It’s “Marvel Week” around SB Nation (not my idea, I promise. I literally didn’t even get the memo!), and our brother and sister blogs are celebrating by talking about their favorite MCU movies, imagining their team’s players as heroes or just getting Jim Starlin weird with the concept.
Marvel Comics and the Islanders are two things very near and dear to me, and I thought about doing something related to all of the Long Island connections to the House of Ideas. Stan Lee and his wife Joan lived for almost 30 years in Hewlett Harbor - in the house in which he created Spider-Man, the Hulk, X-Men and so on - and many of his collaborators lived on the Island as well. Always one to use real world settings for his creations, a number of Lee’s Marvel characters also came from Long Island, like half of the Fantastic Four (Sue Storm and her brother Johnny, also known as The Invisible Woman and The Human Torch) and even Iron Man himself, Tony Stark (in the comics, anyway, before he and Robert Downey Jr. melded into the same person). As far as MCU actors go, I’m pretty sure only once-and-future Thor co-star Natalie Portman grew up on Long Island, but I might be wrong (We can accept Brooklyn-born Marisa Tomei and Queens-born Jon Favreau, I suppose...).
Marvel and the Islanders? I can do this all day.
But then I remembered a connection that’s closer to the team and gives us a chance to discuss something that came and went in the turbulence of the last few months.
If you visited Barclays Center for an Islanders game, Nets game or any other event over the last couple of years, you probably noticed a statue of Captain America out front. The one ton bronze figure of Steve Rogers was commissioned by Marvel and sculpted by Brooklyn-based artist Dave Cortes ahead of the character’s 75th anniversary. Although the quote on its base - “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn” - came straight from Captain America: First Avenger (comic Cap was from the Lower East Side), Cortes didn’t base the work specifically on actor Chris Evans, but on the many interpretations of Cap throughout the decades.
The statue moved around the borough for years after its 2016 San Diego Comic Con unveiling, beginning at Prospect Park and currently living outside a friggin’ Bed, Bath & Beyond in Sunset Park. But in between, it stood outside of Barclays Center, greeting people crossing Atlantic Avenue or emerging from the subway station right in front of the arena.
Like that statue, the Islanders’ time at Barclays Center is over now. Their last home game in Brooklyn was supposed to have been on March 22nd against the Carolina Hurricanes. The team announced about a month earlier that all of their remaining games, including any playoff games and all of next season, will be back at the once-again renovated Nassau Coliseum. Then in 2021-22, it’s on to the new Belmont Park arena that’s currently under construction.
I had tickets to go to that final Barclays game, along with my friend and his two sons. They live in New York City, I live in New Jersey, and I felt this might be the last time any of us will get to see our team play live and in-person for a while. The game was then postponed, along with the rest of the NHL schedule and life in general, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Captain America statue didn’t figure into too many of the articles summarizing the Islanders’ troubled time in Brooklyn. Not that it should have. In four years, enough went wrong between team and venue to fill a graphic novel.
True Barclays Center Hipsters
It started with a surprise moving announcement during a lockout in 2013 that put an end to 20 years of hoping for a new arena. Then it was a management company that didn’t understand what its customers wanted out of a hockey game experience and treated them more like a focus group than a fanbase. Then it was rumors that the new owners were looking to move again already, despite a lucrative, IRON CLAD lease whose ink was barely dry. Once a new place at Belmont was secure and a return to Nassau Coliseum proved to be a huge hit, the Islanders and Barclays Center entered into their awkward “roommates passing each other in different shifts” phase.
Along the way was mushy ice, bad sight lines, ended traditions, closed concession stands, a ton of empty seats, traffic complaints, Long Island Railroad mayhem, a surprising amount of victories (including two second round playoff series), a car in the corner and an off-center scoreboard that only Canadian sportswriters seemed to even notice. I’m sure there’s more that I forgot.
When the move to Barclays Center was first announced, a lot of jokes were made about Brooklyn hipsters finding out that ice hockey exists, or of the team taking on flannel uniforms, chunky glasses and ironic mustaches. John Tavares was asked about hipsters in an interview, and clearly felt that the whole lifestyle didn’t really suit him (go figure...).
After four years of turmoil, the true Barclays Center Hipster ended up being a person that’s going to miss going there for Islanders game, warts and all.
For those of us living outside of Nassau County, Barclays is easily accessible via mass transit in a way that the Coliseum has never been and Belmont may be in a decade. Tickets were dirt cheap, a rare occurrence for almost anything in New York, and if you knew where to sit, the sightlines were not an issue. There were bars and restaurants across the street and Big Rock (or a Captain America statue) to rendezvous at any time.
The cons outweighed the pros for sure. I’ll never fully understand all of the mistakes made by the people in charge and I won’t miss sitting among thousands of snarky, dismissive visiting fans in my own team’s home arena. Belmont Park is a literal dream come true that I can’t wait to be finished. This team’s time in Brooklyn was a weird, strange, uncomfortable era in their history.
But I would be lying if I didn’t say that I will miss going to Barclays Center for Islanders games. It wasn’t Nassau Coliseum, and it wasn’t what Ebbets Field was to the Dodgers. Even if it had worked out (and I desperately wanted it to, believe me), it was never going to be either of those things. It turned out to be maybe the most “Brooklyn” thing ever: a couch for the Islanders to crash on while they got back on their feet.
What were we talking about before? Oh, right. Marvel Week. One other thing about that postponed game against the Hurricanes. It was Marvel Super Heroes day and there was going to be a giveaway: an Islanders
Captain America Iron Man bobblehead figure.
I wanted to go to the Islanders’ last ever game in Brooklyn. That opportunity has now passed.
I still want that bobblehead to remember it by.
BONUS BIT - for all you Athletics subscribers, a fine article (with lots of video clips) on Isles defensive prospect Robin Salo by Scott Wheeler, aka “the prospect guy who isn’t Pronman.” Wheeler has been doing a series called “The Gifted” where he examines prospects with unusual or unique skill sets. Salo is the third Islander so featured, after Oliver Wahlstrom and Bode Wilde.
Naturally, when you only watch highlight reels, everyone looks like the Next Big Deal, but Salo looks really smooth - escaping pressure and finding space, and making very good decisions with the puck. His move from Liiga to the SHL brought immediate results for him and his new team, Örebro:
“With Örebro, he led all players in possession, driving results to the tune of a 56.1 CF% across his ten games. [SAMPLE SIZE ALERT - ed.] Before the season was paused, the team outshot their opponents 184-144 with Salo - a 21-yer-old-rookie asked to adjust quickly to a new system in a leading role - on the ice. In a dozen games with his new team, he was scored against at even strength just once, while averaging 22:07 a night.”
The clips are all behind the paywall, alas, but it was, dare I say, a little like watching Mark Streit. Salo wasn’t blazing fast, but he was smooth and smart. Also, he is still just 21 years old, so he and the Isles have some time. (Streit himself didn’t make good in the NHL until age 28.) He’s may never be as good as Streit - or Devon Toews, who was taken with the draft pick the Isles got for Streit when they dealt him to Philadelphia - but deep blue lines are always a plus and Salo may be a pleasant surprise for Isles fans once hockey finally, eventually, resumes.