The New York Islanders will officially become the Brooklyn “Somethings” at the end of the 2015 season.
I’ve been a New York Islanders fan for 40 years. Through Stanley Cups, losing seasons, through season tickets, banner nights, Turnpike parades, the agony of defeat, from great coaching and management to terrible decisions, I’ve been there for it all.
But more than an Islander fan, I am a Long Islander.
My home is a five minute drive from Nassau Coliseum. And now I have to ready myself to say goodbye to not only the Islanders, but the arena they played in as well. Because as the Islanders go, so goes the Coliseum. Ernie and Bert on ice and a few New Kids on the Block reunion concerts can only take you so far.
So this is not just about hockey. This is about quality of life. It’s about the suburban blight that will take over an area that could have thrived if the politicians had the best interest of the towns, not their parties, in mind. It could have thrived if NIMBYism didn’t rear its ugly head. It could have thrived.
Now, with the announcement that the New York Islanders will be playing in Brooklyn come the 2015-2016 season, everything will go to hell.
Nassau County is a place where political identity takes on a big role. Everything here is about party lines. Even our judges are elected, not appointed and they run on party ballots. You are a Republican. You are a Democrat. Independents are almost shunned. You want a job with the town or county? Better check and see who is in office. Your chances are much better if you’re in line with the current administration.
And so it goes with the Coliseum and the Islanders. Back when this idea for building a new Coliseum and building up the surrounding area was a grand vision supported by a Democrat county supervisor, Republicans went out of their way to tear it down and opposed it so hard and so long it fell apart. Then Suozzi left office and Republican Ed Mangano took over and a new idea for the Coliseum and the land around it was born. And the Democrats denounced it.
When the Coliseum referendum came around, people voted party line. You could it hear it in the way they were talking. You could hear the talking points, the same tired messages, the opinions thrown out as facts, especially the older voters. When you live around politics this long, you get used to knowing what party-speak sounds like.
Nobody wants to hear about the future. Nobody wants to hear about what that area of Uniondale and East Meadow and Garden City will look like in a couple years when the Islanders leave and the Coliseum closes up. “But the Coliseum doesn’t have to close,” they say. Really? You’re going to maintain a place like that without an anchor tenant? “Oh, we’ll get someone else to come in.” Really? Who is going to play there? Who is going invest themselves in a place that is crumbling, a place that looks abandoned even when there are thousands of cars in the parking lot? The Coliseum has already lost the car show, the home show and the annual two week fair. It’s dying and the only way to keep it from dying has just slipped out of their hands.
The people who voted against the referendum talked about property taxes. But the taxes and revenue lost when the arena is gone is going to have to be made up somehow. So three years from now when there’s an empty lot standing on Hempstead Turnpike their taxes will go up anyhow and what will they have to show for it? Nothing. An empty space. A deteriorating neighborhood. The loss of sports, music, entertainment. And what of the attractions around the area? The Children’s Museum? The Cradle of Aviation and the Firefigher’s Museum? When the vast, empty space where the Coliseum used to stand turns into an eyesore, when the businesses in the area shutter their windows and move on, when the people start moving out of the area as suburban blight encroaches their neighborhood, what becomes of what’s left of the hub? Will they go, too?
This announcement means there are no more Plan Bs. There are no viable alternatives or getting back to the drawing board or square one or whatever rah-rah let’s gather the troops again words the town and County wanted to use.
The people are as much to blame as the politicians. People who didn’t want to deal with a possible $58 a year tax hike to keep the Islanders and the Coliseum here. They voted down the referendum and now they’ll be the first to blame everyone else that the Islanders are going and the towns around the area will go to hell. They’ll scream about the closed restaurants and shuttered stores but conveniently forget they were the ones who helped make today’s announcement happen.
One day they’ll be driving down Hempstead Turnpike and wonder what happened. When did that restaurant close down? Where did the deli go? Wasn’t there a coffee shop here? They’ll notice the blight that starts by the strip of empty land that used to be the Nassau Coliseum stretches all the way down into East Meadow, Levittown and beyond. Because as one community goes, they all go. That whole area will become another ugly strip of land in what’s becoming an increasingly dismal Long Island. There will be a domino effect and the surrounding towns – most of which to the west are already pockets of despair – will get worse when they need to get better. Property values will go down. People who had intended to spend the rest of their lives here will leave. College graduates who left town for school won’t come back. Young people will flee.
This is what happens when a team leaves town. This is what happens when you are offered a way to make your community thrive and jump start the local economy and you turn it down. This is what happens when you think only of yourself, your own backyard and your needs instead of the needs of the community at large. This is what happens when politicians who run a community think only in the best interest of their campaigns and not their constituents.
The Islanders haven’t been such a great team lately. But they’re getting better. So much better. Watching them grow into a potential playoff team has been exciting. Watching the young players, knowing they are going to lead the team to future greatness, that’s such a tremendous part of being a sports fan. This is our team. This is the team that’s going to carry us for the next two years as we prepare to say goodbye. Now with each game, with each win, with each step toward regaining the power they once held over the NHL, there will be a pervasive sadness to go along with the cheers. Every fan who sits down to watch a game in the Nassau Coliseum - if there is even a 2012 season - will be thinking the same thought: This is all going to be gone.
Those banners hanging from the rafters? The four Stanley Cup banners, the conference banners and division banners, the banners with names like Bossy, Gillies, Nystrom and Smith? They will be hanging in Brooklyn. It won’t look right. It won’t feel right. Those championships were born and raised on Long Island. Those Stanley Cups were fought for in the Nassau Coliseum. Those banners belong to us, the fans, as much as they belong to the team. To think of those blue and orange numbers hanging from the rafters in another arena is heartbreaking.
So how do you root for a team that you know is going to leave you? A few lame duck seasons of hockey - seasons in which the team will only get better and better - is going to feel like a pretty long funeral march. It’s not even just the team. How do we say goodbye to hockey? What is fall and winter without the skates hitting the ice, without the red lights, the air horns, the sound of boards rattling, the cursing of lost power play opportunities, the high fives? Well, in non lockout years, anyway. I can’t imagine greeting October without the anticipation of seeing my favorite hockey team on the ice. The Coliseum - if it still stands - will certainly live up to its nickname of the The Mausoleum. The closer it gets to 2015 and the end of the Islanders lease, the more it will feel like a burial ground. Each game, each season will bring us closer to saying goodbye to part of our lives. To the game, to the team, to the banners that hang from the rafters.
Sure, they are only going to Brooklyn. But they won’t be our Islanders. They won’t have an image of Long Island emblazoned on their chests. They won’t be ours. They will no longer be part of this community and this community will suffer for that.
In a few years, I’ll probably be moving from Long Island to Northern California (so, how are those Sharks looking?). I was going to say goodbye to the Islanders and the Coliseum anyway, but on my own terms. I’ll be around in 2015 for their farewell tour. I’ll say my proper farewells and go back to California with “We’re all Islanders” tattooed on my heart. Because this team - the one that plays (when there’s no lockout) in Nassau County and not one that will play in Brooklyn - will always be mine.
But this County? This island?
They don’t feel like mine anymore.
I’m sad and I’m angry and I don’t know which one I am feeling more.