ELMONT, N.Y. -- The New York Islanders have officially moved from “The Old Barn” to “The Stable.”
The latter is a fitting nickname for UBS Arena, the team’s sparkling new venue that had its long-awaited grand opening on Saturday. Not only because the arena neighbors the famed horseracing track Belmont Park, but also because it gives the Islanders and their fans a long-overdue stable home.
For years, the Islanders were like the NHL’s nomadic tenants, playing in the revered but outdated Nassau Coliseum, dreaming of the ambitious but failed Lighthouse Project, moving into Brooklyn’s modern but ill-equipped Barclays Center, and returning to the renovated but scaled-down Coliseum.
Now, they have moved into their forever home.
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“We have a home now,” Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield said after the game. “We kind of talked about it leading up to it, just what guys have gone through as far as Brooklyn, split seasons, closing out the Coliseum twice, all that stuff. It’s special to be home.”
Because there’s no place like home, especially when it’s a state-of-the-art $1.1 billion venue that’s now the crown-jewel of new NHL arenas. With a makeshift Islanders team playing without five regulars placed in COVID-19 protocol, the evening proved to be more of a real estate success than on-ice triumph as the Calgary Flames won the opener 5-2.
But a raucous crowd of 17,255 at times made the new digs sound and feel like the Coliseum, affectionately known as “The Old Barn.”
UBS Arena, 15 miles west of the Coliseum in Uniondale, is located just off the final turn and home stretch of the 1.5-mile track at Belmont, annual site of the third leg in the Triple Crown. The arena, featuring a brick exterior lined with arched windows, combines innovation with some of the qualities that made the Barn so beloved.
"This is as fine a venue as there is in the world," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said during Friday's ribbon-cutting ceremony at the arena. "It makes you feel special to be here. Nothing was left to chance. It's something Long Island has always deserved."
And something the Islanders always deserved but at times seemed would never get.
The failed Lighthouse Project, a plan to renovate and revitalize the Coliseum and surrounding area, was first proposed in 2004 by Islanders' late owner Charles Wang, who was honored during a pregame ceremony.
The Islanders moved in 2015 to Barclays Center, a not-made-for-hockey arena where fans griped over a comically off-center scoreboard, poor sightlines and transfer-filled train rides that all but eliminated driving and the familiar "Let's go Islanders!" car-horn honk.
The team ultimately returned to the renovated 11,000-seat Coliseum part-time beginning in 2018, initially splitting home games between the Barn and Brooklyn while their future home went from blueprint to Belmont.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held at the site of UBS Arena in September 2019, amid lawsuits from the Village of Floral Park seeking to stop construction that were ultimately tossed. Around-the-clock construction continued in the days leading to puck drop on Saturday and the doors opened as scheduled and fans poured in to watch the Islanders play their first home game since June 23 when they won in overtime to force Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semifinals.
“Going into OT, the building smelled like cigarettes,” Islanders captain Anders Lee said of the Coliseum at the time. “Now it smells like beer.”
There were no such scents at UBS Arena -- think new-car smell but in a 700,000-square foot arena with 17,000-plus seats, a fresh sheet of ice and plenty of “Welcome Home!” signage.
But the beer certainly flowed, with the venue featuring eight bars offering ice views; five high-end clubs and lounges, including the ice-level Spotlight Club where those fortunate to enter can watch the Islanders walk through the tunnel leading to the ice; and two outdoor terraces, one of which overlooks a horse paddock.
The acoustics replicated that of the Barn, with low 93-foot ceilings meant to bottle in crowd noise and a lack of upper-bowl seating designed to bring fans closer to the action and recreate the Coliseum’s frenzied atmosphere where it felt and sounded as if they were on top of the ice.
“This is a new school building that feels old school when you’re out on the ice," Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. "The fans are there, the acoustics in terms of the volume back at the bench is outstanding. The way they set it up looks like the fans are on top of you just like the old Coliseum. So, really good night in terms of what the fans brought, what the building brought, and I think what the players brought."
The arena opened with a homecoming that included a standing ovation for construction workers who built the place, a crowd singalong rendition of the national anthem and Islanders alumni conducting a ceremonial puck drop.
Shortly after, it was Calgary’s Brad Richardson who became the answer to a future hockey trivia question, scoring the building’s first goal off an Islanders turnover in their own zone just 4:05 in.
Fans nearly blew the new roof off when Brock Nelson scored the first Islanders goal with 20 seconds left in the first period to cut Calgary’s lead to 2-1, and again when Nelson netted another to pull the Islanders within 3-2 early in the third.
But two empty-net goals by the Flames sealed the Islanders’ first loss at their new address.
The arena’s first home crowd -- which included Hall of Fame jockey and two-time Belmont Stakes winner John Velazquez and U.S. swimmer and 10-time Olympic medalist Katie Ledecky, wearing her medals -- left without the desired outcome, but not before enjoying plenty of amenities.
That included 13 food markets and six concession stands to choose from. A line stretched down the concourse for Big Chicken, a chain backed by NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal. There the popular choice was the “The Islander” chicken sandwich, which includes Buffalo sauce, cream cheese, bleu cheese and is served on a blue-and-orange bagel from Blue Line Deli & Bagels, an Islanders-themed bagel shop in Huntington.
The new arena boasts 68 restrooms, including the most women’s bathrooms in the NHL. That’s welcome news for Coliseum-goers all too familiar with making the intermission dash through overcrowded concourses only to wait on long lines at the Barn’s bathrooms.
As New York’s first arena to open in the post-pandemic era, it features HVAC systems with air filtration technology designed to help eliminate airborne viruses.
The arena includes the first new Long Island Rail Road train station in 50 years, with eastbound service from Penn Station available for the home opener. Shuttles transported fans from the station and more distant parking lot, where many gathered early despite signs saying no tailgating or honking was allowed.
Some fans were even greeted in the parking lot before the game by team co-owner Jon Ledecky, who was ensuring that opening-night traffic was running smoothly.
“I told fans I would not be inside, I’d be outside with them,” Ledecky told Newsday. “I’m happy with seeing the experience they’re having. The organized flow is very impressive to me. We’re ready for 18,000 fans.”
The fans will be back Sunday for the Islanders’ second game at UBS Arena, as they continue to make themselves right at home.
While there’s still plenty of unpacking -- and additional construction -- to be done, the team’s first night under the new roof was a success everywhere but on the scoreboard, which by the way is the largest of any arena in New York and perfectly centered.
“All in all,” Nelson said, “excited to be home and it’s the start of something that’ll be great for us.”