Nassau Coliseum was home to all during memorable run: ‘It was our dump’
It was goodbye on the greatest terms. It was a farewell filled with meaning and mystery, an exit infused with excitement. Every last drop was milked from the Old Barn, every emotion slapped around the rink and smashed into glass one last time. Nostalgia was credited with an assist.
The Islanders’ final exodus from Nassau Coliseum could have come during all those years when they ranked last in the NHL in attendance. It could have come with the dreaded move to Brooklyn. It could have come when the building was closed indefinitely last June or when the arena was limited to 10 percent COVID-related capacity this spring.
But more than four hours before 13,000 or so fans filed in Wednesday for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup semifinals —the Islanders’ most important home game in 37 years — an enthusiastic car horn screamed, “Let’s go Islanders!” sparking a chain reaction in the parking lot. Various genres of music mingled. Flags proudly flew. Beer disappeared. Burgers were flipped. Shirtless men stood beside freshly dry-cleaned jerseys. A roller hockey game took place beside a busted fence and overgrown weeds. Car trunks provided the best seats before the game began.
The sprawling concrete was Long Island’s most beautiful backyard.
“It’s a community,” said longtime tailgater Ed Strype. “It’s something we’ve grown up with, something that connects you with the people.”
They paved a parking lot and put up paradise.
Madison Square Garden held a monopoly. It was the Metropolitan area’s only venue for A-list acts and sports’ biggest stars. The most populous suburban county in the United States wanted more.
When the Air Force closed its Mitchel Field base in 1961, Nassau County acquired much of the land. Funds for a sparkling new arena were approved in 1964. The Coliseum was to be part of a massive complex, featuring a concert hall, library, theater, fine arts gallery and museum.
“He was very proud when they got the project,” said architect Bruce David Becket, whose father, Welton, and his firm designed the Coliseum after previously designed the Capitol Records building and UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. “He was very excited.”
The grand plans were scrapped when Ralph G. Caso replaced Eugene Nickerson as Nassau County Executive, leaving the vast lot with nothing but the $32 million, publicly funded Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
“You might say it belongs to the people,” Caso said then. “It’s theirs.”
The people had plenty of parking, but no mass transit to Uniondale. It had a single concourse, mirroring traffic on the neighboring Meadowbrook Parkway. It had unmatched sightlines, unobstructed views and affordable tickets.
What eventually was mocked as a “mausoleum” was considered state of the art, boasting the first-ever arena scoreboard with instant replay technology.
“I don’t want television viewers to have something we don’t,” Caso said.
The Coliseum became big league before construction was completed. In November 1971, New York was awarded a second NHL franchise, upsetting the upstart World Hockey Association’s New York Raiders, who had hoped to move into the Coliseum. The ABA’s New York Nets moved 4 miles from the Island Garden in West Hempstead, putting both of owner Roy Boe’s teams under the same low roof.
“I remember hearing we were gonna have teams,” said Baldwin native and longtime Islanders organist Paul Cartier. “How cool would that be?”
The scoreboard wasn’t installed. Sections of seats hadn’t been nailed down. Water leaked near the home locker room. Yet the Coliseum was open for business.
The soft launch came on Feb. 11, 1972, with nearly 8,000 people — of roughly 15,000 capacity — watching the Nets defeat the Pittsburgh Condors.
“Even with half the seats done, it was a major improvement over the Island Garden,” former Nets guard Bill Melchionni said. “It was a legitimate first-class arena.”
And it had legitimate first-class superstars. Future Hall of Famer Rick Barry led the Nets to the 1972 ABA Finals. Then came The Doctor.
With Roosevelt native Julius Erving playing for the Nets, the Coliseum was the only place to consistently see the greatest icon of the rarely televised league. Erving, whose high-flying moves redefined basketball, captured three league MVPs and led the Nets to championships in 1974 and 1976. Five months after fans stormed the Coliseum floor to celebrate a second title, Boe sold Dr. J to the 76ers — the Nets, following the NBA-ABA merger, owed $8 million total to the Knicks and the league — and took the team to New Jersey in 1977.
“I always regret the fact that Long Island never got to see that team play in the NBA with Doc,” Melchionni said. “When the leagues merged, the Knicks were on the decline, and if we had continued to have the success we had in the NBA, I think the situation would have dramatically changed. You would’ve had all these kids on Long Island drawn to the Nets. You see the Islanders now, the building’s packed, the Long Island people support them and I think the same thing would’ve happened if the Nets stayed there. We could’ve built a similar foundation.
“If Julius had stayed on Long Island, if Roy Boe had the financial resources, you’d probably still have the Nets there.”
NHL commissioner Clarence Campbell — along with 12,221 others — watched the Islanders’ home debut on Oct. 7, 1972, and declared the Coliseum “a magnificent place to watch hockey.” That depended on which team you were watching.
In their inaugural season, the Islanders tied the league-record for fewest wins (12). The next year, they finished last in the East Division again. Home games against the Rangers felt no different than being in Manhattan.
“The first couple years we really got booed in our own building,” said Islanders legend Bob Nystrom, who signed his first contract in the Coliseum parking lot. “It was ’75 when things turned around, when we beat the Rangers [in the playoffs]. That was when it really came into existence as the home of the Islanders.”
Fort Neverlose was born. Its run as the world capital of hockey began with the Game 6 matinee of the 1980 Stanley Cup Final, which ended on Nystrom’s overtime goal. The Islanders clinched three of their four straight championships at home — en route to 19 straight playoff series wins — and made Hempstead Turnpike an annual parade route. The Coliseum ceiling became defined by its numerous blue, orange and white banners, still seizing fans’ attention before they reached their seats.
“The fans really took us in,” Nystrom said. “[Coach] Al Arbour said to us, ‘These guys pay your salary, so get out and get involved,’ and we really took that to heart. We were such a part of the community. It was absolutely incredible.”
The Islanders haven’t been back to the Stanley Cup Final since 1984. From 1993 to 2015, they didn’t win a playoff series. When they finally advanced, they were playing in Brooklyn. When they won a first-round series two years ago, the second round was shifted to Barclays Center because the NHL didn’t consider the reduced-capacity Coliseum to be an “NHL major league facility.” When they reached their first Eastern Conference finals since 1993 last year, they were playing in an empty arena in a Canadian bubble.
It made every moment of this year’s last, unlikely run much more meaningful. The fans remembered how great it had once been. They remembered how terrible it had been.
“It’s the same sound,” said Strype, who attended two Cup-winning games. “It’s been a rebirth.”
Billy Joel had to wait his turn. The Long Island demigod with his name in the rafters didn’t headline his first hometown show until 1977. Every star wanted to play suburbia.
Paul McCartney and Frank Sinatra took the stage. So did Johnny Cash, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin, whose 1972 shows offered tickets ranging from $4.50 to $6.50.
“This is a great place and this is where the kids live,” Zeppelin manager Peter Grant said then. “Shame there aren’t places like this in England.”
Elvis Presley played to sellout crowds, but he missed his scheduled show on Aug. 22, 1977, having died six days earlier. Nearly 5,000 Elvis fans gathered in the parking lot on the date printed on the ticket (which became a collector’s item), holding a four-hour memorial service. The Grateful Dead received a tie-dyed banner in the rafters for playing the most shows in the Coliseum — 41 before Jerry Garcia’s death — despite a years-long hiatus stemming from the band’s issue with police harassment of fans in the parking lot. In 1988, a rap ban was enacted at the arena after stabbings and gang-related activity at multiple shows resulted in numerous injuries and one death. In 1987, camped-out fans smashed doors and windows in the middle of the night, seeking Bon Jovi tickets.
It was a favorite of live albums and TV specials, one of only two American venues to host Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” tour. It was home to Hicksville’s “Piano Man.”
“When Billy Joel played there when I was 8, my dad ended up getting scalped tickets,” said Debbie Gibson, a Merrick native, who remains the youngest artist to write, produce and perform a No. 1 single. “It’s so funny, me being an artist now, ‘Oh my god, that’s sacrilegious,’ but when dad comes home with 11th row for Billy Joel at the Coliseum he’s a hero. I saw the Beach Boys there, Billy, many times, skating shows. It was not wasted on me how amazing it was to have it right in my backyard.”
It hosted a Richard Nixon reelection rally in 1972. It hosted the 1983 NHL All-Star Game and WrestleMania 2 in 1986. It welcomed Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus every year until hosting the final show of the 146-year run in 2017.
The Coliseum was home to all.
“There’s a romance for a lot of artists playing the Garden, but I learned through touring that the suburbs are where you find so many of the die-hard fans,” said Gibson, who just released her first album of original music (“The Body Remembers”) in 20 years. “There’s not a snobbery that goes along with the suburbs. It’s down home. I always felt that down home vibe in playing the Coliseum. I felt like I was amongst my people.”
The Coliseum was too small. Rivals were building better homes. It was time to leave. It was 1991.
“We can’t be left behind,” Islanders owner John Pickett said then.
The crumbling, dirty, cramped eyesore was a hurdle to every free-agent signing. It lacked modern amenities. It was cited as “uninhabitable” in 1998 by the Islanders, who threatened to play home games across the northeast before being ordered back by a judge. It was the second-oldest NHL arena in use. It made Kansas City a legitimate threat to steal the team. It made a basketball-centric arena in Brooklyn with melting ice look like the best option after owner Charles Wang’s $3.4 billion Lighthouse Project was rejected and funds for a new Coliseum were defeated in a 2011 referendum. It was a “depressing place to play,” Sharks forward Owen Nolan once said.
“They called it a dump,” Cartier said. “But it was our dump.”
Only after the Islanders left did the building receive a $180 million renovation, a modest touch-up, which enabled the team to return in between marriages to Brooklyn and Belmont Park (UBS Arena). In the Islanders’ absence, the Coliseum will house the Long Island Nets and New York Riptide (lacrosse), following the failed footsteps of the New York Arrows and Express (soccer), New York Saints and Titans (lacrosse) and New York Sets/Apples (tennis).
The building’s memories are framed in the concourse, jammed after the Game 6 season-saving overtime win and playing a once-familiar tune: “We want the Cup.” Hundreds surrounded co-owner Jon Ledecky in a spontaneous mosh pit. This, after countless beers smashed and stained the ice, after some of the loudest noises in Coliseum existence soared through the air.
“It was quiet for so long,” Cartier said. “People hadn’t heard something like this in years. It gives you goose bumps.”
There was no rush to exit. Tomorrow couldn’t be better.
“Listen, it’s a remarkable place and it’s quite a history,” Nystrom said. “I hate to see it go, but time moves on.”
What better way to say goodbye?