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Pre-History: 43 years ago, Nassau Coliseum was 'the thrust of the future'

A look back at the news and personalities of the arena's earliest days.

The bright and shining concrete oval.
The bright and shining concrete oval.

The odes to Nassau Coliseum have been pouring in all year, and will reach a fevered, emotional pitch this week as the Islanders wrap up their final regular season at their longtime home.

But for one minute, let's take a trip back in time; to an era before the Islanders even existed, before Fort Neverlose, before "Pigs at the Trough," before The Referendum and before the fans pack up their memories and walk away for the last time.

Me First

It's June, 1971 and NHL president Clarence Campbell has just toured the still-under construction Nassau Coliseum in Hempstead, N.Y.

Although Campbell describes the visit as a "courtesy call," he's clearly got one eye on the arena's future.

Nassau County officials have indicated interest in an NHL franchise for their new building but Campbell said the Hempstead owners had not made any formal presentation.

"There are no NHL applications in hand," the president said. "The 1974-75 season is the closest realistic date for further expansion. A second team in New York appears practical," he continued, "the problem of compensating the New York Rangers for territorial rights will have to be met, of course."

Campbell was being cagey about that expansion date.  Six months after his walkthrough, Campbell announced that the league will expand to 16 teams in 1972. Two teams will be added -- one in Atlanta and one on Long Island. The Coliseum still wasn't finished yet, but the ABA's New York Nets had signed a five-year deal to play at there.

The expansion announcement didn't sit well with the World Hockey Association, who had their sights set on playing at the Coliseum and poaching fans away from the Rangers. Meanwhile, Nassau County executive Ralph Caso was busily talking up his new arena (and making himself look like the hero before the doors even opened).

Complicating the picture is the emergence of the World Hockey Association, which has announced plans for a 10-team league to begin play next season. Moments after the NHL announced its newest expansion, Neil Shayne, owner of the WHA's New York franchise, threatened anti-trust suits, claiming that the addition of an NHL team to Long Island was done to block the WHA's entry into the picture.

Shayne has already launched one suit against Nassau County, where the franchise will be located. But county executive Ralph Caso wasn't worrying about suits Tuesday; he was too busy exclaiming his joy over the NHL's move.

"I'm delighted by the action," Caso said. "It solidifies my belief the position I've taken all along - that the Coliseum would settle for nothing but the best. We're going first class all the way. I believe the NHL is the prominent hockey league and I opted for it all along."

Another guy who wasn't sweating the competition was Rangers GM Emil "The Cat" Francis, who welcomed whoever was going to play out there in "the sticks" to the NHL.

Emil Francis, general manager and coach of the Rangers, talked of a heated rivalry between his club and Long Island. "There's been a great deal of groundwork done in the New York area by the Rangers in the way of building up interest in hockey. I look forward to a tremendous rivalry with the new team on Long Island."

Francis feels the New York area is big enough for two NHL franchises. "You have to be successful to really get a following," he noted. "we have been winning and will continue to win, so I'm not worried about losing fans. There are enough fans for both of us."

Doors Open

Fast forward to February, 1972. The Nets defeat the Pittsburgh Condors 129-121 in the Coliseum's first ever sporting event. Attendance: a shade under 8,000 people.

Despite the modest debut, within weeks, the Nassau County hype machine was up-and-running and telling New Yorkers that they didn't need to go all the way into the city to see a big time show.

The bright and shining concrete oval, built at a cost of $28 million and offering a seating capacity of between 14,500 and 18,000 (depending on the event) for big time sports and other spectacles, is just emerging from its cocoon on 1,130 acres of the old and historical Mitchell Field - some 20 miles from teeming Manhattan.

The Coliseum is not just a country bumpkin. Supporters are enthusiastically calling it the thrust of the future. Already the Garden is shuffling uncomfortable from the thought of ts future competition.

Amenities of the brand spanking new arena include instant replay video on the center-hanging screen, "breathing room" for 6,000 cars in the parking lot and a wealth of water fountains for patrons' thirst quenching pleasure. Sports fans in the 70's were an easy bunch to please.

At the "suburbanite answer to Madison Square Garden," what would become a Nassau County tradition was already taking shape: everyone was scrambling to take credit for the same thing, and trying to make sure citizens knew who to thank.

In the first episode, it was Nets and Islanders owner Roy Boe versus Caso in a Maury-style battle over who would be declared the Coliseum's real father.

When the Coliseum first opened its doors Feb. 11 for a basketball game, the program called for the occasion hailed Boe as, "the emperor of the Coliseum."

This brought a chill reaction from the Nassau executive offices in Mineola.

"Boe is just a tenant - we mustn't forget that," said a Nassau County spokesman. "The man who bulled this whole thing through and who has watched over it like a jealous mother hen is Caso. It is Caso's baby."

Caso doesn't shrug off the responsibility.

"This Coliseum was bought with county funds," the executive said. "You might say it belongs to the people. It's theirs. I'm determined to see that it doesn't become a tight, exclusive operation catering only to a favored few."

The Coliseum may have "belonged to the people," but it was Caso who had rejected a much bigger plan for the area by the previous administration, led by executive Eugene Nickerson, that included seven buildings, housing and a library dedicated to John F. Kennedy.

In 1969, Nickerson was voted out. Caso was voted in, the plan was whittled down and only the Coliseum would be built. Not that that was a problem for Caso.

Caso said his predecessor, Eugene Nickerson, sought to turn operation of the facility over to a private corporation, relieving the county of the headaches.

"I fought it," Caso said. "Now my job is on the line."

Caso kept his job until 1977, when he was replaced on the Republican ballot by Francis T. Purcell, who would be elected as his replacement. Needless to say, that "bright and shining concrete oval" would hold more than its share of memorable moments during both administrations.

Ed Mangano, Nassau County's current executive, was re-elected for a second consecutive term in November 2013, one year after the Islanders announced their move to Brooklyn. His job, clearly wasn't on the line.