Islanders Set To Welcome “Rock Star” Frontline Workers As Fans Return To Nassau Coliseum

Peter Schwartz/New York Sports Day

When the Islanders announced plans to start welcoming back a limited number of fans for home games at Nassau Coliseum, the organization decided to start the process by honoring some very important men and women who have been community heroes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.  While season ticket holders will start returning to “The Barn” next week, the Islanders will welcome 1,000 Northwell Health frontline workers as their guests to Thursday night’s game against the New Jersey Devils.

The Islanders are excited to welcome back a small but very special portion of Islanders Country.

“It means a lot,” said Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz.  “The sacrifices they’ve made…I can’t imagine.  Their commitment to save lives, to protect people, the hours, putting themselves in harm’s way in a lot of ways to keep other people safe so to me they’re absolute rock stars and it will be fantastic to see them in the arena.  If I could…if it would be allowed, I’d give everyone a hug. That would mean a lot to a lot of people.”

UNIONDALE, NY – JANUARY 21: New York Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz looks on from the bench during the first period of the National Hockey League game between the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders on January 21, 2021, at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, NY. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire)

Thursday night will be the first time since March 7th, 2020 that the Islanders will be playing a home game with at least some fans in attendance.  The Islanders have played 13 home games so far this season with tarps over seats closest to the rink and with cardboard cutouts occupying some of the 13,917 seats at the Coliseum.  The frontline workers have been heroes and it’s only fitting that they will be the first fans into the building this season.

“Yeah, it will be great,” said Islanders forward Brock Nelson.  “You get some energy from some people.  “That will be nice and give back a bit to what they’ve been doing for everybody in the community.  It will be fun.  I think everybody will be amped up.  It will be nice to have some real noise and not generated so hopefully we can feed off of that and keep it rolling.”

A Special Group Of Islanders Fans Will Be In Attendance On Thursday:

Among the frontline workers in attendance will be Massapequa resident Jackie Sutera, a nurse at North Shore University Hospital.  Sutera, an Islanders fan who grew up in East Meadow and used to work at Borrelli’s Italian Restaurant, is excited to have the opportunity to be at Thursday’s game and to be one of many who will be recognized for their extraordinary efforts during the pandemic.

“The fact that the first game that they’re allowing spectators and they’re honoring healthcare workers is amazing,” said Sutera.  “It shows their appreciation and gratitude for us and I think that’s what is needed right now.  Sometimes you feel defeated at work and this is just doing a lot towards lifting or spirits and it shows their community pride.”

Sutera, a 1985 graduate of East Meadow High School who went to the Islanders’ Stanley Cup parades, has endured an emotional year, just like her fellow Northwell Health employees as well as frontline workers all over the country.  She takes pride in that everyone was able to work together to be there for the patients and to save as many lives as possible.  Sutera is able to reflect on how difficult it was during the height of the pandemic.

“There would be days where people would just break down,” said Sutera. “You never thought you would be Facetiming as somebody said goodbye to their loved one because they couldn’t come into the hospital or holding the hand of somebody as they died.”

Without the heroism and the contributions of Sutera and all of the frontline workers, it’s scary to think about where we would be as a society a year later.  But now, with the vaccine rollout ramping up and a decrease in cases, the community is in a better place.  At the worst point of the pandemic, North Shore University Hospital was completely filled with COVID patients and there was a tent installed in the parking lot that thankfully didn’t have to be used.

Today, only a handful of floors at the hospital are used for COVID patients, a signal that perhaps the pandemic is winding down.

The Islanders Are Ready To Start The Process Of Welcoming Back Fans:  

Another sense of normalcy is having fans in attendance at sporting events and that became a reality in New York State back in January when a limited number of Buffalo Bills fans were able to attend each of the team’s two home playoff games.  That pilot program was expanded last month when New York State guidelines were adjusted to allow ten percent capacity of venues with 10,000 seats or more.

Teams were allowed to start having fans on February 23rd, but the Islanders took a little extra time to put together a plan.  And now, after only hearing piped in crowd noise, the Islanders players will finally hear the roar from some fans starting on Thursday.

“That’s why we play the game,” said Islanders forward Jordan Eberle.  “That’s what makes it so exciting when you get the fans in the stands. I know all the guys in the room are super excited for the faithful to get back.”

UNIONDALE, NY – FEBRUARY 06: New York Islanders Left Wing Michael Dal Colle (28) and New York Islanders Center Brock Nelson (29) congratulate New York Islanders Right Wing Jordan Eberle (7) for scoring a goal during the first period of the National League Hockey game between thee Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders on February 6, 2021, at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, NY. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire)

“To have our fans back in the building is big for us,” said Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock.  “We like to feed off of that momentum.  Obviously, it’s a limited amount but I’m sure they’ll be there ready to bring the noise so we all look forward to that.”

When the Islanders play the Philadelphia Flyers next Thursday March 18th, there will be approximately 1,300 fans in attendance and that will be the case through the April 7th game against the New York Rangers as the team has sold out the allotment of available seats to season ticket holders for those seven games.  The hope is that by the time that the Islanders put the next batch of tickets on sale, the percentage of capacity allowed is increased by New York State.

But even with a small number of fans in attendance to start, it’s something to celebrate after a very difficult and challenging year.

“We do need to have that light at the end of the tunnel to start reopening things,” Sutera.  “I just think we need to be careful with the way we’re doing it.  I would love a stadium full of people.  It’s the beginning of the opening and I think that’s what we need to start to show that we will become normal again.”

Will Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz Get His Wish?:

Thursday night is shaping up as an emotional evening for the Islanders and the community with the return of fans and the chance for the players to get back to the ritual of skating to center ice after a game for a “YES YES YES” salute to the fans.  But for this game, that salute will certainly mean a lot more as it will be directed towards 1,000 people who have been the community’s “Most Valuable Players”.

So, let’s get back to Barry Trotz wishing that he could hug the healthcare workers that will be on hand.

Would Jackie Sutera accept a hug from the Islanders’ Head Coach?

“I would hug him,” said Sutera.  “I was already COVID positive and I’m fully vaccinated so I’m double protected.  I’m a hugger and I think there’s nothing better than that embrace.  If you’re not sick and I’m not sick, I’m going to say I will hug you.”

The storybook ending on Thursday would be an Islanders win and, assuming NHL protocols allow it to happen, Barry Trotz wrapping his arms around Sutera and any of the other healthcare workers that would like a hug.

If that could happen, there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house.

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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