Photo: Bruce Bennett (Getty)

The New York Islanders have had one of the odder trajectories of any pro sports franchise. Winners of four straight Stanley Cups within 11 years of arriving on Long Island as the NHL’s protection against WHA incursion into the New York area, the Isles never approached those heights again, winning only eight playoff series over the next 35 years. Along the way, the team managed to be bought by a con man who took out a loan with forged documents, blow a No. 1 pick and then double down by signing him to one of the worst contracts in league history, introduce a new logo, inspired by a terrible Billy Joel song, that resembled the Gorton’s fisherman and led to the team being derisively named the Fish Sticks, and generally erase all living memory of their 1980s dynasty to the point where Rangers fans could barely muster the enthusiasm to shout “Potvin sucks!” at Knicks games anymore.

While the feisty young Islanders are in playoff position this season, even that surprising run threatens to be overshadowed by the latest ongoing franchise indignity—a decade-plus-long interlude in which a sequence of Isles owners have seemed determined to consign fans to an endless purgatory of never being sure where their team was going to play. And while the current plan, a new $1 billion arena project next to the Belmont Park racetrack, promises to give the team an amenity-filled home of its own near their Long Island fan base, it’s already beset by logistical problems that could at best result in what fans worry would be traffic and transit “insanity,” and at worst could derail the project entirely.

It is tempting, I’ll admit, to #LOLIslanders at it all, another sad twist in the troubled history of a once-proud franchise. But not only would that be unfair to Islanders fans who didn’t do anything to deserve this fate beyond being born on Long Island (those who moved there voluntarily, that’s on you), it would overlook a valuable window the Islanders saga provides into how the arena sausage gets made, and why.

The start of the Isles’ current sojourn in the wilderness dates back to 2007, when then-owner Charles Wang became enamored of a plan he called the Lighthouse Project, which would renovate the Nassau Coliseum and surround it with new hotels, housing, and a 60-story “lighthouse” with an observatory deck at the top, all at a cost of $3.74 billion. When threats to move the team, possibly to Kansas City, failed to induce voters to devote $400 million in tax money to an arena, Wang took his puck and went to Brooklyn, which had the advantage of having bars in Stockholm named after it, but the dual disadvantage of being an hour or more away from the team’s fan base and an arena that had been deliberately “value-engineered” to save money by being built too small for hockey, with one whole end of the arena unable to see the nearest goal. (The borough, despite geographically being on Long Island, was even omitted from the Islanders’ logo.)

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In 2014, Wang sold the team to yet another ownership group—Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin, a pair of former Harvard roommates who had gone on to focus on corporate mergers and inheriting real estate, respectively—who immediately began talking about breaking the team’s supposedly “ironclad” lease in Brooklyn and moving ... somewhere. After initial talk of building a new arena near the Mets’ stadium in Queens, their focus soon shifted to yet another potential site, this one in the parking lot of Belmont Park on the Queens–Nassau County border.

John Tavares, Andrew Cuomo, Billy Joel, and Cal Clutterbuck at the announcement of the Belmont Arena in December 2017.
Photo: Mike Stobe (Getty)

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Ledecky and Malkin, possibly thanks to the latter’s connections in real estate, managed to get the state of New York, which owns the racetrack site, to approve their arena plans in December 2017, even agreeing to accept $40 million in payment for state land that could be worth as much as $340 million. Ever since then, however, things have gone considerably less well for the duo’s plans:

  • Residents of the towns surrounding the racetrack site, or at least a loud subset of them, began vocally protesting the plan, on the grounds that it would increase traffic, create noise and pollution from construction, and lead to a plague of drunk drivers. They’ve been threatening legal action, though likely no court challenges will take place until the project has made its way through the state environmental review process, which is currently set to conclude this June, maybe.
  • About that environmental review: Local lawmakers responded to the plan by noting that Belmont Park currently only has a part-time rail stub, from which Long Island Railroad trains run to and from the nearby Jamaica stop before and after races. Legislators, particularly Leroy Comrie, a state senator from just across the border in Queens, have demanded that the LIRR station be expanded to full-time on the Islanders owners’ dime, something that could cost up to $300 million, if it’s even possible at all.
  • In the meantime the new Islanders owners, attempting to undo Wang’s Folly, moved half of the team’s home games back to their old home of the Nassau Coliseum—now renovated by the team’s former Brooklyn landlords Bruce Ratner and Mikhail Prokhorov, and downsized to 13,000 seats because something about the Eiffel Tower—but kept the other half in Brooklyn to keep raking in luxury suite money. (Or more accurately, since Wang wangled a lease where the Barclays Center owners have to pay the Islanders an annual $53.5 million flat fee no matter what the team’s actual revenues are, raking in checks from Prokhorov, who has in recent years taken over full control of both arenas and the Nets from Ratner.) This made absolutely no one happy, which was in keeping with recent team history.

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The biggest holdup at the latest proposed Islanders home, though, is less financial than spatial. Having an arena site that’s only served by part-time train service, after all, doesn’t seem an insurmountable obstacle: The tracks are already there, so just run more trains. Except, as an investigation by Jalopnik’s Aaron Gordon for the Village Voice (R.I.P.) last year revealed, the geometry of the existing train lines means that there’s no simple way to do that:

The only option using existing infrastructure would be, as [University of Tennessee transit expert David] Clarke put it, to “zigzag”: overshoot the Y connection by a few hundred feet and then reverse across the switches to get to the Belmont spur. It would be like a three-point turn in the middle of a highway, but for a train.

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The likeliest alternative, then, is to just run extra trains along the existing rail spur from Queens. For Islanders fans traveling from Long Island, that will mean bypassing the arena, switching trains at the Jamaica station in Queens, and doubling back on a shuttle train, repeating the maneuver to get home after games. That makes it more likely that fans coming from points east will give up on public transit and drive—which helps explain why locals are up in arms over likely traffic woes.

From all accounts, Islanders fans are for the most part relieved at the prospect of being spared the trek to Brooklyn (and the terrible sightlines once they got there). But they’re still concerned about the trek to Belmont, especially with the train issues.

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James Francis Fess, a lifelong Islanders fan—he claims that his father literally placed an Islanders hat on his head the day he was born—and a leader of the Blue and Orange Army fan group, worries that the traffic on the nearby Cross Island Parkway on game days “is going to be insanity. The traffic around the Coliseum is nothing like around Belmont. You can look up any single day on a traffic map, and I guarantee you that it’s going to be black on the Cross Island.”

Fess says he got to ride to the Belmont arena announcement last season with the team’s entourage, which included both Ledecky and longtime broadcaster Stan Fischler, who moonlights as a transit expert. The resulting conversation, he says, was both enlightening and worrisome.

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“I mentioned to [Ledecky], ‘It’s not true that people will have to transfer at Jamaica still, right? Like how they do for the Barclays Center.’ And he’s like, ‘No, we want the train to go directly there. Stan’ll know about this, because Stan knows everything about trains.’”

Fischler, recalls Fess, began rattling off a list of changes that would be needed to make full service to Belmont a reality. “Ledecky’s sitting there like, ‘Wait a second.’ I see the look on his face, and I think ‘Oh no, they didn’t even think about this.’”

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Gary Bettman and Jon Ledecky.
Photo: Mike Stobe (Getty)

Tracy Loughlin of Stony Brook on Long Island’s north shore, who with her husband Tom has raised two Islanders fans and is a first-time season ticket holder this year, calls Barclays Center “nice” (except for the terrible concessions pizza that’s “what you would expect from an IHOP in Ohio”), but says she was excited for a new Belmont arena—at first. “As we thought about it more we realized that they will not be on a train line,” she says. “The thought of driving any further than we do now is frustrating. It will be especially hard with a puck drop at 7 p.m., but at least we are staying on the island!”

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Annemarie Hadden Briskie, an Islanders fan since late 1980s who lives in Wantagh, five miles east of Nassau Coliseum, agrees that a convoluted train trip would be a non-starter: “I would imagine it would be a bigger deal for those in the boroughs, New York City traffic being what it is. As for Long Island, the sense is that most people, myself included, would drive to Belmont.”

The irony is that the Islanders already have an arena—or at least an arena site — that pretty much all fans agree is ideal. Nassau Coliseum, notes Briskie, is “desperately in need of an update”; the Ratner/Prokhorov renovations added a flashy new exterior and locally sourced nachos, but is still lacking in fancier items like new luxury suites, though she observes that some of the existing suites “are boarded up and unused for reasons unknown.” But that still doesn’t answer what she calls the $64,000 question: “Why would they not just renovate the Coliseum instead of building a brand new building?”

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The answer, it appears, is just stupidity—or, at the very least, shortsightedness, leading to a cascade of decisions that left the team’s owners more boxed in at every turn. Wang’s initial hissy-fit-driven move to Brooklyn inspired all sorts of rationalizations of how it was a savvy business decision—Brooklyn is full of people! Smaller-capacity buildings are cool!—but it turned out to be a disaster for all concerned. It also led to Ratner and Prokhorov seizing control of the Coliseum, freezing out the new Islanders owners from easily returning to that option once they took over the team. (One significant overlooked subplot of the Belmont gambit is how it plays into the arena-management wars currently raging both in New York and nationally: The Islanders owners have partnered with Oak View Group, the company helmed by former AEG top exec Tim Leiweke that is behind the renovation of Seattle’s KeyArena.) All of which is set to end up, assuming Comrie and other local pols can eventually be brought on board, with the New York area getting its sixth major indoor sports arena, which risks adding to the region’s arena glut that has already claimed one victim.

It’s reminiscent, in a way, of the cascade of decisions that led to the St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers moving to Los Angeles, with results that so far range from troubling to laughable. The L.A. land rush, don’t forget, was set off less by market studies and rational economic decision-making than by one very very rich man deciding that he wanted to play NFL owner on a bigger stage even if it cost him $5 billion to build a stadium there, and his fellow owners deciding that they should let him do so as reward for his “big balls.” The rich may be different from you and me, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less prone to making decisions out of capriciousness and vanity and resentment—in fact, the main difference may be that our stupid decisions are limited by the contents of our wallets, while theirs are limited only by their wildest ambitions.

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Fess, despite all of his misgivings about travel woes, stresses that he’s a positive person, and hopes to one day settle in happily to watch Islanders games at a gleaming new facility. (Ledecky, for his part, has been loudly insisting that the new arena is still on track to open in 2021, and then insisting it some more.) But, like every self-respecting New York sports fan, Fess still can’t help but dwell a bit on the potential for disaster.

“If you don’t have the means for people to get there easily, in this day and age, you could have an arena made out of a diamond,” he says. “If you can’t get there, you can’t get there.”