Islanders caught in the middle
NHL team makes first foray into Brooklyn as Long Island exodus begins
The soon-to-be Brooklyn Islanders arrived Downtown at approximately 9:35 a.m. Atlantic Avenue Time on Thursday morning for their first-ever practice at “The House That Bruce Built” along Flatbush Avenue.
They came from their soon-to-be-former-home in Uniondale, N.Y. via the Long Island Rail Road, a direct conduit from their past and present into their not-too-distant future, decked out in blue-and-orange jerseys and carrying hockey sticks.
Waiting for them with open arms at the main entrance to the Barclays Center was none other than the building’s developer himself, Bruce Ratner, along with the state-of-the-art arena’s CEO, Brett Yormark.
The two men fought tooth-and-nail to make sure the Islanders would be playing in Brooklyn by no later than the 2015-16 season.
And now, they were relishing the moment when they could welcome their new tenants to what many predict will be a “New Ice Age” for a franchise that has suffered the indignity of playing at an outdated arena for far too many a season in front of ever-dwindling crowds.
“This is a pretty special moment, almost deserving of a moment of silence,” Ratner gushed after the Islanders hit the newly installed Brooklyn ice for the first of their two scheduled skates at exactly 10:45 a.m. “They’re taking the ice here for the first time. … We will raise many Stanley Cups right here.”
“This is a dream come true,” added Yormark, whose twin brother Michael is the President of the NHL’s Florida Panthers. “Welcome to your new home. Your fan base is growing. We have 3,000 new season ticket holders this year and already 10,000 seats sold for Saturday night’s (Sept. 21) game.”
In less than 10 days, the Islanders will host the New Jersey Devils in the first-ever NHL game in the history of Brooklyn.
The exhibition contest, which figures to sell out nearly every one of the 15,813 seats available for hockey at the “built for basketball and concerts, but multi-purpose building,” will be an historic event in itself.
While Ratner and Yormark led the local media on a tour of the brand spanking new building’s impressive facilities, Islanders coach Jack Capuano was busy on the ice putting his players through their paces. The team hopes to build on a season that saw it reach the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Following their initial training session, the Islanders, led by newly minted team captain John Tavares, hobbled atop their skates into the Brooklyn Nets’ locker room as their luxurious “Islanders Campus” training and locker facilities remain in the early construction phase.
To think that only a year or two ago, the Islanders were actively seeking a new home outside the tri-state area, with Kansas City, Oklahoma City and even Quebec being bandied about as possibilities.
But last October, before the Nets played their first-ever game at Barlcays, Islanders owner and Brooklyn Tech graduate Charles Wang inked a 25-year iron-clad agreement with Ratner assuring the Islanders would play here for the foreseeable future.
“I think it’s going to be great,” Tavares said of the new digs. “We could have been playing in Canada or somewhere else. It’s going to be an adjustment, but we’ll make that transition and maintain a strong connection with Long Island. Our fans (on Long Island) can take public transportation here just like we did today. There’s a lot of history in that old building.”
Much like their NBA Barclays brethren and future arena-mates, the Islanders are a team in purgatory.
Though they are relishing all the accoutrements offered by their new home, they still carry a deep feeling for those they will soon leave behind at the Nassau Coliseum, a building that hosted four Stanley Cup championship teams since the franchise began play in 1972.
The Nets first learned of a potential exit from East Rutherford, N.J. to Brooklyn way back in 2003. Ratner assumed ownership of the team and announced that our borough would have its first major pro sports franchise to root for since the Dodgers were shanghaied to Los Angeles back in 1957.
They spent the better part of the next decade playing before sparse, disinterested crowds, first at the Izod Center and then the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., before enjoying a breakthrough season at the Barclays during their inaugural Brooklyn campaign this past year, averaging 17,000 fans per night en route to the playoffs.
The Islanders, to a man, know that saying “Hello Brooklyn” was the best they could do for their fans considering the other potential options were to move hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.
“It sucks (that we couldn’t find a way to stay on Long Island),” admitted forward Matt Moulson. “I’ve never been here before, but I think Brooklyn will make for a very energetic crowd. It’s tough to leave Long Island and all the fans that have been there for us through the years. But it’s not something we as players can’t worry about. It’s not in our control. As players, we have to put ourselves in position to have every advantage possible, which this building will do.”
“We have to balance it out,” added right wing Kyle Okposo. “A lot of our fans don’t want us to go, but it’s better us being here than in Kansas City, Oklahoma City or Quebec.”
Wang, who wasn’t present at the morning skate, can’t be blamed for moving the team after countless ultimately fruitless efforts to get a new arena deal in Nassau.
Now, Ratner is in charge of redeveloping that structure after outbidding Madison Square Garden rival James Dolan for the Nassau Coliseum renovation rights.
And the Islanders are moving into Bruce’s Building in a couple of years, if not sooner, according to several unconfirmed rumors that have the Isles in Brooklyn by the 2014-15 campaign.
“It feels really new. It will be an adjustment,” Tavares admitted. “I think (the Sept. 21 game against the Devils) will be almost like a neutral site feeling. But it’ll be nice to play a game here.”
Like the rest of his teammates, Tavares will likely learn in a hurry that “Nice” and “Neutral” aren’t the best words to describe a Brooklyn crowd.
But they’ll certainly be ready to rumble and roar come Sept. 21.
And so, doubtlessly, will be the legion of Islanders fans from Long Island who take the 44-minute ride into Brooklyn on that Saturday night.
“Wow! It’s really nice here,” noted defenseman Travis Hamonic before carefully adding that, “The Coliseum is great too. A lot of history in that place.”
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