NEW YORK — On a rainy morning at Belmont Park, boots are an absolute necessity to trudge through the mud at the construction site of the New York Islanders’ new arena.
It’s been a slog to get to this point, but brighter days are ahead.
After more than a decade of uncertainty about where the Islanders will play their home games, including an ill-fated stint in Brooklyn at an arena not built for hockey, they will open shiny, new UBS Arena this fall.
New York is playing this NHL postseason in the old barn that housed four Stanley Cup-winning teams during the early 1980s glory days and the new arena is being built to replicate Nassau Coliseum’s raucous home-ice advantage.
“It’s been a long time coming,” 29-year-old fan James Chryssos said. “It’s been incredible to watch it actually come to fruition. All the ups and downs from the Lighthouse Project to Barclays and all the craziness. Finally getting those shovels in the ground and then hopefully finally getting in the seats, it’s going to feel real and that’s a feeling that I can’t describe.”
The Lighthouse Project was aimed at transforming the Coliseum before it was nixed by Nassau County voters in 2011. The Islanders moved to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in 2013 to play in a building with an unusual configuration; the scoreboard embarrassingly hung over a blue line instead of center ice.
Don’t worry: UBS Arena will have a brand new video board in its rightful spot above the center faceoff circle.
And the Islanders will be in their rightful spot on Long Island, eight miles down the Hempstead Turnpike from Nassau Coliseum, centrally located among their most diehard fans. With a new, permanent Long Island Railroad station in the works and thousands of parking spots, senior vice president of sales Mike Cosentino said the team is weeks away from selling out season tickets.
“You can feel the excitement,” Cosentino said. “And this was even before this team has started playoffs. It’s pure enthusiasm for UBS Arena and the big move and having a forever home for our fans.”
Leaving Nassau Coliseum is a difficult step for fans given the nostalgia. Not only is there the connection to the early ‘80s dynasty but it boasts an old-school atmosphere that doesn’t exist much in the NHL anymore even with a relatively small capacity of 14,500 after renovations.
“This is a throwback building,” coach Barry Trotz said. “People are on top of you. They feel like they’re all closer. They’re all sitting on your bench, basically. And the new buildings have a vastness to it that doesn’t quite feel the same.”
Not so fast when it comes to UBS Arena. Everything from acoustics and the low ceiling — only 3 feet higher than Nassau Coliseum, which opened in 1972 — to a big lower bowl surrounding the ice is designed to bring the noise.
“It was built for hockey and made for music,” said Peter Luukko, facilities chairman of Oak View Group, which manages the arena. “We’ll have some sound-absorbing panels for concerts but also the ability to be a great, loud barn for hockey.”
Nassau Coliseum has an atmosphere even a hated opponent can love. After scoring an overtime winner to silence Islanders fans Thursday night, Boston’s Brad Marchand said: “They were loud. They were loud tonight. I’ll give them credit. They were loud.”
That loudness won’t stop at the new building, which is expected to house roughly 17,000 for hockey and should be full to the brim when it opens in November. The famous “Yes! Yes! Yes!” and “Let’s Go Islanders!” chants will follow.
Luukko, who has also worked for the Philadelphia Flyers, described the Islanders fan base as “very Northeast” with a Long Island twist. He is proud of fans sticking through some adversity to get to this point.
“It’s no secret that there was some lean years,” Luukko said. “There were discussions of the team possibly even moving. No finality on a home. Just to see how that base has stuck together and, listen, this arena’s going to sell out, it’s just amazing.”
UBS Arena is set to have a supporters section like soccer stadiums — at the end where the opponent will be on offense twice — and all the bells and whistles that come with modern technology. Players with have high-tech tubs, a two-floor gym and a lounge. General manager Lou Lamoriello’s input included making the home locker room smaller for camaraderie.
Fans will have the choice of 56 suites and amenities nonexistent at Nassau Coliseum. The old concourses that squeeze fans together will be replaced by open space at the new place with an entryway designed like Grand Central Terminal. The brick façade matches nearby Belmont Park, which opened in 1905, and windows offer a view of the New York skyline.
Once at their seats, fans will be close to the ice like a throwback building of eras past.
Luukko said it was important that everyone from ice row to the top deck feel like they’re in the game now that the Islanders will remain on Long Island.
“It brings stability to the franchise in terms of, ‘OK now we do have that home, that permanent home,’” he said. “It gives the fans a place to go and that feeling certainly that the Islanders are going to be on the Island forever.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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