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What winning the Belmont RFP means (and doesn’t mean) for the Islanders

Getting the go-ahead to build a new arena could be a game-changer for the team on many fronts.

Ottawa Senators v New York Islanders
And another thing...
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Apologies for the lateness. I had kind of a crazy week last week. But this is kind of a big deal for a few reasons.

The Islanders have won the right to build an arena complex at Belmont Park. The expansive project will include an 18,000-seat arena, 250-room hotel, 430,000 square feet of retail space, a renovated year-round Long Island Railroad station and other items.

So, what does all this mean for the franchise? A lot of things. It also doesn’t mean a lot of things, too.

It means Islanders owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky have done the impossible. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of building anything new in Nassau - especially of this size and scope - was a pipe dream condemned to die in the county’s eternal morass of political red tape. For all his billions and years of trying, Charles Wang couldn’t solve the puzzle. But Malkin and Ledecky found a bug in the system: a spot in Nassau County that wasn’t controlled by Nassau County. By targeting Belmont, which sits on state land and is controlled by the New York Racing Association, the team found partners looking to make meaningful change to revitalize an underutilized area they could all profit from. Right now, it’s a win for everyone. Just getting the go-ahead to build an arena is a huge step forward for the Islanders.

That doesn’t mean the job is done. All that said, building an arena, hotel, retail village and whatever else isn’t exactly like putting together a LEGO Millennium Falcon. It’s a massive amount of work and there will be obstacles and delays and stuff that are bound to pop up. Malkin, who has made his fortune building giant outlet malls for luxury retail shops across Europe and Asia, surely already knows this. But it’s worth repeating: Everyone involved needs to make sure this deal gets sealed.

Doing so also means removal from the Great NHL Wheel of Relocation. Maybe my favorite thing I’ve read about it came from Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts column:

If Long Island had chosen MLS’s New York City FC plan for a soccer stadium, the Islanders would have rocketed to the top of relocation rumours to Houston, Quebec City or Seattle. Now that storyline is dead and buried.

It sure is (again, provided the job gets done).

It means the Islanders are just the tip of the iceberg. When they first bought the Islanders, Ledecky mentioned wanting to host All Star games, drafts, NCAA tournaments and other events as a way to make the franchise, “world class.” It doesn’t take an insider to see that, outside of a possible draft, none of that stuff was going to happen at Barclays Center. With a brand new arena, you can bet that the push will be on to get some few marquee events there. Hey, for that matter, how about a Winter Classic from the middle of the racetrack, in front of 90,000 people in the grandstand?

It doesn’t mean they’re the only venue in town. We’re going to be hearing more and more about this, but it will be interesting to see how another large event venue will figure into the market. I don’t think Barclays is in any danger of going out of business thanks to Belmont, and the Islanders’ partnership with event packager the Oak View Group means they won’t need to worry about acts, either. As for Nassau Coliseum... maybe someone should have thought of that before they opted to pull out some seats and drop a sheath of aluminum foil over the top of it, rather than doing a full renovation.

It means mass transit is key. A major aspect of the Belmont arena plan is the updating of the existing LIRR station into something useable all year round. That will help get fans in the five boroughs who joined the bandwagon after the move to Brooklyn (yes, they do exist) out to the Island for games. It would be ideal if the new fans combined with the older ones to create one, large sustainable fanbase for the future.

It doesn’t mean the team isn’t getting some breaks along the way. Privately financing a billion dollar arena project isn’t something an NHL team usually does. For that, Ledecky, Malkin and their partners should be lauded. But to build that billion dollar arena, they’ll also be getting tax breaks and a sweet deal on the land that will ultimately end up screwing town residents. The MTA will also be kicking in to pay for that LIRR station, which will probably cost people, too. Local governments always help out when arenas are built, and the list of venues that don’t get such breaks is a small one (ask Jim Dolan about how many taxes he pays on Madison Square Garden, or about the arena’s water and electric bills). The Islanders getting in on the action is, in a sense, something that was a long time coming. Still, it’s hard not to lament the kind of dubious deals that need to be made in order for a community to simply enjoy their local sports team.

It means John Tavares has clarity. The Islanders captain wanted clarity on the team’s arena situation and now he’s got it. At least, he’s got some clarity. He says communication between he, his agent and the team has been good so far and when he decides he’s ready to talk contract, the new arena proposal will be one of the factors he takes into consideration. From Friedman’s 31 Thoughts again:

As one GM who wants John Tavares to hit free agency laughed last night: “This… is not helpful.”

It doesn’t mean he’ll sign right away. Unfortunately. It would have been great if he had signed at the Belmont announcement, but life doesn’t work that way. He’s always said how much he enjoys being an Islander and how much he wants to stay. But until he actually does, we’re going to have to just sit and wait. Follow all of the latest, information, quotes and rumors (phony or otherwise), in our John Tavares Free Agency Encyclopedia, which is now up to Volume II.

It means they’re going “home.” A lot is going to be made about the shift back to Nassau County and it is significant to be sure. Technically, Brooklyn is only about 30 miles from the site of the Coliseum, but in the eyes of a lot of Islanders fans, that distance was insurmountable (more on them in a minute). When their lease ran out at Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders needed a place to play and we’re fortunate that Barclays was there. That said, having the team back in Nassau feels right and longtime Blackhawks writer Sam Fels put it perfectly:

But the Isles and the weirdness that they’re the only ones that come from this specific place and will return there, that has a place. An anti-New York City feel to it is what helped give the Isles their identity. And they’ll get it back.

And if you’re one of the people complaining that a small corner of Belmont crosses over into Queens, get over yourself.

That doesn’t mean Brooklyn was a mistake. The move to Barclays Center was a golden opportunity for the previously provincial Islanders to expand their brand to beyond just Long Island. Obviously, that never happened, and the team and arena (which controlled the advertising and business interests as part of their agreement), never quite got off on the right foot. Brooklyn is as unique and weird a market as the suburbs is, but Barclays never understood what hockey and hockey fans were all about. And a large segment of Islanders fans, among the hardest people to please in the entire NHL, were reluctant to embrace the arena. In the end, it’s probably better for everyone if a separation occurs. But part of me will always wonder would could have been if things had been handled differently.

At least, we’ll always have “Bedlam in Brooklyn.”

It means those “home” fans have to keep up their end of the deal, too. Barclays Center had a slew of issues for hockey that it could never overcome in the eyes of some fans and media (some of which were overblown, to be honest). But attendance problems are nothing new for the Islanders. This team hasn’t been a consistent draw since the Dynasty era, and the nostalgia of their last season at Nassau Coliseum “helped” the team climb all the way up to 25th in the NHL in average attendance. If Ledecky and Malkin are going to fork over a billion dollars to put their team back closer to their fanbase, it means they expect people to fill the building on a regular basis. They can help themselves by putting a good team on the ice, but the fans raised on cheap seats and tailgating are going to need to show up more often and prove that moving away from the city was the right call.

It means they need for a real Islanders Hall of Fame. Find some room in that retail village or in the arena itself for a large space dedicated to the often glorious, often ridiculous 45-year history of this franchise. Gather every piece of memorabilia you can find, get that 1993 Patrick Division Champions banner out of whoever’s attic it’s in, pull every picture Bruce Bennett has in his archives and slap them on the walls. Host speaking engagements with old players. Show full games from the old days. And have the whole thing curated by team statistician Eric Hornick, I don’t care how many jobs that dude already has. Make it heaven for Islanders fans. We deserve it.

It doesn’t mean that Ledecky and Malkin get a free pass forever. If they can make this happen, the new owners will be super heroes to Islanders fans everywhere. It also means any excuse for not making the team one of the top franchises in NHL will disappear instantly. The honeymoon period will end as soon as the doors open.

It means they need to make sure to use some damn metal pipes under the ice. Seriously.