The New York Islanders opened up the 2020-21 season without any fans in attendance for home games at Nassau Coliseum. When the COVID-19 restrictions in New York State eased a bit, the Islanders were allowed to welcome 10% of capacity and then that number grew during the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the point where the building was just under 1,000 seats shy of capacity for the Stanley Cup Semifinals against Tampa Bay. But while the Islanders were able to start welcoming back fans in the middle of a pandemic, their American Hockey League franchise in Bridgeport played a truncated campaign without fans at Webster Bank Arena for the entire season. Hockey fans have not been able to see a game in Bridgeport since March of 2020 when the pandemic started. That wait comes to an end this Saturday when Bridgeport will host the first of three Islanders preseason games as the Isles host the New Jersey Devils at 2pm.
It’s an opportunity to welcome back fans of the AHL team while also giving Islanders fans an opportunity to check out what it’s like to see a hockey game in Bridgeport.
(Photo of Brent Rossi courtesy of the Bridgeport Islanders)
The other two Islanders preseason home games in Bridgeport will be Tuesday October 5th against the Philadelphia Flyers at 7pm and against the Rangers on Saturday October 9th at 7pm. The Islanders have played eight prior exhibition games in Bridgeport, one home game in each of eight preseasons. But this year, Webster Bank Arena will be playing host to all three Islanders preseason home games because the team’s new home UBS Arena at Belmont Park will not be opening until the regular season home opener on November 20th against the Calgary Flames. With less than two months until UBS Arena opens, these three preseason games in Bridgeport will give Islanders Country a few chances to see their team in person before the regular season starts.
“There’s a lot of excitement around here,” said Rossi. “When we heard about (the UBS Arena delay), we jumped at the opportunity and we’re extremely excited here and the market is responding well. Can’t wait for that puck to drop on October 2nd.”
For Islanders fans who will be making the trip to Bridgeport for the preseason games, there are come COVID-19 protocols in place at Webster Bank Arena…
*All fans 12 and over must show proof that they are fully vaccinated or show proof of a negative COVID-19 test, either a PCR test no more than 72 hours before the start of the game or a rapid test no more than 6 hours before the drop of the puck, in order to attend a game.
*All fans under 12 do not need to have proof of a negative COVID-19 test as long as they are accompanied by an adult.
*All fans must wear a mask.
The entire Islanders organization has gone to great lengths to ensure a safe environment when they come to a game in Bridgeport.
(Photo of Webster Bank Arena by Peter Schwartz/NY Sports Day)
“We’ve taken every precaution to prioritize the health and safety of our fans, employees our team and anybody who is coming into our venue,” said Rossi. “I’m extremely confident that they’re ready to come back. When you look at our preseason games, they’re all selling well.”
Fans that have been accustomed to the experience of Bridgeport Sound Tigers AHL games and Islanders preseason contests in years past at Webster Bank Arena will notice some differences when they arrive at the building on Saturday. As part of an agreement between the Islanders and the city of Bridgeport, there are going to be major upgrades to the arena over the next few years. Some of them have already taken place including improvements for the AHL Islanders facilities and a refurbished “back of the house” to provide musicians and other entertainers a space to relax and enjoy some comfort before their shows.
While the fans won’t see many of the behind-the-scenes improvements, what they will see is a repainted concourse level that is going to look completely different.
“We’ve done a ton in terms of the cleanliness of the building,” said Rossi. “But the vast majority is going to happen over the next two, three or four years as this partnership with the city and the funds that they are putting into this facility will be realized.”
The Bridgeport staff is also upping their game in terms of engaging the fans at games. With UBS Arena on Long Island nearing completion, fans in Bridgeport can expect a bigger and better experience starting with the Islanders’ preseason games and continuing when the AHL season begins. There will be live music outside of the arena along with food trucks and games while the concourse will feature a lot more activation than fans have experience in past seasons.
With an Islanders team that is expected to contend for a Stanley Cup as well as a Bridgeport Islanders roster that will have a nice mix of Islanders prospects and AHL veterans, the fans will certainly enjoy the on-ice product but the ultimate goal for the Bridgeport staff is to make sure that fans of all ages have a good time whether the NHL team or the AHL club wins or loses.
“We always say we can’t necessarily control what happens on the ice but we can control everything else,” said Rossi. “Our goal is to make sure that somebody comes in here and leaves wanting to come to the next event.”
As the arena undergoes some changes, so has the building’s primary tenant, the Bridgeport Islanders.
(Photo courtesy of Bridgeport Islanders)
The franchise is heading into its 20th season, but this is the first campaign with the team adopting the “Islanders” nickname after 19 seasons as the “Sound Tigers”. The Bridgeport Islanders will play their home opener on Saturday October 23rd against the Springfield Thunderbirds. There will be a promotion for each home game including “Trick or Treating” and a costume contest on Halloween Sunday October 31st, the “Teddy Bear Toss” on Saturday December 11th, “First Responders Night” on Saturday February 19th, “Star Wars Night” on Saturday February 26th and “Pink in the Rink” for breast cancer awareness on Saturday March 5th.
For many die-hard AHL fans in Bridgeport, the decision to change names was a tough pill to swallow as the fan base grew to love the Sound Tigers name and the logo. But as the New York Islanders have undergone a resurrection in recent years thanks to a dynamic ownership group led by Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky, President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello and Head Coach Barry Trotz, the decision was made to expand the Islanders brand throughout the organization and that includes the AHL franchise.
“It was 100% driven for that reason,” said Rossi. “The Islanders’ name is synonymous with hard work and being a first-class operation. When a player comes into our organization, we want that to be their mindset.”
The look of the jersey remains similar to the that of the New York Islanders with the orange and blue colors, but gone is the Sound Tigers Logo and the team now has a new name. The new Bridgeport Islanders logo features a large “B” which represents Bridgeport as well as a hockey stick with tape that is a reference to the parent team’s logo. The organization was going for a nostalgic and more traditional hockey logo but they also wanted it to be a fresh new look.
(Photo courtesy of Bridgeport Islanders)
The response from the fans was mixed at first.
“From a fan perspective, there was good and bad,” said Rossi of the reaction to the name change. “It was important for us to align ourselves with the Islanders name. We’re hearing more and more people who like the logo and that’s actually evident with a lot of the merchandise that has already been sold. There’s been a ton of Bridgeport Islanders gear that has been purchased.”
There has always been a strong bond between the Islanders and their Bridgeport AHL affiliate as over the years many players began their professional careers with the Sound Tigers before making the jump to the NHL. A look at the current Islanders roster will show that a big chunk of the club played for Bridgeport before getting the call up to Long Island and the list of players include Captain Anders Lee, forwards Brock Nelson, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin, and defensemen Ryan Pulock and Scott Mayfield.
In fact, it’s estimated that 90% of players in the NHL have spent some time in the AHL so it was important for the Islanders to further their commitment to Bridgeport and extend the “Islander Way” throughout the organization.
(Photo courtesy of Bridgeport Islanders)
“From our end, we see ourselves as an extension of the New York Islanders family and that’s really how we operate,” said Rossi.
These are exciting times in Bridgeport for the entire Islanders organization. They are welcoming back fans starting with the NHL Islanders’ preseason game this Saturday, the AHL team has adopted the Islanders’ name and the future for the franchise is bright with a firm commitment from the city on arena improvements.
As the Bridgeport Islanders celebrate the 20th season in franchise history, opening the building to fans on Saturday is a moment a year and a half in the making.
“Personally, and professionally, I think it’s going to be kind of the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Rossi.
The chant “Let’s go Islanders” isn’t going to be heard exclusively on Long Island anymore. It’s now going to be heard a lot at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport.