Islanders start new chapter at UBS Arena: ‘A new-school building that feels old school’



ELMONT, N.Y. — Let’s start with some trivia.

When you’re sitting around with your buddies drinking some IPAs in the not-to-distant future and you want to test their hockey knowledge, ask them this: Who scored the first-ever goal at UBS Arena at Belmont Park? The answer: Brad Richardson.

“It was cool. It’s a nice building. Obviously, the fans were into it,” said the Flames forward regarding 109th career goal (second with Calgary) while also mentioning that him now being a trivia answer in 30 years was a hot topic in the room. “Fun building. Always a good crowd here and then, obviously, it’s nice to score the first one.”

It was the first of many firsts at the Islanders’ new building. Calgary, backstopped by Jacob Markstrom, collected the first win in the lid-lifter; a 5-2 affair that also saw Andrew Mangiapane score twice to give him 14 goals on the season (13 on the road!). Brock Nelson’s first of two goals was the inaugural one for the home team. 

But while there were two points up for grabs, the real action was everywhere but the ice because as the saying goes: When one chapter closes, another one begins — and Saturday marked a new beginning for Long Island’s team and its fans.

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On June 23, 2021, no one knew if the last words — cigarettes and beer were two used in every story, by the way — had been written about the Nassau Coliseum. The team’s 3-2 overtime win that night forced a Game 7 in their Stanley Cup semifinals match-up against the Lightning; however, an encore wasn’t in the cards as New York lost and the doors were officially shut at the Old Barn.

MORE: Islanders, fans sending Old Barn out in style in final Stanley Cup playoff run

Now, after 150 days of sitting, waiting and wishing for a new home (that last one was a long one for the faithful), the Islanders finally opened up UBS Arena.

“It’s incredible. I think I’ve spent the better part of my life waiting for this moment. I’ve already cried once today just watching highlights of (team owner) Jon Ledecky talking last night and the fact that he mentioned that he talked to 5-6,000 fans and knowing that one of them and knowing that he asked for input, it just feels really special to finally be here,” said fan John Ballantyne from Bay Shore, N.Y.

Fans poured into the new building situated right next to Belmont Racetrack after the team spent the first month-plus on the road and came home with a 5-6-2 record.

“These fans deserve a home like this. It’s an incredible building and the atmosphere was electric and obviously not the result we were looking for but our fans showed up,” said Kyle Palmieri.

In total, 17,255 fans showed up. They showed up to check out the new barn that cost $1.1 billion to build. They showed up to a building swathed in orange and blue and one that paid homage to the past. And the past also showed up as a number of Islander greats including Bob Nystrom, John Tonelli, Denis Potvin and Pat Flatley came out for the ceremonial puck drop. 

“The fans, they sacrificed a lot over the years, put up with a lot, knowing that maybe this would happen at some point,” Four-time Cup champ Ken Morrow told Sporting News, alluding to the long-awaited rink that was preceded by the Coliseum with the Barclays sandwiched in between for a few seasons. “That’s who I’m happiest for is the fans, because I think it makes — when this does happen — it makes it that much better because you’ve been through so much to get here.”

The old arena had many great memories. There was Nystrom’s overtime Stanley Cup clincher; Bossy’s 50 in 50; Al Arbour coming back to coach game No. 1,500; John Tavares’ game-winner in 2013. You never forget about the past, but it was time for a change.

MORE: Can Islanders help New York return to championship glory?

“A building totally designed for hockey,” said Happauge, N.Y., native John Yerkes who was sporting a Jean-Gabriel Pageau jersey and a smile. “The Old Barn was a great place but it had seen its day and a modern building like this is going to be great for the fans and just elevate the game.”

UBS Arena has the four Stanley Cup banners and the retired numbers hanging from the rafters but it is definitely a difference-maker, a shiny new home to make some new memories. Gone is the lap one could take on the singular concourse smushed between fellow Long Islanders during intermissions. There are now two levels with space to wander and stare at the murals. Want to grab a beer? Don’t fret about going during the action because there are a number of spots you can see the game from — including a great sightline from the Tailgate Bar.

But the new digs did take something special, something unique from “Fort Never Lose.” Yes, they brought over the organ but it’s something even more important that was incorporated into UBS Arena: that infamous low ceiling. That ceiling, the one that created a sound wave from end zone to end zone (albeit three feet higher), the one that hugged and encapsulated the boisterous fans and projected it back onto everyone inside, is there.

As noted by Flames bench boss Darryl Sutter: “The building was awesome. The crowd carries weight. The whole game was a lot of energy in the building and we were battling.”

Yes, when fans cheered as their team hit the ice for warmups it was loud. When the Islanders stormed out of the tunnel to start the game it was booming. When they chanted “Let’s Go Islanders” and “Bossy” for the Islander great who is battling cancer, it echoed. When the fans sang the national anthem from start to finish it was all-encompassing. When Richard Panik crunched Brandon Tanev near the Flames net just 43 seconds into the game there was a roar. And when Nelson scored his goals it was deafening.

But most of all, it felt familiar.

“What a great atmosphere. This is a new-school building that feels old school when you’re out on the ice,” noted Islanders coach Barry Trotz. “The fans are there. The acoustics in terms of the volume back at the benches is outstanding. It looks like the way they set it up it looks like the fans are on top of you just like the old Coliseum. Really good night in terms of what the fans brought, what the building brought and I think what the players brought.”

New York lost the building opener just like they did back in 1972 when the Coliseum was christened, which also happened to be against the Flames but they were stationed in Atlanta back then. In 2021, the Islanders also had to battle COVID as Adam Pelech, Andy Greene and Anthony Beauvillier entered protocols on Saturday, joining three guys — Anders Lee, Ross Johnston and Josh Bailey — who were already there.

While the Islanders may have been without their captain (Lee) and the longest-tenured player (Bailey) to open their new building, there are 40 more contests that’ll be played there this season alone; plenty of chances to get that first win. And for all the faithful who are stressing and worrying that losing the first game at a new joint is bad luck, just a quick reminder: yes, they lost the Coliseum home opener but the Islanders went on to win four Stanley Cups from 1980-83 and clinched three of them at home.



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