge of the right circle. The “dink” of puck kissing post created a microsecond of doubt. A quick shake of netting resolved any uncertainty. “YEAH” roared from the crowd.
Overtime meant one of two things for the Islanders: the end of its season or the right to play one more game. Islanders forward Anthony Beauvillier ended the anxiety quickly. With a rapid drag and release, he sent the Coliseum off with a bang.
Pat Dowd, in his front row seat, spun around. Hoisted high above his head were the words, “ALWAYS BELIEVE.”
Kim Moisa was vlogging the game when Beauvillier scored. Suddenly, the camera jolted upward as the complete stranger next to her lifted her up in celebration.
Stacie Moisa watched from home. “Kimmy got her moment,” she says. “That’s all I’ve wanted for her as a fan.”
Will also recorded the moment. His screechy “YEAH” is captured for eternity. Behind him, a relentless fan hammered that 329 drum.
Joe Lonegro held onto his 84-year-old grandfather, to whom he had gifted his extra ticket. “It’s my turn to take him to games now.”
Ashley Butcher hurried over to the Coliseum. She didn’t go to the game, but there was no way she’d miss the celebration. Again, no one wanted to go home, or be home for that matter.
As empty beer cans rained down from the stands and littered the ice of Fort Neverlose, Dennis DaSilva immortalized it all. With his trusty Sony Mirrorless Full Frame, he forever froze the final moments of Islanders hockey at the Nassau Coliseum.
The Islanders lost game 7 in Tampa Bay.
“Some things that begin so incredibly have to have this long, painful end,” Pat says. Ever the optimist, he doesn’t stop there: “I’m just glad we ended it on a high note.”
In his man cave, a miniaturized locker room figurama showcases the ceramic jerseys of Islanders Hall of Famers: Dennis Potvin, Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier, Bobby Nystrom, and Billy Smith. Homemade signs from the past 15 years or more are posted on the walls. Reminded of a storied past, Pat focuses on the future. He wastes no time getting to work on new signs for UBS Arena.
“My Dad brought me to the Coliseum, and I brought my girls. Now, my girls will get to take their kids to their own building. That’s what this fanbase is all about. Family.”