On the afternoon of March 7th, 2020, the Islanders lost in overtime to the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in front of a sellout crowd of 13,917 at Nassau Coliseum. After a changeover, “The Barn” hosted a lacrosse game that night as the New York Riptide took on the Georgia Swarm. The next day, on March 8th, the G-League’s Long Island Nets played host to Greensboro.
And then, the coronavirus pandemic forced the sports world and so many other things in life, to take a pause. It just wasn’t safe for mass gatherings so all of the professional sports leagues in North America shut down and that meant the closures of sports venues including Nassau Coliseum. The NHL returned to play over the summer and held the playoffs using “hub cities” or “bubbles” as they were more commonly referred to as in Toronto and Edmonton for all of the games with no fans.
This Monday, the Coliseum will host it’s first event since last March when the Islanders play their home opener against the Boston Bruins. There will be no fans in attendance as the world continues to navigate its way through the COVID-19 crisis. That means that the ushers and ticket takers at the Coliseum, who haven’t worked any games in ten months, will be watching at home just like the many fans that they have greeted at the Coliseum over the years, especially at Islanders games.
I’ve been going to events at the Nassau Coliseum since I was ten years old and I can tell you that whether it was an Islanders game, a Billy Joel concert, a New York Arrows soccer game, or any other sporting event, concert, and family show, it was always a family feeling at events because the Long Island community embraced that the arena belonged to them. You didn’t have to schlep to Madison Square Garden to see a game or a concert. You had the Nassau Coliseum in your own backyard.
And if you had Islanders season tickets or you just attended a lot of events, you got to know the ushers and the ticket takers.
Skip Kneuer, originally from East Meadow and now residing in Lindenhurst, has been an usher at the Nassau Coliseum for three decades and started showing people to their seats in the early 1990’s. Before the Coliseum closed in 2015 and the Islanders moved to Brooklyn, Kneuer was an usher in sections 224 and 225 behind the goal that the Islanders would defend for the first and third periods.
“They liked to keep the same usher in that section because you get a little rapport with the patrons,” said Kneuer who is an avid Islanders fan.
Over the years, many fans would become friendly with the ushers and be on a first name basis with them. And furthermore, if a parent was there with a child, that mother or father many times would gain the ultimate trust with the usher in their section.
“They always had their kids with them and they felt safe leaving the kid in the seat while they had to go to the bathroom or whatever they had to do,” said Kneuer a member of the Local 176 ushers and ticket takers union who has also worked at the U.S. Open and Mets games.
Kneuer is now 73 years old and is holding out hope that at some point this season, there will be some fans allowed into the Coliseum so that at least some members of Islanders Country can say goodbye to “The Barn”, just like they did in 2015 before the move to Barclays Center. The Islanders will be leaving the Coliseum again as they are set to move into their new home UBS Arena at Belmont park next season.
The Islanders’ last regular season in the Coliseum before renovations was April 11th, 2015 against the Columbus Blue Jackets and the final game ever was game six of the opening round playoff series against the Washington Capitals on April 25th. There would certainly be a sadness for Kneuer, now 73 years old, if he won’t show anymore Islanders fans to their seats at Nassau Coliseum and that is a sadness that was felt during what we thought was going to be the Islanders permanent farewell to “The Barn” in 2015.
He remembers the emotions of Islanders fans back then very vividly.
“They were sad,” recalled Kneuer. “I’m not going to kid you. It was bad.”
Kneuer, whose brother Robert was also an usher at “The Barn” going back to when the arena opened in 1972, remembers how fans from all over the National Hockey League came to games at Nassau Coliseum six seasons ago to see the building that has housed so many memorable moments. It didn’t even matter if the Islanders were playing the teams that these fans rooted for. They just wanted to get one last chance or perhaps their one and only opportunity to see a game there.
“People came from all over,” said Kneuer. “I’m talking all over. Vancouver, Anaheim, Colorado, Toronto. All over to come to honor that building and the team. I used to see these guys wearing their jerseys. They showed more respect. These hockey fans to the old barn than our local politicians showed to the people of Nassau County and Suffolk County.”
After the Islanders relocated to Brooklyn, the Nassau Coliseum underwent a massive renovation and downsizing. The building re-opened on April 5th, 2017 for a Billy Joel concert. The Islanders actually made their return to the Coliseum for a pre-season game against the Philadelphia Flyers on September 17th, 2017. Then, when it was announced that New York Arena Partners had been chosen by New York State as the winning bid for development at Belmont Park and that a project including a new arena for the Islanders was going to be reality, the Islanders’ return to Long Island was accelerated.
At the announcement about the new arena, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo asked NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman if the Islanders could play some games at the Nassau Coliseum while the new arena was being built. Some additional renovations had to be made at the Coliseum to make it NHL ready again and that paved the way for the Islanders to make a part-time return to their longtime home on December 1st, 2018 against Columbus.
Kneuer was more than happy to show Islanders fans to their seats again.
“It was exhilarating,” said Kneuer. “I recognized a lot of people. I was there so long. I recognized a lot of people and they kind of recognized the old ushers that were there. They’re still my friends some of these guys. They would look me up but we had all moved around to different spots then. We were hoping (the Islanders) would come back permanently. We were excited as heck to see them again.”
After all these years of working Islanders games and other events at Nassau Coliseum, Kneuer would love to be able to work at UBS Arena starting next season, but for that to happen, Local 176 would have to strike a deal with arena management.
“We don’t know if our union is going to be in there yet,” said Kneuer. “We’re hoping that we can get into Belmont.”
But before the Islanders bring their history, championship banners, retired numbers and their Hall of Fame with them on a less than ten-mile trip west down Hempstead Turnpike, they are playing one final season at Nassau Coliseum. Last February 29th, on the day when the Islanders retired Butch Goring’s number 91, Governor Cuomo was on hand to announce that the Islanders were going to play all of their games, regular season and playoffs, this season at “The Barn”.
Of course, we didn’t know that COVID-19 was coming and now there is a very strong possibility that Islanders fans will not be able to go to any games this season. But with New York State starting a pilot program to see if venues like stadiums, arenas, and theatres can open up with testing and contract tracing while the vaccine rollout continues, the Buffalo Bills welcomed more than 6,700 fans to their wild-card playoff game against Indianapolis last Saturday and that will happen again this Saturday night for the divisional playoff game against Baltimore.
So, maybe…just maybe, there is a chance that at some point later this season, some fans could be allowed in, be shown to their socially-distanced seats, and be able to say goodbye to the Nassau Coliseum.
“That would be the perfect sendoff,” said Kneuer.
You know what my response to that is?
YES YES YES!!!