They clinked Coors Light bottles and chased whiskey shots along 5th Avenue, toasts for their hockey team’s new home. “PUCK DROPS IN OCTOBER,” promised the signs outside Barclays Center, and that moment had finally arrived. Find any spot down the street, whether by the flapping Islanders flags or chants roaring through the doorways, on Friday night, they were all the same.
“Let’s. Go. Islanders.”
After 43 years at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum—outdated with its drab design, adored for its rich history, famous for its thundering regulars—the Islanders moved into their neighboring borough with all the requisite fanfare befitting a first night. The NHL scheduled the Chicago Blackhawks, defending Stanley Cup champions, for the occasion. Alexa Ray Joel, daughter of Billy, sang the national anthem, and then after the 3–2 overtime loss performed a private set inside a VIP lounge. A moment of silence was held for the late coach Al Arbour, preceded by chants of his surname, and the pregame ceremony featured old greats Mike Bossy, Bob Nystrom, Bryan Trottier and Billy Smith, all of them four-time Stanley Cup winners between 1979–80 and 1982–83, all of them relics of the beloved barn on Long Island.
“You got your hot dog and pretzel,” current Islanders forward Matt Martin said. “It was old-school.”
Here, amid the wider concourses and fancier food, Martin knew mixed emotions would accompany this regular-season opener because he heard such gripes all summer from fans out in Suffolk County, angry over the longer commute to games, obstructed views in certain sections and, well, the sheer idea of change. It would be an adjustment for players, too, between riding the Long Island Rail Road to morning skates, napping at local hotels before home games and playing at the NHL’s second smallest rink, inside a building conceived five years ago for basketball and the Brooklyn Nets. But they were here for good, and here was now home.
“It’s a new era,” Martin said.
Near the end of one bar along 5th Avenue sat Will O’Connor, a 27-year-old from Long Island, and his two friends with seats Friday night in section 125, right near center ice. He attended his first game at 6 years old, Nassau Coliseum only a 15-minute drive from his home and even closer to his alma mater, Hofstra University. He remembered when the Islanders finished last in home crowds during the 1999–2000 season. He also remembered the playoffs last spring, when captain John Tavares beat the Capitals in overtime in Game 3 and the Islanders staved off elimination in a feisty Game 6. The parking lots were so loud he couldn’t even think. He hoped that wouldn’t get lost inside the building down the block.
But between the jerseys streaming into the bar, the drinks flowing, the orange- and blue-clad diehards hosting their private party upstairs, the clap-clap-clap-clap-clap, it was all starting to feel like hockey season again.
“I’m just happy it’s back,” O’Connor said. “Been a long summer.”
Fred Mangione, chief operating officer of Barclays Center, and his staffers polled fans during intermissions at the old barn last season, gauging what they hoped to see inside the new rink. Among the frequent questions—“How will I get there?” and “What time will games start?’—was this:
“Can the organist come too?”
A month had passed after the Islanders’ season ended in Game 7 against the Capitals before Paul Cartier took the call asking him to keep tapping out tunes in Brooklyn. A Hofstra graduate and Long Island resident like O’Connor, though much older at 56, Cartier quickly accepted, only asking for a modest commuter’s raise. After all, the retired air traffic controller was 12 years old when he attended the first-ever game at Nassau Coliseum, a date he easily recalls—Oct. 7, 1972 against the Atlanta Flames. As the doors opened a few minutes before 6 p.m., fans mobbed Cartier for handshakes and pictures.
“Thank God they brought you here,” one told him.
Like many of them, Cartier had reservations about moving. At first, reading Facebook comments and threads on Islanders message boards, Cartier sensed the frustrations Martin heard during his off-season, but lately felt the mood shift. When he checked those sites Friday morning, he noticed swelling support, urging fans to shake off any lingering bitterness and support the Islanders regardless. Many obliged, although those who chanted “We want Nassau” were perhaps more conflicted.
Through three preseason games, Cartier had grown used to Barclays Center. The rink’s unique arrangement prevented him from seeing the net or face-off dots on his side of the rink, since his perch sat on the partially blinded west end; later, when Tavares punched back his rebound during the second period, Cartier could only watch the replay on the video screen before his notes coaxed fans into shouting, “Yes-Yes-Yes!” But the organ was refinished after getting scratched during the move. The commute from Long Island wasn’t so bad. The sound here was crisper, the technology far better.
“We used to blow out the breakers at Nassau all the time,” Cartier said.
About an hour before the national anthem, Cartier arranged his set-list on his iPad, slipped on his headset and pulled up the sheet music for the first song. Treble clef, cut time, key of E-flat. The Steve Allen classic, “This Could Be The Start Of Something.”
The game started poorly. A defensive-zone gaffe handed Chicago the first regular-season goal at Barclays Center, but the Islanders pulled even at 2–2 in the third period after Marek Zidlicky’s blue-line wrist shot snuck past goaltender Corey Crawford. Cartier hit his notes. “Yes-Yes-Yes!” chants flowed from the rafters, a departure from the earlier smattering of boos. And inside the Zamboni tunnel, a smile reached Steve Rosebrook.
A former college hockey forward from Canada, Rosebrook is a mercenary of sorts for these events, overseeing new arena openings in Ottawa (Canadian Tire Centre, 1995), Toronto (Air Canada Centre, 1999), Houston (Toyota Center) and finally Brooklyn, beginning with the Nets in 2012, and now the Islanders. If Mangione, the COO, handled everything revenue-related concerning the move, Rosebrook, the general manager of Barclays Center, orchestrated the rest.
The biggest addition was the Islanders locker room, 11,000 square feet of brand-new everything, the product of scouting missions Rosebrook and his staff took to other facilities around the league. There were the high-tech boards for video review, the new hot and cold tubs in the training room and the plush players’ lounge, which had the Blue Jays-Rangers series on when Rosebrook arrived Friday morning. Some tasks remained unfinished, like installing the second ice chiller later this month, but with no apparent security issues and a crowd revitalized by Zidlicky’s equalizer, everything was running as planned.
“Brooklyn is like [Manhattan],” he said. “It’s just a little more complicated than most places.”
Take, for instance, the rink-side section underneath Cartier and his organ, beside the displayed car. The basketball’s retractable stands wouldn’t fit under the hockey setup, so the Barclays Center brass ordered new ones. A heavy downpour before the doors opened also meant more humidity brought into the building, which meant slushier ice conditions one Islanders player later characterized to Newsday as, “awful.” And instead of stuffing the entire rink short of the ice—dasher boards, glass, everything—into off-site storage like they had in 2013 and ’14, Rosebrook had purged enough space at Barclays Center for the permanent move.
As the clock ticked down, before Patrick Kane’s second goal sent Chicago celebrating and erased the potential for a new-home party, Rosebrook flagged down a colleague. Overtime was coming, and he wondered about the plan for scraping the ice.
“So are we ready?” he asked. “Why not do everything in one night?”