Sports

Fans' delight: Islanders back at Nassau Coliseum for a day

New York Islanders left wing Josh Bailey (12) congratulates center Mathew Barzal (13) after Barzal scored a goal in the third period of a preseason NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers in Uniondale, N.Y. , Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

New York Islanders left wing Josh Bailey (12) congratulates center Mathew Barzal (13) after Barzal scored a goal in the third period of a preseason NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers in Uniondale, N.Y. , Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Nearly 2 1/2 years after last playing at the Nassau Coliseum, John Tavares and the New York Islanders gave their fans something to cheer about back at their refurbished former home.

The Islanders returned to the Coliseum for a day for a preseason game against Philadelphia, but that didn't matter to fans clamouring for the team's return from Brooklyn. They showed up early Sunday morning to tailgate and participate in pregame festivities outside, including a museum truck and a virtual reality Zamboni experience, and to take pictures with the Stanley Cup.

"It's nice to be back home," said Andrew Gagnon, a student at nearby Hofstra University who arrived at 9 a.m. to tailgate. "This is where the four Cups were won. All that history is here. I saw a sign that said, 'This is home, not Brooklyn.' That's how everyone feels."

Daniel Fisher, a Deer Park resident who has attended every game for 15 years, agreed.

"It'll be good to see them in the Coliseum again," he said. "It's almost like old times. Got here early, 8 o'clock, tailgating. That's how we roll."

Tavares scored his second goal of the game 34 seconds into overtime to give the Islanders a 3-2 victory over the Flyers, sending the fans into a frenzy and chants of "Bring them back!"

"Just a lot of fun to play back here, in a place that means so much," Tavares said. "There's a lot of good memories, lot of good thoughts even walking through the halls a little bit."

After celebrating the goal, the Islanders gathered at centre ice to salute the fans, and skated off the ice to a rousing ovation.

With the Islanders trailing 2-0, Tavares started the comeback with his first goal just past the midpoint of the second period. Mathew Barzal tied it about 5 1/2 minutes into the third.

Mike Vecchione scored 40 seconds into the second period to get the Flyers on the board first, and Jori Lehtera, who assisted on the first goal, doubled the lead a little more than 8 minutes later.

The "Bring them Back!" chants reverberated around the arena after the third period ended, and Tavares said he noticed.

"I think they certainly wanted to be heard," he said. "That's above my pay grade, but certainly this place is very meaningful to this organization and the identity of this organization for a reason."

The game was sold out with the attendance announced at 13,917.

It was the Islanders' first game at the Coliseum, now called NYCB Live, since April 25, 2015, in a 3-1 victory over Washington in Game 6 of the first round of the playoffs. They were eliminated in a Game 7 loss two days later, and began playing at Brooklyn's Barclays Center the following season.

Claire Harding, a resident of Huntington and president of the Islanders Boosters Club that she says has been around since the team's inception in 1972 was also glad to see the team back at the old arena where it played for the franchise's first 43 years.

"The atmosphere right now is the same as it used to be," said Harding, who was joined by her husband Gary and two friends several hours before the game.

The fans greeted the team with a strong ovation when the Islanders took the ice for pregame warmups about 35 minutes before the game, and roared when they came back out for introductions shortly before puck drop. The cheers continued while a video on the scoreboard showed the team's four championship banners and highlights of Stanley Cup wins.

The arena was renovated and reopened this year with a capacity of about 13,900 for hockey, less than both the 16,170 it had previously and the 15,795 currently at Barclays Center.

The team's move to Brooklyn was announced in 2012 after a failed attempt to secure public financing for a new arena on Long Island, and zoning approval was rejected for a privately funded development plan that would have included renovations to the Coliseum. It was announced as a 25-year deal and appeared to secure the Islanders' future in New York amid talk the team could move to another city.

However, the lease has an opt-out clause with a January deadline that either side can exercise. If the Islanders choose to leave, they can do so as early as after the upcoming season, while either side can terminate the deal effective at the end of the 2018-19 season.

Islanders fans have expressed displeasure with Barclays Center, home to the NBA's Brooklyn Nets, from the start, citing many obstructed seats and poor sightlines for hockey. It's also further away from the core of the team's fan base on Long Island.

"For all of us who live further east than here, in Suffolk County, it's just hard to get to Brooklyn, especially during the week," said Gary Harding, a season-ticket holder for 28 years here but only goes to about four or five games a season.

Possibilities for the team's future include building a new arena either at Belmont Park or near Citi Field in Queens. At the end of July, the Empire State Development issued a much-anticipated request for proposals (RFP) to develop the land next to the racetrack at Belmont Park. The Islanders are believed to be among those interested in submitting proposals, with a Sept. 28 deadline for submissions. There is no timetable for a decision to be made.

Empire State Development put out an RFP for the same land in 2012, but scrapped all proposals a year ago.

"Hope it happens," said Michael Molloy, who along with two friends was among the early tailgaters. "As long as there's a parking lot where you can tailgate and you can drive to games. There will be public transportation. It has to be a hockey arena.

"They can't move the team. We're a dynasty. It can't happen."

While some fans have been calling for the team to return to the Coliseum on a full-time basis, Harding only endorsed that on a temporary basis, possibly while another arena is being built.

"It's here, but unfortunately it's not home anymore," he said.

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