From the first time that I ever stepped foot in the Nassau Coliseum in 1978 for an Islanders vs Cleveland Barons game until this past March 7th for a New York Riptide indoor lacrosse game, the last time I was in “The Barn” before the pandemic began, I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum in terms of a crowd and everything in-between.
That Islanders game? A full house.
The lacrosse game? A few thousand people were on hand.
I’ve been in the building when I thought the roof was going to blow off the place like the Shawn Bates penalty shot in the 2002 playoffs, the Islanders’ return to the Coliseum in 2018, and any number of Billy Joel concerts that I’ve been to there.
There have also been times, like that lacrosse game, when Nassau Coliseum had sparse gatherings but no matter how many fans were at an event, it was always special to be at Nassau Coliseum no matter what was going on or how many people were there.
But the Islanders’ home opener on Monday against the Bruins, the 45th and final Nassau Coliseum home opener, presented an event and an atmosphere that I can only be described with a handful of singular words.
I think weird is probably the best way to describe a hockey game in a storied building that generally welcomes in one of the most passionate fan bases in sports. No fans at Islanders games will be something that going to be reality for the time being so it’s something anyone connected with Islanders Country is going to have to get used to.
I’ve been pretty fortunate in my career to have been to some incredible sporting events that had amazing atmospheres. Whether it was covering six Super Bowls, six World Series, a Stanley Cup Final, two NBA Finals, many U.S. Open Tennis tournaments, and a plethora of international soccer matches, I pinch myself sometimes thinking about how lucky I have been. I’ve been to a ton of great sporting events as a fan as well and I’m fortunate to have been able to share a lot of those experiences with my family.
An Islanders Home Opener Like Never Before:
But being at the Islanders’ 1-0 win over the Bruins on Monday was just weird with not a soul in any of the 13,917 seats. Cardboard cutouts yes. But no fans and I have to admit that there were times when I was sitting in my seat in the press area where I had to hold back tears.
When I found out on Saturday that I was approved for a media credential to the game, I experienced a spectrum of emotions. I was happy that I would have access to cover the game, but at the same time, there was a sense of sadness that fans, including my family, would not be able to be there. Having not covered any Yankees or Mets games during the baseball season and having not covered any Jets or Giants games during the football season, I really didn’t know what to expect but I also knew that while I had mixed emotions about it, there were many people in Islanders Country that would have loved to have been there.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve tried to have some semblance of normalcy if possible whether it’s family activities, watching my kids play sports, going shopping with my wife, or staying busy with work. When it came to going to Monday’s game, I tried to make it as normal as possible.
One way to try and keep things normal was to try and continue a ritual I had with my family. When I would cover a game under normal circumstances, I would always bring home the game notes and some pretzels from the press box. When we were at games as a family in the seats, I still would go up to the press box to get the game notes and some pretzels. It’s a perk that comes with covering the team but it was also just something I liked to do for my family. So, on Monday I picked up some pretzels for them at a store and also printed out the game notes.
Another way to make the day normal was taking the same route from my home to the game. It felt like normal until I found myself at a traffic light at Hempstead Turnpike looking straight at the Nassau Coliseum with the parking gates closed and the video screens outside the arena turned off. More normality was driving into the media lot, parking my car and walking to the press gate.
Then, the normality ended.
This Was Not Your Normal Islanders Home Opener:
I had to fill out a health screening page and then a security guard took my temperature. Then, it was over to another table where I picked up my credential and had to fill out another health screening form. From there, I walked to my seat, not in the press box but rather at a table behind the lower bowl. The press box was reserved for off-ice officials and team executives so the media and broadcast teams were spread out downstairs behind the 100 level seats.
Then, things got really weird when the teams came out for warmups. There were no fans down by the glass to get a close up look at the players and to try and snag a souvenir practice puck. It was just loud music and the sounds of skates, sticks, pucks, and pads. When the game started, it was unlike any sporting event I’ve ever been to. I couldn’t stop looking around at the empty seats and the pumped in crowd noise was, and yes, I’m going to use that word again, weird in so many ways.
As I kept telling myself how weird it was, I kept reminding myself just how lucky I was to even be there and how many people would have loved to have traded places with me. I chatted with another reporter in-between periods and he agreed with me that it was not only “weird” but also “bizarre” and also a bit “uncomfortable”. It actually felt like a behind closed doors scrimmage that should have taken place at the practice rink instead of an arena with almost 14,000 empty seats.
Without fans in the building, you could hear the players screaming things out on the ice and you could also hear players and coaches barking out words from the bench. There was also a point when the fake crowd noise stopped for some reason and you could hear the referee explaining a penalty call to the benches. I would admit to it being cool to hear this, but again compared to normal times, it was weird.
When Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored in the third period to snap a scoreless tie, there was no crowd eruption so there was a bit of a delay in the goal horn going off and it was just awkward to see the Islanders celebrating a goal on the ice without fans in the stands chanting “YES YES YES!!!”
Is There Hope That Islanders Fans Will Be Able To Say Goodbye To “The Barn”?
I’ve said this numerous times on social media but I’ll repeat myself here…I really hope that at some point this season that fans can attend Islanders games and other sporting events in New York State.
Fans had not been at professional or collegiate sporting events in New York State since the coronavirus pandemic began until Governor Andrew Cuomo allowed 6,700 fans to attend Buffalo Bills home playoff games the last two weeks. With the Bills having success with fans in the stands at the playoff games and with Governor Cuomo constantly saying that New York State can’t wait for the vaccine rollout to reach critical mass before re-opening indoor venues like arenas, stadiums, theatres and restaurants.
Perhaps, at some point, the Islanders could present a plan that would allow some fans to come to games later in the season and have a chance to say goodbye to Nassau Coliseum before the Isles move into their new home UBS Arena at Belmont Park for next season.
I will say that while it was great to be at a professional sporting event again on Monday and I’m glad that I went, I can’t help but still think how weird it was. I’ll certainly have the same feeling when I cover other games this season, but I’m looking forward to the day when I can look around and see fans in the stands again and not cardboard cutouts or empty seats.