When the 2021-22 National Hockey League season gets underway, the Islanders will be playing at their new home UBS Arena at Belmont Park. The arena, which is currently under construction, will mark the end of what seemed like a never-ending road that the Islanders have been on for decades in trying to secure a modern facility on Long Island. It was a journey, however, that included some bumps in the road, political nightmares, the temporary relocation of the franchise, and the ultimate support from the highest-ranking politician in the state.
That long and winding road is coming to an end in a matter of months when UBS Arena is scheduled to open in the fall of 2021 and the story of how the Islanders wound up at Belmont is one that will have a happy ending that many people in and around the Islanders might have thought would never happen.
Through all of the years that the Islanders tried to find a new home to replace the aging and outdated Nassau Coliseum, there was always a very simple thought by most people who lived on Long Island and/or were connected to the franchise…just transform the current building into a modern facility like what was done with Madison Square Garden or build a new arena in the parking lot right next to the Coliseum.
The Islanders tried both of those avenues with “The Lighthouse” project that would have included a renovation of the Coliseum and a public referendum that would have placed a new arena right next to “The Barn” and as we know by now, both of those proposals did not work out. When the referendum did not pass, it left former owner Charles Wang with a decision to make about the future of the franchise. So as the Islanders lease at the Coliseum was set to expire at the end of the 2014-15 season, Wang struck a deal to move the Islanders to Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the 2015-16 campaign.
Brooklyn Was Just Temporary For The Islanders:
But what we later found out was that the 25 year “iron-clad” lease in Brooklyn was not so iron-clad after all. In fact, there is a story about how Wang, who passed away in October of 2018, was told about some land next to Belmont Park that could be a good landing spot for the Islanders. So, on a snowy day on Long Island, Wang took a look at the site and it’s been said that he was very impressed. He was so impressed with the site that when he sold a majority interest in the Islanders to Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky, he told the new owners that they should take a look as well.
Another person who had seen the site many times while driving along the Nassau/Queens border on the Cross Island Parkway is New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. He is on record saying how he always wondered why nothing was being done with all of that land around Belmont Park, much of it being a large parking lot on the other side of Hempstead Turnpike that is hardly ever used.
As it turns out, the visions of Charles Wang and Andrew Cuomo turned out to be a big reason why the Islanders will call UBS Arena home and why the arena is the centerpiece of a development plan that will also include a hotel and retail space.
“Thank you to Governor Cuomo because without his vision of the need for the Islanders who had needed a new home for over two decades…his vision of going to Belmont and about recognizing Belmont as a site that could work, we wouldn’t be there right now,” said Islanders Co-Owner Jon Ledecky during a Sports Business Journal virtual event on Wednesday.
“And secondly, a salute to Charles Wang, the former owner of the Islanders who was our partner. He was the one who suggested having a meeting with NYRA (New York Racing Association) to go and see the site and that really stimulated all of us about what the possibilities would be at that campus.”
It Would Be Nassau Or Queens For The Islanders:
UBS Arena is a partnership between the Islanders, Oak View Group, and Sterling Project Development, an affiliate of Sterling Equities, the former owners of the New York Mets. When the Islanders and Oak View Group formally began to search for a site to build the new arena, they called on SPD to help with the search. As it turns out, the search came down to the Belmont Park site and the parking lot next to Citi Field, the home of the Mets.
“When we were first talking to Scott, what Jon and Tim (Leiweke, CEO of Oak View Group), Scott asked us to do was look at the sites that might be available in the New York area,” said former Mets owner Jeff Wilpon during the Sports Business Journal event.
Wilpon is a partner with SPD and Executive Vice-President of Sterling Equities.
“Jon is right that Governor Cuomo played a huge part in getting this done along with everybody at EDC and the state. We had to really look at it from is it best to put them in our parking lot or might it be best to put them at Belmont? When we looked at it and put everything on the table, our job at SPD with Richard Browne and myself, is to represent the client and we told them the best thing to move forward with would be to do this at Belmont.”
And the rest, as they say, was history and the Islanders bid to build the new arena was formally approved by the Empire Development Corporation in August of 2019 which paved the way for the official groundbreaking a month later.
“It is going to bring the Islanders back home where they belong,” said Cuomo at the official groundbreaking for the new arena on September 23rd, 2019. “The Islanders were just more than a hockey team. They were a Long Island identity. They said to Long Island you are special and you have your own team and that’s the name of the Islanders. There’s no place like the Islanders playing on Long Island period.”
I don’t know if Governor Cuomo intentionally or unintentionally used a play on words there, but the Islanders certainly duplicated what Dorothy did when she clicked her heels in the movie “The Wizard of Oz” and said “there’s no place like home”.
The Islanders called the Nassau Coliseum home for 43 seasons between 1972 and 2015, temporarily moved to Brooklyn for a few years, and now after a part-time return to “The Barn”, they are set to play one final season in Uniondale before moving into their new home at UBS Arena. This was not an easy road for the Islanders to take over the years, but the end result is what they have been looking for all these years.