In October 2012, a month into the NHL lockout, with the schedule already beginning to crumble, the New York Islanders made a big announcement: Upon expiration of their lease in 2015, the Isles would be leaving the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, their publicly owned home of 40 years, for Brooklyn's Barclays Center. The team is now reportedly trying to move a year early, which would make this lockout-shortened season the penultimate one in the Coliseum. The financially floundering Islanders will be happy to rid themselves of Nassau County's ownership, and the bankrupt county will be happy to rid itself of the Islanders.
The hockey media are framing the Islanders' spunky playoff run as the bittersweet end of one era as a brighter day awaits in Brooklyn. The further the team advances—they must win their next two against Pittsburgh to make the conference semifinals—the more TV announcers will describe, in increasingly mawkish terms, the potential final playoff games in the arena’s storied history. While their mics are off, they will call the arena a dump, and they will salivate over the amenities at Barclays.
And they will overlook the essential sadness of this departure made inevitable years ago. Any banners the Islanders collect in 2013 will be packed up in 2014. And after years of threats, the Islanders will abandon their namesake home, leaving behind just the Coliseum, stripped of its blue and orange and surrounded by unused parking lots, a towering gravestone for the optimism that begot the team and the area around it, the concrete pit of a fruit that rotted years ago.
My family has a quintessentially Long Island story. While on leave from Korea, my grandfather, Russell Page, met my grandmother, Ann Page, in his fatigues at an ice cream social in Brooklyn. When his tour ended, they got hitched in the city where they had both grown up—she, the daughter of immigrant entrepreneurs; he, the son of a government electrician. And like so many New York newlyweds of their generation, they moved east to the prefab paradise of Levittown in Nassau County.
Levittown was the ground zero of manufactured post-war American suburbia; the name itself is now a synonym for an old, discarded ideal. Old man Levitt and his sons churned out 17,000 homes quickly and cheaply and uniformly. From 1950 to 1960, the county's population nearly doubled, from 670,000 to 1,300,000.
Then, in 1960, once-rural Nassau County did something it had never done in its history: It voted for a Democrat for president. And a guy named Eugene Nickerson rode Kennedy’s coattails to become the first Democrat elected county executive in Nassau’s history.
Nickerson took his voters' mandate and ran with it. He proposed, on the former site of the Mitchel Field airbase, a new-seven-building complex that would serve as the cultural hub of the booming county. As Peter Botte and Alan Hahn wrote in Fish Sticks, their history of the team, the development would include affordable housing, a sports arena, and a 750,000-volume library: the John F. Kennedy Educational, Civic, and Cultural Center.
By the time the county broke ground in 1969, though, America had shot two Kennedys and agreed to build just one of Nickerson’s buildings, the Coliseum. My grandfather’s generation had grown up, grown sour, and started voting Republican. Nickerson himself had ceded his seat to one, Ralph Caso, who had no interest in affordable housing for Vietnam veterans or libraries named for Kennedy. All the baby boomers needed for culture was hockey and rock music.
My grandfather was a union carpenter, and he made sure he was on the Coliseum project from the beginning. Before the Coliseum, my grandfather had worked on all the major buildings in Manhattan, including the Wall Street banks, for which he reserved a special disdain. He had grown up the son of a tradesman in a neighborhood full of civil servants during the Great Depression. He believed in organized labor and a social safety net, not high finance. He relished the fact that the construction workers and the bankers got off work at the same time. He had an informal rule for the 4 p.m. L.I.R.R. train: The nicer the suit, the more likely it was my grandfather would sit next to him, just to savor the look on his face.
He also had no special fondness for politicians, particularly Caso (at left, with former Islanders owner Roy Boe), whom he had met at a party early in his political career. Caso made a point of pulling my grandmother aside whenever a photo op presented itself. My grandmother thought that Caso must have really liked her, but my grandfather knew what the politician was up to: He was using my 5-foot-nothing grandmother to make himself look tall in the paper.
When the plans were first laid out before Russ Page, as he remembers it, the bottom of the blueprints read simply, “The John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial Arena.” After Caso took over for Nickerson, the label simply read “The Memorial Arena,” which raised more than a few eyebrows on the faces of the working-class Catholics who actually had to build the thing. That name lasted for a while, until Long Islanders started to wonder whom exactly they were memorializing. Republicans aren’t dumb—when in doubt, always praise the troops. Hence: the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
One day during construction, Ralph Caso himself stood at the edge of the second deck, filming a commercial promoting the new arena. Every time he began to speak, the construction had to halt. After flubbing his lines three times, the head carpenter, Harry Rhodes, shouted, “Hey, Ralphie! You gonna get it right this time?” Like a school teacher in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, the red-faced Caso circumnavigated the Coliseum’s second deck, confronting each worker, demanding he reveal the guilty party. No one snitched, of course.
When the Coliseum was finally completed, George Rennehan, a relation to our family by marriage, the man who got my grandfather into the union, spread the word about a free dinner Caso was hosting for the hard-working carpenters who had built the thing. When George and my grandfather arrived, however, they were served a bag of peanuts and a warm beer. Rennehan, who had not taken shrapnel to his skull on the beaches of Normandy to be tossed peanuts by politicians, grabbed Harry Rhodes’s throat with both hands and demanded his constitutional right to a burger be honored on the drive home.
Had the county built the other six buildings, my grandfather probably could have lent his skills to the community for years to come. Instead, he stuck around the former Mitchel Field to do a different kind of work. He became the guy who would put the goals back on their moorings whenever, in the course of an Islanders game, someone skated into them and knocked them off. This was an important job, with certifiable sociopath Billy Smith minding the Islanders’ net for the better part of two decades.
My grandfather remembers working maintenance for the first sports event at the Coliseum, a Nets game on Feb. 11, 1972. Because Caso had skimped on luxury boxes (and seats in general), some poor fans were ejected from their chairs to make room for Caso himself. Still, karma found Caso after the game, in the form of a similarly scorned press corps.
“They didn't have anything for the press, and Marv Albert was drunk,” my grandfather said. “Marv Albert told Caso, ‘I wouldn't come back to this effin’ dump.’ Albert let him have it, boy.”
It was clear: The Coliseum, from the very beginning, belonged to the people. And that was before the people's hockey team took off.
The 1980-1984 Islanders won four consecutive Stanley Cups, a dynasty like few others in hockey history. As Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies, and Bryan Trottier came of age, so too did the baby-boom generation to whom the Islanders had been endowed. The team reflected the Island then: successful, tough, and young. (Hockey's status as the whitest major sport—in what to this day remains one of the most segregated counties in the country—probably didn't hurt, either.)
My grandfather loves to tell how my baby-boomer uncle Steve was a bouncer at a bar near the Coliseum, right down the Hempstead Turnpike. Gillies and Potvin would come in the bar after games and drink and start fights. Uncle Steve, in his mid-20s, like the future Hall of Famers, would regularly help them tear the place apart. The Islanders were truly the team of their people.
Today, the nearest sports bar is Champions, in the Marriott hotel next door to the rink. This is the sort of place that wishes it could be T.G.I. Friday's. During the season, you’ll see men in Islanders jerseys by the bar. But they're not fans—they're waiters, required to dress that way. Many of them couldn’t tell you the first thing about the names on their backs.
In the Champions entrance hang two framed Islanders jerseys: Trottier, the playmaking center of the Islanders' dynasty days, and John Tavares, the rightful successor to Trottier that the Islanders took over 20 years to develop.
Of all the reasons the Islanders have finally returned to the playoffs, Tavares is the biggest. Tavares scored 28 goals in the 2013 season, ranking him third behind eminent snipers Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos. He’s one of three Hart Trophy finalists. If there’s one hockey player you want to smash up a bar with in your uncle’s honor, it’s this dude.
Fittingly, Tavares and I both have an uncle drafted to the National Lacrosse League. Tavares’s uncle, also named John, still plays for the Buffalo Bandits. During his first two years in the league, Tavares led the Bandits over their rival Philadelphia Wings, for whom my uncle Mike coached, in consecutive championship games.
The Islanders’ John Tavares, and his trusty linemate Matt Moulson, are both themselves accomplished lacrosse players. So if the Islanders are going to win and represent their fans again, who better to lead them back to prominence than a couple of lax bros, on the island that produced so many accomplished players, including my dad and both his brothers?
I asked the manager of Champions if the players ever stopped by. “The rookie players eat here, not the real players,” she said. And not even they get into fights.
The bar my uncle used to destroy is now a Moe’s Southwest Grill, a Tex-Mex chain with headquarters in Atlanta. Along the Turnpike these days, one sees a few fast-food joints, service stations, and the hollowed-out orange barn of a recently failed Hooters. Beyond that: the Marriott, some Hofstra dorms, a power plant, and a trash incinerator. At the center of it all sits the Coliseum, a gray monolith with weather-worn Islanders posters falling off the sides. In context, the stadium looks less like the proud home of a storied hockey dynasty than a preachy lesson about tax obligations.
The still-Democratic Nassau County has continued to elect Republican county executives, and it has continued to vote against plans for a new arena. The most recent defeated plan, Isles owner Charles Wang's, looked a lot like Nickerson's. There would have been housing, and office space, and a sports-technology complex, evidently our generation's analog to the library. Thomas Suozzi, the first Democrat since Nickerson to hold the position of county executive, touted it in 2009 as "a new suburbia." But in 2011 voters said no, a year after they had replaced Suozzi with another Republican.
So what has happened to the old suburbia? My grandfather’s house is one of the few wholly originally Levitt homes left in Levittown. When the Smithsonian wanted to buy an original Levitt and move it to Washington, my grandfather offered his. But most houses in Levittown—which was plenty cramped to begin with—have swallowed up their quaint yards and the surrounding trees, monstrosities of pastel vinyl siding and chain-link fence.
Sociologists have observed a general trend of Americans turning inward and engaging in fewer communal activities. The effect is magnified here on Long Island, where the only thing to do is see the Islanders. And no one even does that anymore. If only the beatniks who bemoaned Long Island houses as the epitome of '50s conformity could see what had come of it: competitive consumerism, people racing to build the biggest, ugliest fort. They dock their SUVs there, emerge once daily to go to work in the city, and then return.
The world’s most idyllic suburb is now the world’s biggest gas station for people on their way to the city. And pretty soon, they won’t even be able to get together to root for their only indigenous sports team without going into town.
There's one other way my grandfather’s house reminds me of the Coliseum: The charm is on the inside. The appreciation curve for new arenas oscillates. Fans get immediately unhappy with a new building, then they warm to it, then they complain that it's too old. The Coliseum is onto stage four of the life cycle. When your favorite team has sucked as long as the Islanders, the old arena, however dingy, reminds you of past glories. You remember: A team in these jerseys, in this building, can win a Stanley Cup.
For all that's wrong with the Coliseum, it still has perfect sightlines for hockey. Modern sports stadiums are increasingly built for people who don’t go to sporting events to watch sports. Think of the Barclays Center, with its terrible sightlines, and its tireless, schmaltzy, Brooklyn-centric branding. “Brooklyn’s own” John Turturro gives the courtesy safety announcement before the Nets games. The arena soundtrack consists mostly of Brooklyn rappers. The announcer calls for “Brooklyn ball,” never “Nets ball.” The pre-taped scoreboard messages implore, “Brooklyn stand up and get loud.” You can forget whom you're rooting for but never where you are. The Coliseum, tired and traditional, still rewards the hardcore fan.
My grandfather and I visited the Coliseum right after Hurricane Sandy, where, despite the NHL lockout, there was a great deal of activity. We pulled up close as possible, where a battered sign simply read, “We are all Islanders.”
Past the gate, big white circus-style tents tethered to generators and heaters formed a temporary village of out-of-state electrical workers, here to aid in the recovery. Some came south from Connecticut, others came north from Tennessee, but none were Islanders, in any sense of the word. Every time we see one of these scabs around town, my grandfather barks, “When are you going to turn my power on?” and laughs. Welcome to Long Island.
“It will be beautiful and inspiring,” said Eugene Nickerson, in describing his plans for the Mitchel Field redevelopment. “And it will not be afflicted with the desperate ugliness of New York City.” The plan was to fill an empty field with cheap housing and cultural institutions. And the Islanders will soon abandon the arena at the heart of that plan for an arena at the heart of a massive private land grab, with only token affordable housing.
I am a hockey fan because my father is a hockey fan. My father is a hockey fan because he got to see great NHL teams for free, being the son of the guy who put the goal on its posts. Had my father instead grown up the son of a clerk in the John F. Kennedy library, maybe my cultural touchstones would be great novels or classical music. But I am instead a hockey obsessive, one who felt an unplaceable sense of loss when it became clear the Islanders would be leaving Nassau. As I confronted my inheritance, out of place and perpetually unfinished, I faced an ugliness that made me desperate to retreat to the city. One day, there will truly be nothing left for me out here on Long Island.
This Tuesday marked the Page family’s return to the Coliseum. I drove my grandfather’s Civic 10 minutes down the Hempstead Turnpike to Game 4 of the Stanley Cup quarterfinals series against the Penguins.
These kind of series often turn on the fourth game. If the Islanders lose, an elimination game awaits them in Pittsburgh. With a win, it becomes a three-game series in which anything can happen, and sphincters will tighten all along the three rivers.
Game 3, which I had watched on TV, had been heartbreaking, albeit encouraging. The Islanders had jumped to an early 2-0 lead in the opening period. After the second goal, my dad texted me, “Russ is going to have to rebuild the coliseum.”
Yet, after a weak holding call drawn by Sidney Crosby, the Penguins scored the winner in overtime. Islanders fans did not forget Crosby’s perceived embellishment and, before Game 4, I saw no fewer than three fans holding up “No Diving” signs, not unlike the ones found at various public swimming pools in Nassau County.
On game night, the massive parking lots of the Coliseum don’t seem so hopeless. The Islanders are the only major American sports franchise dedicated to one mostly homogeneous suburban area, which gives the pregame festivities the feeling of the world’s biggest block party. The previously ironic “We are all Islanders” is not just the parking lot signage; it's now seen on hats and T-shirts. These people really are all, unmistakably, Islanders.
Inside, the Islanders fans seem characteristically self-assured. Despite boasting the NHL’s poorest attendance during the regular season, I can’t find a single obvious bandwagoner in the capacity crowd. Everyone’s got a jersey and an opinion. It’s as if an entire army of hardcore hockey fans had just been sitting at home, waiting seven years for this moment. That’s probably not too far from the truth.
Again, the Islanders jump out to an early lead, but just 45 seconds later the Penguins answer. The pattern repeats in the second: The Islanders take a 2-1 lead and give it back less than a minute later on bad change. The Islanders hold a lead for very little of this game and the atmosphere is appropriately tense.
The nervous energy manifests itself in three chants: the hopeful “Let’s go Islanders,” the taunting “Fleur-y, Fleur-y,” and the perfectly Long Island chant of simply “ass-hole, ass-hole” (directed at the referee or no one in particular).
Midway through the third period, it’s still tied, now 4-4 thanks to some blooper-reel goaltending. With a little less than 10 minutes to play, a great forecheck from Brad Boyes causes a turnover in the offensive zone. John Tavares makes a nifty move in tight space in front of the Penguins’ net, shoots, and scores off his own rebound.
Tavares skates up to the Islanders fans just below me, to the right of the Penguins net, and calmly lifts one hand, as if to say, “I have arrived. This is real.” As the Islanders huddle in celebration in the corner, I fear the glass might give, as fans try to will themselves onto the ice to join the party.
As the clock winds down on the first Islanders home playoff victory in 11 years, several Isles players attack the Penguins stars in that same corner, by the wobbly glass. Travis Hamonic holds down Evgeni Malkin by the jersey, and Islanders fans throw beer bottles at him. The Islanders and the islanders, at last together again in a bar fight.
Leaving the Coliseum, an unbroken “Let’s Go Islanders” chant erupts. It continues as the fans get into their cars and honk the horn at each other. Even Long Island’s signature act of aggression has become joyous.
I drive the well-worn path from the Coliseum to the Page home. As I walk inside, my grandfather sits in the La-Z-Boy from which many a great (and plenty a terrible) Islanders game has been watched. His eyes carry the same hopeful excitement of everyone at the game. Then, as he begins to speak, they betray a tinge of sadness.
“How," he says to me, "can they move this team?”
Photos courtesy AP and Getty.