The New York Islanders play their final regular season at the Nassau Coliseum tonight, the team’s home for the past 42 winters. The Isles will play at least two playoff dates at the Coliseum this spring before moving to the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn next fall, but the eulogies for “Fort Never Lose” are already rolling in. And they’ve been oddly sentimental, given how relentlessly the Coliseum has been kicked around in recent years, most famously by Gary Bettman, who told a Hofstra University audience in 2009:
“There is probably no worse Major League facility right now in North America than the Nassau Coliseum.”
The locals cheered.
But now that it’s losing the Islanders and the NHL forever, the Nassau Coliseum is enjoying something of a critical reappraisal. Grantland and ESPN ran lengthy “it’s a dump, but it’s our dump” eulogies. George Vecsey at The Times, who covered the Isles’ 1980-1983 Stanley Cup dynasty, composed the most sincere and heartfelt farewell to the Coliseum, though “squat” was the most romantic sobriquet he chose to describe the arena’s aesthetic charms.
With all the column inches, you’d think the old barn was scheduled for demolition. In fact, it’s just losing the NHL. The arena will be downsized, refurbished and revert to being a minor league building in the middle of nowhere. Which, in a sense, has been part of the building’s DNA since it opened in 1972. Because although the Coliseum will always be inextricably linked with the Islanders and their early 80’s Cup winners, the building has proved an irresistible magnet for every “sport of the future” that desperately wanted to plant its flag in a place that would pass for New York.
Of all the teams that made a home at the Nassau Coliseum over the years, only the arena’s two original tenants way back in 1972 are still around. The New York Nets of the American Basketball Association made the championship series in 1972 after moving over from the tiny Island Garden in West Hempstead late in the season. Today’s program (top right) is from Game 3 of the 1972 ABA Championship Series against the Indiana Pacers, which was the first championship sporting event in the building. The turnout of 15,241 fans was the largest postseason crowd in ABA history to that point. But despite 44 points from the Nets’ top attraction Rick Barry, the Pacers took control of the series with a 114-108 win. Indiana rookie George McGinniss had 30 points and 20 boards to upstage Barry. The Pacers went on to win the series in six games.
The Islanders themselves arrived a few months later, but only after another unproven start-up spooked the NHL into a hasty pre-emptive expansion. A proposed hockey club called the New York Raiders had their sights set on the Coliseum for the debut season of the rebel World Hockey Association in fall of 1972. The Islanders got the lease instead, dooming the WHA’s efforts in New York to repeated disasters at the more expensive Madison Square Garden.
The Nets and the Islanders haven’t shared an arena since the basketball team decamped for New Jersey in 1977. This October they will reunite in Brooklyn at the Barclay’s Center. As for the rest of the franchises that set up shop at Nassau Coliseum – and there are a bunch – they are long, long gone…
- Billie Jean King headlined the New York Sets, a co-ed team tennis promotion that played 20-odd dates a summer at the Coliseum from 1974 until 1976.
- Box lacrosse tried to gain a foothold at the Coliseum over and over again, starting with the Long Island Tomahawks (1975). The New York Saints (1989-2003) hung in for 14 years, the longest tenancy of any team besides the Isles. But the New York Titans (2007) were yet another One-Year Wonder to vanish from the Coliseum after just a few months of play.
- While the Islanders were winning four straight Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983, there were actually two dynasties at the Coliseum. The New York Arrows won the first four championship of the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) from 1979 to 1982, led by a pair of flashy Yugoslav forwards, Branko Segota and Steve Zungul. The Arrows went bankrupt in 1984.
- After the Arrows died, the MISL tried to get back into New York with an expansion team called the New York Express in 1986. After a public stock offering flopped, the Express ran out of money and folded halfway through its debut season. One of the former Express owners is currently in federal prison after adopting a false identity to run venture capital scams.
- Professional roller hockey arrived in 1996 with the formation of the Long Island Jawz. Professional roller hockey also departed in 1996.
- Islanders owner Charles Wang also owned the New York Dragons of the Arena Football League from 2001 to 2008. The Dragons offered a severe cautionary tale for novice sports investors. In July 2008, Wang sold the Dragons to Steve Silva for $12 million. Five months later, league investors suffered a crisis of confidence and shut down the league after 22 seasons. Silva never got to see his team play a down.
Numerous reports have it that the Nassau Coliseum is looking for an American Hockey League club to replace the Islanders on Long Island. The Bridgeport Sound Tigers have been rumored to be that team for several years now. So the Fun While It Lasted hijinks in Uniondale are likely far from over.