NY Islanders, fans count down final days on Long Island

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Posted: Apr 20, 2015 2:23 AM
NY Islanders, fans count down final days on Long Island

UNIONDALE, N.Y. (AP) — For loyal fans of the New York Islanders, this year's playoff run is tinged with even more of a sense of finality, and yes, sadness. Win or lose, these will be the last games for Long Island's only major professional sports franchise before it moves to Brooklyn next season.

And it will also mark the end of the line for the current Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the "Old Barn" that has played host to four Stanley Cup titles and a string of legendary athletes and entertainers, from Julius Erving to Billy Joel.

"We're just torn," said lifelong fan Robert Anderson of Lynbrook, whose 9-year-old daughter, Sara, held a sign during the team's final regular-season game that read: "We will miss the Islanders."

Luckily for the Andersons and others, the team has made the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, offering a glimmer of hope that the Islanders could win one more championship before packing their bags for Brooklyn.

"It's great that they've given us a season we'll never forget and hopefully keep going, but it's breaking our hearts," said Anderson, who brought a stack of thank-you cards for the security guards and the ushers who have watched Sara grow up. "She's been making signs for the past five years and getting pucks from all the players and it's been great. That's what we're going to lose."

Team owner Charles Wang had tried for nearly a decade to get a new arena to replace the 43-year-old Nassau Coliseum, which has been showing its age, with narrow hallways, outdated dressing rooms and fewer of the luxury boxes and other amenities seen in modern arenas. When several efforts failed, including a 2011 referendum for a $400 million taxpayer-backed renovation, Wang announced he would move the team to the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

(Geographically speaking, Brooklyn is part of Long Island but it is actually one of New York City's five boroughs, and no locals would EVER confuse the two).

Wang is selling the team to new owners, and plans have been submitted to renovate the coliseum into a multipurpose complex that would include entertainment, shopping and restaurants, leading some to speculate the Islanders could one day return. But the team has a 25-year lease at the Barclays, so most fans are resigned to this being the Long Island swan song.

"Knowing they won't be here kind of stinks," said 20-year-old Mary Sullivan of Lindenhurst. "It's depressing, it's really depressing."

When it opened in 1972, Nassau was one of the first arenas to bring major entertainers and athletes to suburbia. Through the decades, everyone from Elvis Presley to Bruce Springsteen to U2 and Jay Z and Metallica performed there. Soon after the arena opened, President Richard Nixon packed the place with 16,000 loyal Republicans for a rally shortly before his re-election landslide.

The then-New York Nets played four seasons at the coliseum from 1972-76, winning two American Basketball Association championships led by Long Island native and future Hall of Famer Erving. Ironically, the Nets also now call the Barclays home, moving there in 2012 after decades in New Jersey.

Former Islanders greats recently attended a reception paying tribute to the team's legacy at the coliseum, which included winning four straight titles in the 1980s — a feat no sports franchise has matched since.

Bobby Nystrom, a fan favorite who scored the game-winning overtime goal against the Philadelphia Flyers to clinch the team's first Stanley Cup title in 1980, recalled how emotional he felt about the overwhelmingly boisterous fan support he and his teammates received before Game 6 of that series.

"When we came out for that warmup my throat was just trembling. I swear to God I almost broke into tears. ... But it was one of my favorite moments," he said. "And that's the way the building is and that's why I am so disappointed to see it going away because it rocks, it's the best."

Gerry Hart, an original player on the 1972 team, said that when it opened, the coliseum was one of the top arenas in the NHL.

"Back then, it was an awesome building," he said. "So it's a sad day for us to see that we're passing an era here. I think we're all saddened that we're not going to have a team here."

James Yoraschek, a plumber foreman at the coliseum for almost 16 years, said he and other longtime coliseum workers are hoping the team makes another title run. The Islanders are leading the Washington Capitals 2 games to 1 in their best-of-seven, first-round playoff series.

"It would be wild. It would be crazy," Yoraschek said. "A lot of these fans deserve it; they're so loyal to this team."

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Associated Press freelancer Mike Balsamo contributed to this report.