Astoria, NY – The squat, decrepit, outdated – and wonderfully unsponsored – Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum sits, unassumingly, on Hempstead Turnpike in the town of Uniondale, NY.
If you didn’t know any better, you might not give it a second thought as you drove by. There’s nothing exciting about the building’s façade – unless you’re particularly interested in Optimum Online’s advertising campaign – and if you’re not an avid hockey fan, you wouldn’t realize the history contained inside the Coliseum’s walls.
If you’re a glutton for punishment (read: New York Islanders fan), you know all too well about the four Stanley Cups and the 19 consecutive playoff series victories and the birth of the Isles dynasty at the ‘Old Barn’ that started with NHL expansion in 1975, and began in earnest in 1979.
More recent history has been less kind to the Coli. If this were a normal NHL season, the building would be dormant by this time of year, having seen the Islanders fail to qualify for the playoffs yet again. The parking lot would be empty and the plaza between the NVMC and the Long Island Marriott would be vacant.
This, however, is not a normal year for the Isles.
On Sunday, the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum was alive with the type of energy that only the NHL postseason can bring. Fans were seen tailgating in the Coliseum’s parking lot hours before the 12:00 p.m. opening faceoff, turning the sprawling concrete area into a sea of orange, white and blue – with a decent amount of teal too, owing to the presence of the ‘fisherman’ jerseys that had been recently pulled out of closets.
The Islanders were back in the playoffs and the fan base was making the most of the opportunity to day-drink and debate the possibility of taking a 2-1 series lead over the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins.
It had been a long time coming: Long Island – pronounced “Lawn Guyland,” but you already knew that – hadn’t felt this good about its team in roughly a decade.
Yesterday, the fans were genuinely excited at the prospect of the first Islanders home playoff game since 2007 and had been waiting all season to blow the roof off the Coliseum once they made their way inside.
But the atmosphere inside the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum during Game 3 instantly relegated those two moments to the second tier when comparing crowd noise between the different eras.
The cacophony of sound during the player introductions was something I’ve never experienced during a game at the Coliseum; when the lights went out, the crowd went ballistic as the Isles took the ice.
People had told me that the building would shake, but I still wasn’t prepared for the feeling when the floor under my feet started swaying. I can only assume that the music came up when the players exited the locker room, but I couldn’t hear it over the yelling, screaming, stomping and chanting.
There was no time to catch my breath, either.
The two quick first-period goals by the Islanders elicited the type of roar from the crowd usually reserved for 80,000-seat soccer stadiums during a World Cup final. It was hard to believe that a crowd a fraction of that size was making just as much noise.
Besides the goals, each and every Islanders body check on a Pittsburgh player brought the 16,154 fans at the Coli to their feet, rally towels waving. (Like we needed another reason to lose our minds and voices for the good of the team.)
Even after the Islanders fell behind 4-2 – with the help of some dubious officiating, but that’s a point well beaten into the ground already –there was still hope because the crowd still believed.
Kyle Okposo’s shorthanded goal in the third period was almost as much the product of strong on-ice play by the Isles as it was the result of the crowd physically willing the team to climb back into the game.
I remember seeing Okposo break free at center ice and everyone in the building jump to their feet, screaming. (I’m almost convinced that Okie’s burst was due to the ice slanting towards Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and everyone leaned towards that end of the rink.)
And I’ve never stood next to a jet engine as a plane prepares for takeoff, but I imagine that the decibel level almost rivals what it sounded like inside the Coli when John Tavares snapped home the wrist shot that tied the game, thereby completing the Islanders comeback from down two goals in the final frame.
Even if the Isles didn’t pull out the victory, they proved that they’re a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference. It’s been said that no team really wants to play the Islanders in a seven-game series. I know for a fact that the Penguins are wondering what they did to the hockey gods that earned them the privilege of facing the Isles in the first round.
What’s more, the fans proved that they’re still alive and well on The Island. With a very real franchise relocation in the not-too-distant future, Islanders supporters packed the Coliseum and provided a true home-ice advantage for the team.
Led by the uber-supporters in Section 329 – Blue and Orange Army, I see you working – the Isles should be proud to have the kind of fans that can drown out the television broadcasters trying to provide commentary on the game.
I know I’m proud to have played a small part in that. Although the Coliseum won’t host the many playoff games that the Islanders are sure to play for the next 10 years (at least), it’s encouraging to know that it’s a venue that still knows how to rock.
They don’t make ’em like that anymore; getting to see the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in all its glory had always been a fan dream of mine.
Crossing off an item on my bucket list has never felt so fulfilling.
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