With great expectations for the season and a gleaming new arena, the New York Islanders have been eagerly anticipating their home opener at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The consensus in their locker room is that the biggest change the players have been facing after the team’s move from Long Island is how to get to their jobs.
“For me, it was a couple lefts and a right (to Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum), and now it’s a 45 minute train ride,” says captain John Tavares.
Most of the Isles live out on the Island, where their practice facility remains, and they are now taking the Long Island Rail Road to Barclays Center. Morning skates on game days are in Brooklyn at 10:30 a.m., so the players will be hopping on a train, sometimes during the morning rush hour. It's a culture change from a suburban to a more urban feel. Center Frans Nielsen says the trip makes him feel like “a real New Yorker taking the train to work every day.”
“It’s pretty easy, though,” says Tavares. “It’s nice, you can just throw some headphones on or hang with some of your teammates and relax on the way down. It’s been a pretty good adjustment so far through training camp.”
There has been some concern about how the change of routine will affect the team’s performance. After their morning skates the players will stay in Brooklyn to talk to media and then convene for a team meal followed by an afternoon nap at a nearby hotel. Fortunately the morning train ride has become part of the team’s bonding experience amid all the change. That’s been valuable because, as center Brock Nelson explains, when you “build some chemistry off the ice it translates on the ice for sure. … It definitely helps build a tight-knit team.”
Barclays Center, which has been home to the NBA’s New Jersey Nets since the 2012 season, was redone in order to accommodate the hockey team. Though Islanders owner Charles Wang tried for years to renovate the Coliseum or build an entirely new arena, he could not come to an agreement with Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead. So he finally decided to move the team out of the old barn it had played in during the franchise’s entire 43-year existence.
Washington Capitals head coach Barry Trotz, whose team played a Sept. 28 preseason game against the Isles at Barclays, said though he thinks the new arena is a “beautiful facility,” he will miss the Coliseum, where his Caps battled through three intense games during their first round matchup in last season’s playoffs.
“I’m old school. I love the Coliseum,” Trotz says. "We played a very hard seven game series in there. Actually every game we went in there it seemed to be like a playoff atmosphere,” Trotz said. “I love the old atmosphere because of the fans. I don’t mind getting hit with a beer once in awhile.
“Barclays Center is going to really be the centerpiece of this area. You can tell they’re building all around it. That’s what beautiful facilities do.”
Though the three preseason games at the Barclays Center did not draw sellout crowds, Nielsen says he knows the team’s fans are very passionate and he’d be “surprised” if that didn’t carry over into Barclays Center, especially for the opener against the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night Oct. 9.
“The crowd support we had behind us during the playoffs was pretty amazing,’ he says. “Right from Day 1 against the Blackhawks, you hope it picks up right where we left off … The fans are very passionate, so I’d be surprised if it wasn’t the same. I’m sure it’s going to be just as loud as it was back at Nassau.”
Barclays Center COO Fred Mangione notes how important it is to preserve the history and tradition the Islanders and the Coliseum had acquired since 1972. The team has hung its four Stanley Cup championship banners from the ceiling, but on opening night the plan is to unveil others, including ones for the Isles' all-time great players and legendary coach Al Arbour, who passed away in August. Arbour will also be honored with a pre-game tribute.
The Islanders also brought long-time organist Paul Cartier to Barclays Center. Cartier, who also plays for the New York Yankees, says he was happy to make the trek to Brooklyn to stay involved with the team he has been a fan of since he was young. At the Coliseum he used to be perched up in the press box, but he now sits in the lower level concourse where he can be closer to the fans.
Despite all the love for the old Coliseum and the melancholy feelings that came with the move, Barclays Center offers the Isles a needed fresh start with upgraded facilities and a much larger workplace. A player campus with brand new dressing rooms, weight rooms, and other training facilities was built and the Isles players are duly impressed.
"You look at the dressing room, it’s like double what we had before,” defenseman Johnny Boychuk says. “Our gym is extremely nice. The whole facility is gorgeous. It’s obviously one of the newest arenas. It’s really nice.”
Says forward Kyle Okposo: “It’s definitely an upgrade. The facilities here are top-notch and we’re excited to be in here with a nice lounge, a great room, a lot of space. Feel really comfortable here, and something that’s really nice to have.”
During the September preseason game, the Capitals noticed that the place wasn’t exactly built for hockey. The scoreboard, which is perfectly centered over the Nets’ basketball court, is off-center over the hockey rink. Goalie Justin Peters said he thought it was a little “different” having the clock much closer to him during the first and third periods. His teammate, goalie Philipp Grubauer, noted that it seems like the visiting dressing room was built for basketball and not hockey because “the shower head is wayyyy up there.”
Fans have also complained that several sections of seats have obstructed views where parts of the ice can’t be seen. But despite the arena's quirks, Islanders players have been relieved to find that the quality of the ice in the rink is good, something that Nielsen says was not the case during the two preseason games the team played there in 2013 and 2014.
“I’m actually surprised how good the ice is,’ he says. “I’ve got to be honest, I was a little worried about that, but it’s been good and we’ll see. We played a couple preseason games and it was a little … they just put it in. It’s been in for a good month now and people have been skating on it. It’s hard like it’s supposed to be.”
Says forward Nikolay Kulemin, “Everybody’s so excited to play here in the new arena. New fans will probably come over and I think it’s everything positive here. It will make our fans excited and bring some more friends over from the city and show them there’s another team in the city that can play.”