Schwartz: An Islanders Tradition Is Reborn

When the Islanders won the first of four straight Stanley Cups in 1980, there wasn’t a parade. Instead, there was a rally in the Nassau Coliseum parking lot to celebrate the Islanders’ victory over the Flyers capped by Bobby Nystrom’s overtime time goal in game six.

But the following three years, there were Stanley Cup parades down Hempstead Turnpike and a popular viewing location was in front of Borrelli’s Italian Restaurant in East Meadow. The parade came right in front of the restaurant and then all of the vehicles made a left on Merrick Avenue next to Eisenhower Park.

In fact, there is a photo from the 1982 Stanley Cup parade that is displayed proudly inside Borrelli’s. You can see people standing in front of the restaurant. My family and I are not in the photo but we were right there in front of Borrelli’s for all three parades in 1981, 1982 and 1983.

“Great memories,” said Frank Borrelli Jr., the owner of Borrelli’s founded by his father in 1955. “Everybody was on trucks…all the players. I’m up there on top of the roof and my sister is holding signs.”

Going to Borrelli’s before or after a home game was a popular tradition during the Islanders’ 43 yard run at the Nassau Coliseum from 1972 to 2015. That tradition ended when proposed projects like “The Lighthouse” and a public referendum to build a new arena right next to the Coliseum both failed.

So former Islanders owner Charles Wang decided to move the team to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn…not exactly Islanders Country that we all grew up with. Not long after the Islanders announced their intentions to leave Uniondale, Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, now called BSE Global, won the rights to renovate the Coliseum.

So not only did the Isles’ run at the Coliseum end with a first round playoff loss to the Capitals in 2015, but the old barn would be shut down for renovations and that meant the potential for lost revenue at Borrelli’s. It wasn’t just the 41 regular season hockey games but also the other events like concerts and family shows that brought people to the restaurant.

But as luck would have it, the tradition didn’t end permanently. It was just put on ice for a few years.

With three years to plan for the Islanders’ exodus and the temporary closing of the Coliseum, Borrelli had a plan to focus on booking parties like birthdays, wedding rehearsal dinners, and baby showers.

“I was very scared because that’s part of our income,” said Borrelli during a sit down lunch interview with me at the restaurant last week. “I focused on the party room and the business really kicked off doing that because I saw it coming. In years past, I wouldn’t have booked a party for 70 people if you were having a celebration at 7 o’clock because there was a hockey game.”

Borrelli’s continued to thrive while the Coliseum was shut down and then the arena re-opened it’s doors on April 5th, 2017 with a Billy Joel concert. Since the re-opening, there’s been a variety of concerts, family shows like Disney on Ice and the Harlem Globetrotters, Long Island Nets games, boxing matches and UFC.

Officially, the Coliseum is now called “NYCB Live-Home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum” but for so many fans it will always just be “Nassau Coliseum”, “The Coliseum”, or “The Barn”.

However you want to call the building, it’s going to once again be “Islanders Country”. The Islanders are making a return with twenty regular season games per season over the next three seasons until the team’s new arena next to Belmont Park is completed.

“It’s a good thing,” said Borrelli. “It’s good for business. It’s good for the whole area. (The Islanders) practicing right across the street…that’s great for us also. Even when they’re not playing we do get fans during practices coming in with Islanders jerseys.”

The Islanders and Borrelli’s were always attached at the hip when it came to people in the community and attending events at the Coliseum.

My family and I moved to East Meadow on Long Island in November of 1979, just in time for the Stanley Cup run. It was appropriate that my parents bought a house just a Mike Bossy slap shot away from the Nassau Coliseum because as much as I felt so out of place as an Islanders fan living in Queens, it was so special to now be so close to the games.

And one of the great things about driving to Islanders games was stopping at Borrelli’s for dinner before the game or just a quick bite to eat after the game.

“I went to most of those games,” said Borrelli. “We would get busy before and after the games. It was just a big buzz. People were beeping the horns on Hempstead Turnpike.”

It was a magical time on Long Island because the Islanders were the community’s team and they were not just a champion….they were a dynasty.

The players were part of the fabric of the community. You could see them around town on the streets, in malls and shopping centers, and in restaurants like Borrelli’s. And now with a return to the barn, and with the Islanders now having their headquarters and practice facility at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, the Islanders/Borrelli’s tradition has been restored.

“The coaches were here (two weeks ago),” said Borrelli who is now looking ahead to the return of game-day crowds in the restaurant especially after pre-season games last season and this season.

“Especially the first one last year…the place was packed. We get a lot of people that travel from out east. They miss us.”

As upgrades continue that will make the Nassau Coliseum an NHL caliber arena once again, the Islanders will play their first eleven home games of the season at Barclays Center before taking the ice at “The Barn” on Saturday December 1st against Columbus. Ironically, the Blue Jackets served as the opponent for the Isles’ last regular season home game at the “old” Coliseum in 2015.

My plan, and I’m sure the plan of many other Islanders fans, is to go to Borrelli’s for dinner before the game and then head west on Hempstead Turnpike to “Rock The Barn”.

“We’ll have a great crowd,” said Borrelli. “We’ll fill up with Islanders shirts and people will have their pre-game meals here. It will be fun. It’s good to have them back.”

As of right now, the plan is for the Islanders to split time between the Coliseum and Brooklyn for the next three seasons but that could change in the event that the Belmont arena is not finished in time. The Islanders’ stay at the Coliseum could be extended and depending on how things go this season there could be more games over the next three seasons shifted to Long Island.

Once the Islanders leave the Coliseum for good, the future of the arena could be in doubt with the Belmont arena just over seven miles west on Hempstead Turnpike. If the Coliseum, the centerpiece of a planned redevelopment project at the “Nassau Hub”, ever closed for good, it would be bad for business in the community but Borrelli’s is focused on the present and the near future.

“It’s one day at a time,” said Borrelli. “You can’t predict the future. They were supposed to build this project here thirty or forty times and it failed. We’ll take what happens one year at a time.”

Frank Borrelli, along with family and staff, will wake up on Saturday December 1st and it will be a regular season Islanders game-day on Long Island for the first time since April 2015. The Coliseum is going to shake that night when the Islanders hit the ice, but a few hours earlier there will be another building on Hempstead Turnpike right near the corner of Merrick Avenue that will be rocking as well.

Islanders fans will pack Borrelli’s and it will be just like old times!

About the Author

Peter Schwartz

Peter Schwartz is a contributor covering the Islanders for NY Sports Day while also writing about general sports in the New York/New Jersey area. In addition to his column, Peter also hosts his “Schwartz On Sports” podcast as he interviews players, coaches, and other sports personalities. He is also currently a sports anchor for WFAN Radio, CBS Sports Radio, and WCBS 880 radio while also serving as the public address announcer for the New York Cosmos soccer club.

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