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Coliseum Closing Time: Our place and the people that made it special

Dodging spotlights, breaking-and-entering, hard-working ushers, terrible pizza and getting locked out. Good times with good folks at Nassau Coliseum.

Under the spotlight
Under the spotlight
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The staff of Lighthouse Hockey share their personal stories about Nassau Coliseum and the people that are, to them, linked to the arena.


There's one intertwining thread between my love of sports growing up. That's the fact that my dad hated sports. I think it also tied into a second fact, he hated traffic. He would also get lost leaving Shea Stadium, every single time. So the idea of him going out to Nassau Coliseum from Staten Island was insane. The first time I ever went was for the 96 Draft Party, mostly because my mom convinced him there would be no traffic.

What a trip it was, J.P. Dumont was going to be one of the cornerstones of the franchise for years to come. I also remember a woman screaming at Travis Green after he had been introduced. The crime he had committed? He hadn't signed a new contract yet, but agreed to show up for the draft party. That should have been my first warning of what I was getting myself into. 

But it was great being a fan of the Isles while they were bad. When I finally got my license and my car one of the first things I did was go out to the Coliseum. While waiting on line to buy a ticket, a guy walked by asking if anyone wanted a ticket. I said yes and he gave it to me. This happened for the 5-10 games I went to during the 98-99 and 99-00 seasons. Then I would spend my ticket money on a horrible personal pan pizza. Because I make horrible choices in life.

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Mike (I Can See for Isles and Isles)

When it comes to the ice surface, the Coliseum has wonderful sightlines everywhere, except the seats near the spotlights. Back in the day, the spotlights were along the back wall of the upper deck. When you saw several white circles cross over the ice surface before the game began, it would be these guys manually moving the spotlights. And if you haven't seen one, it's big. It extends over several rows, and is a few seats wide.

Some former player was being honored one night. Might've been a number retirement. As it turns out, my seat was a few to the left of one of the spotlights. The guy starts waiving the thing back and forth, covering the half of the ice that the ceremony is taking place in. Why yes, I do end sentences with prepositions. Deal with it.

Anyways, it's one of a long list of quirky things you had to contend with while sitting in the cheap seats. The scoreboard was never viewable. I used to have a digital wrist watch, so I could keep track of the time. My friend would do the same for power plays. We'd keep people around us informed. Nowadays they have TV monitors trained on the scoreboard, but back then, it was one of those quirks that was actually kinda cool. It made you more aware of how long shifts were, and how fluid or halting the play was. It also meant that you made friends around you, as information would go back and forth. Even something as boring as reporting the time remaining could lead to stories about games and players of yesteryear.

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Michael Willhoft

Because I was born after the dynasty days and I grew up in Connecticut, I don't have any especially interesting stories about the Coliseum.

When I was young, I made it to a handful of Islanders games when my family would visit my grandparents in Uniondale, but those games were mostly of the hey-the-Panthers-are-in-town-this-weekend-and-grandma-and-grandpa-need-a-break-from-the-kids-running-around-their-house variety.

Suffice it to say that my memories of the Coliseum's historic moments are thin, at best. I'll still miss it though; asbestos is so hard to find in the new, gleaming, corporate arenas that teams build nowadays.

My dad, on the other hand, has more than a few stories about the Coliseum since he grew up nearby. And those memories don't involve food at intermission as their highlights. (Think "Stanley Cups" instead of "Coliseum pretzels.")

On game days, back when the Islanders were the NHL's newest franchise, he and my uncles and a few other kids from the neighborhood would walk down Manor Parkway, cross Hempstead Turnpike, and follow the fence that ringed the Coliseum parking lot. They'd stop briefly at a tree at one of the gaps in the fencing, and then continue on across the blacktop.

The goal was always to get into that night's game for free, and according to my dad, he says he saw about 95 percent of the Islanders' home games in the '70s and early '80s without having to pay for a ticket. How'd he do it? By standing outside of the Coliseum and asking people for their extra seats.

Setting aside the mind-blowing fact that people actually gave away tickets on a regular basis, there were days when free tickets weren't available. Obviously, paying for tickets was bourgeois, which is where that stop at the tree comes in; it was so the group could grab the piece of a wire coat hanger they'd stashed in its branches earlier in the season.

Because this all happened back in the Stone Age, doors were relatively new to the human experience. And apparently, all it took to unlock the doors at the Coliseum was to slide a coat hanger between two of them and lift the latch on the inside that held them closed.

The Coliseum kind of looks like a fortress, but "looks like" wasn't the same as "is," I guess.

The danger of getting caught while opening the Coliseum doors from the outside this wasn't that high, being that the kids would wait until a crowd of people were walking by, then slip into the rink unnoticed. (Plus, I don't think breaking-and-entering was an arrestable offense back in the day.)

And even when my dad or my uncles or their friends did get caught, the worst that happened to them was that security called their fathers. Which is the most '70s ('50s?) punishment ever.

So, the moral of this story / secondhand memory: the Coliseum was a great place to watch a game when it first opened - and still is today, because sightlines and crowd noise - mostly because you didn't have to pay to get in.

You just had to use a master key* (*coat hanger) sometimes.

*   *   *


So I'll finally tell the full story of how my wife got locked out of Nassau Coliseum.

It was October, 2008, Sabres vs. pre-Tavares Islanders. It was her first pro game; the only hockey games she had seen live involved her nephew's traveling youth team (he plays goal for Stevens Tech in New Jersey now).

I was more excited about her seeing the Coliseum for the first time than I was about her seeing my parents' house for the first time. She was willing and happy to go see the place I wouldn't shut up about. We went with my friend Gio (of Last Call in Nassau fame) and his wife, who had also never been.

By the third period, it was 6-0 Sabres and the entire building has checked out. I have run out of historical tidbits and legendary players to bore her with and just wanted the damn game over with. At the time, we were looking for our first house in New Jersey and, sure enough, she got call from our real estate agent about the offer we had just put in.

So with nothing to watch on the ice, she takes the call and steps away from our seats and into the concourse. At some point after she left, the Islanders scored, setting off the horn, the music and all the hoopla.

The game clock is ticks away (to an eventual 7-1 final score) and I'm wondering where my wife is. I get a text. She's locked out of the arena.

So now I go out to the concourse. I find her at one of the gates on the other side of the glass.

The next part is fuzzy. I think I found a security guard and asked him to let her back in. I showed him both of our tickets. And I have no idea why she's outside.

The guard takes pity on us and opens the door.

Turns out, she went outside because when the Islanders scored, she couldn't hear the call. When the call was over, she goes to come back in and the doors are locked.

"What did you expect?" I ask. "That's why they sell tickets. So people can't just open the doors and walk in*."

We went back to our seats and had a good laugh with our friends. We didn't get the house (but we did get the next one). And now every time we go anywhere that requires tickets, we have "...and don't go outside."

I never said it was an exciting story. But it's one that wouldn't have happened without me dragging her to that game at that place because I wouldn't quit until I did. Thanks, Nassau Coliseum.

(*- Obviously, at the time, I had no knowledge of Willhoft's story in which people can just walk into the Coliseum)

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Michael Leboff

I just want to take this time to thank all of the amazing employees at Nassau Coliseum. The Coliseum's atmosphere is the way it is because the ushers, security guards, vendors, etc. are just about the best type of people out there.

Many Coliseum regulars have got to know these wonderful people on a first name basis and there may be no deeper bond on this planet than that of a Coliseum usher and a fan in his or her section.

I have shied away from asking per diem employees at Nassau Coliseum if they're going to move to Brooklyn because I don't want to know the answer. I don't want to say goodbye to them just like I don't want to say goodbye to this building.