John Tavares took the Long Island Rail Road to Brooklyn this week to see the Nets beat the Chicago Bulls. Technically, Tavares saw an NBA playoff game, but he also took a long look into the future of his New York Islanders in the new Barclays Center. They’ll move there in the fall of 2015, if not before.
“You wonder what the setup will be like for hockey,” said Tavares, the 22-year-old centre and star of the team who is a candidate for the Hart Memorial Trophy as most valuable player in the NHL. “There’s still a lot to be determined. It’s a beautiful facility, world-class. Whenever we get there, it’ll be an exciting time and it’ll be a nice new home.”
In the meantime, the Islanders are getting a look at the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2007. Their first home game of the first round is Sunday at noon (ET) against the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins in Nassau Coliseum, which opened in 1972 and is the league’s oldest facility except for the newly renovated Madison Square Garden.
Or, as team owner Charles Wang has called the Coliseum, “a dump.”
Before Friday night’s Game 2 in Pittsburgh, the Islanders trailed 1-0 in the Eastern Conference quarter-finals. In Game 1, Tavares had no shots under repeated, hard checking. The inexperienced Islanders looked terrified in losing 5-0.
Perhaps their 16,170 fans will give them more spunk Sunday. “We’re going to play in the Coliseum,” defenceman Mark Streit said. “For the fans, for the whole franchise, it’s great and we will enjoy it. … This team hasn’t been in the playoffs for so long, it’s been a tough time.”
The Islanders last won a round 20 years ago. Their last Stanley Cup – their fourth of four in a row – came 30 years ago. Over decades, their Island became the Alcatraz of professional sports, where careers washed out to sea.
Although the Islanders’ record of 24-17-7 tied for 15th in the 30-team NHL, they ranked last in attendance this season at 13,306 per game, according to ESPN. Forbes’s preseason franchise valuation was No. 27 at $155-million (all currency U.S.). The Toronto Maple Leafs were No. 1 at $1-billion.
At Coliseum urinals, eye-level wall signs say “Brooklyn Welcomes the Islanders!” and “Reserve Your Seat Today.” Similar messages flash in the lobby of Barclays, in the downtown section of the rapidly gentrifying New York City borough.
The Isles will leave an isolated and outdated arena in a suburban parking lot near no public rail transportation or any residential streets in sight. Their spiffy, new building – within walking distance of many neighbourhoods – connects with 10 train lines.
The move of about 50 kilometres west on the Long Island land mass could come sooner than first planned. The Islanders will play an exhibition game there in September against New Jersey.
Commissioner Gary Bettman recently supported a move “as soon as possible.” Wang has said fall of 2014 might be nice.
“If Nassau County was inclined to let them go earlier, I know they would definitely be interested,” Bettman told the Associated Press Sports Editors.
They will leave bland, suburban midlands and move to a street called Flatbush, same name as the neighbourhood where Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers played in Ebbets Field.
So what could go wrong?
Start with problems with both buildings. According to Nassau County officials, the Islanders and the SMG corporation that runs the Coliseum need to pay their utility bills.
County Comptroller George Maragos this week put the total at $2-million. He recently told a Long Island television station: “If we don’t get it soon, we’re going to file papers in court.”
A group of Coliseum employees has threatened a class-action lawsuit over asbestos exposure, one of several legal legacies that haunt the building and the franchise. Two former team owners, John Spano and Sanjay Kumar, were imprisoned for financial fraud.
Some fans have brought umbrellas to games due to leaks in the roof. The franchise’s prestige melted with self-inflicted mistakes by a carousel of owners and executives.
For instance: In 2006, the Islanders signed goalie Rick DiPietro for 15 years and $67.5-million. Chosen first overall in the 2000 entry draft, DiPietro suffered many injuries, including one when he started a fight with another goalie and got cold-cocked. He was waived this season to Bridgeport in the American Hockey League.
He said he considered driving his car off a bridge that connects Long Island to the mainland. “It felt like someone ripped open my heart and stuck a knife in it and lit it on fire and flushed it down the toilet,” DiPietro told a television interviewer in Connecticut.
His successor, Evgeni Nabokov, took a Jarome Iginla slap shot to the face mask early in Game 1 and left the game after giving up four goals. Nabokov was to return Friday with new headgear.
His father played goalie in Kazakhstan and was known as The Russian Wall. Coincidentally, a Russian oligarch, Mikhail Prokhorov, owns the Nets in a location with a thriving Russian community. In that hockey features numerous Russian stars, might Prokhorov buy another team?
“Mikhail is on record saying he is not contemplating any ownership of the Islanders at this time,” a spokeswoman said through an e-mail message. “The situation has not changed.”
Whenever they move, whoever owns them, the Islanders must cope with a serious design flaw. Inexplicably, Barclays was built with only a basketball configuration. A hockey rink will eliminate some seats, and obstruct others. The ice, off-centre on the floor, will give the arena a lopsided look.
Barclays will seat about 15,000 for hockey, compared to 17,732 for basketball. Sight lines will be judged after the exhibition game. (For the record, the Coliseum has near-perfect sight lines.)
Tavares had a good view Monday of the Nets and is philosophical about spending his first four seasons in relative obscurity. Chosen first overall in the 2009 draft, Tavares was well known in Canada and felt the pressure of expectations.
But although admired among New York’s hockey savvy, he lacks the celebrity and scrutiny of local stars like Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks, Eli Manning of the Giants and Derek Jeter of the Yankees. In this lockout-shortened season, Tavares topped his team in goals with 28 and in points with 47.
And he has bonded with the franchise at several levels. He is the godfather of the daughter of linemate Matt Moulson. As a rookie, Tavares played with and lived with Doug Weight, now an assistant coach and associate general manager. During the lockout, he played in Bern, Switzerland, with Streit, a close friend.
When Tavares signed a $33-million, six-year contract extension in September of 2011, he said: “This is where I want to live, play and, ultimately, lead our team to a Stanley Cup.”
When asked if anonymity has been a blessing in disguise for his maturation, Tavares replied: “It’s yes and no. I do think coming here to Long Island was beneficial to me to just kind of grow on my own and not put so much pressure on myself.”
With Tavares and most Islanders in their first tournament, it remains to be seen if they are ready for playoff pressure or for the brighter lights of the bigger city down the road.
“It was going to happen eventually,” Tavares said of the playoffs. “We came a long way this year. We really turned things around. There’s nothing better than this. It’s a lot of fun.”