There was a lot of excitement among sports fans all over New York State on Wednesday when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that arenas and stadiums with seating capacities of 10,000 or more can start to reopen at 10 percent of capacity. There are other protocols in place like needing a PCR COVID test within 72 hours of the game, social distancing, assigned seating and mandatory mask wearing, but the fans and the teams are excited about a reunion that will go into effect on February 23rd.
For the Islanders, the reunion can take place as soon as February 25th when the Boston Bruins visit “The Barn” and based on 10 percent of capacity, that means approximately 1,392 fans will be permitted. But while the excitement all throughout Islanders Country, there is a lot of work to do to open the doors to the Coliseum and welcome back fans of the blue and orange.
“(The fans are) a big part of everything,” said Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz during the team’s Zoom media availability Thursday morning. “We miss them. It will put some energy in the building, but it’s not just that easy to say hey we’re going to have fans in the building. There’s a lot of (stuff) that has to be done with everything from protocols and safety and measures and all that. We have trouble just getting the vaccines to people from what I hear so it’s not that easy. It’s more difficult.”
With regards to Governor Cuomo’s announcement and the potential to open the Coliseum to fans later this month, the Islanders released a statement on Wednesday saying, “We look forward to welcoming the best fans in hockey back to the Coliseum as soon as possible and to UBS Arena at Belmont Park next season and that “the health and safety of our fans and our staff remains our top priority.”
The Islanders organization and the Nassau Coliseum staff will now have to come up with a plan to present to New York State for approval that will allow fans to attend Islanders home games for the first time since March 7th of last year. The Islanders, who will host the Penguins at an empty Coliseum on Thursday night, have won all three of their home games so far this season, the final campaign that the team will play in Uniondale before moving to their new home UBS Arena at Belmont Park for next season.
So, there will be, once a plan is submitted and approved, for the Islanders to have a small number of fans to join the many cardboard cutouts that have been in place since the beginning of the season. There has also been artificial crowd noise, sound effects, and public address announcements to give the players, coaches, officials, staff, and media a sense of normality but it has been anything but normal seeing 13,917 empty seats…well except for the seats occupied by the cardboard cutouts.
So, while the Islanders can’t have 13,917 fans at “The Barn”, they’re excited about 1,392 and the passion that those fans will bring until the percentage of capacity allowed goes up…if that should happen by season’s end.
“It will be great,” Islanders Captain Anders Lee told reporters on Thursday. “Any Islanders fan that has a chance to come in the building I think they’ll make their presence felt that’s for sure. Looking forward to that and wishing best of luck to what goes into that to get ready and to make sure everyone is safe. We’re all looking forward to that.”
“That’s really exciting,” said Islanders forward and leading scorer Mat Barzal. “Whether it’s 1,000 fans or 5,000 fans, it’s just going to be exciting to have some people and some cheering going on. We miss the fans. They bring a certain type of energy when you’re out there. It’s just different so I miss having people in the building. That’s exciting.”
The last year or so has been a spectrum of emotions for the Islanders and their fans. Last March, the team lost their last seven games when the coronavirus pandemic caused the regular season to be suspended. And then when play resumed in August when the Islanders arrived in the Toronto bubble for the Eastern Conference playoffs, they knocked off Florida, Washington, and Philadelphia to earn a trip to the Edmonton bubble for the Eastern Conference Final but they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games.
There has been the excitement about the opening of UBS Arena this coming fall, but the Islanders and their fans have still not been able to be together. Sure, there were drive-thru events during the playoffs at the Islanders’ practice facility and this season with swag giveaways during drive-thru events at the UBS Arena construction site. The Islanders are also playing well following a five-game losing streak with points in four straight games and back-to-back wins heading into Thursday night’s game with Pittsburgh.
And now with Wednesday’s news, there is an even bigger sense of excitement knowing that later this month, it’s possible that some fans can return to Nassau Coliseum to make as much noise as possible. For the Islanders players, it won’t be the sound of 13,917 but they’re excited about hearing the roar from about 1,392 fans that will certainly try to compensate for those who are unable to be there.
Reunions can be very special. The reunion that could take place later this month between the Islanders and Islanders Country will certainly fall into that category.