If you read comic books in the early 80s, you might remember ads for an upcoming limited series featuring an obscure character named Rocket Raccoon.
Artwork of an angry-looking raccoon in a one-piece bathing suit and thigh-high boots shooting at something ran in just about every book Marvel Comics published at the time. Few had heard of Rocket before that series (he had only had a handful of appearances, mainly in Hulk comics) and his four-issue limited series didn’t exactly set the world on fire when it was released in the summer of 1985. He would barely be seen afterward, too.
Fast forward about 30 years and that same obscure character is now a foundational piece of one of the most popular installments of an unprecedented cinematic juggernaut that generates several billion dollars a year. He’s voiced by an absurdly handsome award-nominated actor. Kids dress as Rocket for Halloween. He’s got toys and collectibles and stuffed animals and t-shirts and now appears in comics monthly in both team books and his own much more successful solo series.
Absolutely no one in 1985 could have possibly seen this coming. I never thought in a million years when I saw those ads at nine-years-old that I’d be seeing Rocket Raccoon on a big screen or that my wife and kid would even know who he is. Of all the Marvel characters that have been brought to life via the MCU, Rocket is the one that still blows my mind each and every time I see him.
That’s a very longwinded and nerdy way of saying that sometimes things you don’t expect will ever happen can happen. That’s what UBS Arena is.
It’s something I and probably a lot of other people thought would never happen in our lifetimes. In just the lifespan of this blog, readers and commenters have waded through very nascent beginnings of the Lighthouse Project era, the failed arena referendum, the move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the return to a refurbished Nassau Coliseum and then the approval and construction of UBS Arena at Belmont Park.
That’s all in just one 13-year stretch (which is an eternity in blog years) and would be enough to drive any fan crazy. But that’s still also just a fraction of the twists and turns in the story of the Islanders finally - FINALLY - getting a new arena built just for them on Long Island.
I can still picture high school-aged me sitting on my parents’ porch reading the annual, “if the Islanders don’t get a new arena, they could possibly move” story that seemed to appear in Newsday before the start of every season beginning at the advent of the 1990s. Relocation, or just simple contraction, were possible given how dire the situation was for the one-time crown jewel of the NHL.
Yes, their home was over 20-years old at that point. But the issues weren’t just aesthetic. Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum was a magical place that witnessed a lot of history and held a lot of memories for a lot of people. Off the ice, it was choking the franchise. Few if any other teams in the NHL paid rent and utilities to play at their arenas. For the most part, they owned their own venues and used them to generate revenue in the form of exorbitant parking fees, concession prices and anything else they could squeeze the paying public for.
Each owner the Islanders had over the last 30 years knew going in that the only way to make the team profitable was to get a new building. And all but Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky failed.
I was on that same porch when John Spano took over as owner promising a new arena, and when he was busted for fraud and eventually tracked down in the Cayman Islands and dragged back to Nassau County to stand trial. Within a year, all the grand plans Spano came in with went up in a cloud of bogus faxes and outlandish excuses.
Ownership transferred back to absentee check-signer John Pickett, a full time Florida resident who had been trying to unload the Islanders for years. The next buyers were the New York Sports Ventures, a cadre of phony tough guys straight out of a Cohen Brothers movie. Principal owners Steven Gluckstern and brothers Howard and Edward Milstein bought the team on the cheap and expected to resell it after a new arena was built, netting themselves a tidy profit. From Day 1, they tried to strongarm Nassau County into footing the bill for a new building citing unsafe conditions at the Coliseum. While that may have been true (watch out for that ceiling tile!), the powers that be saw no reason to spend taxpayer money on a new Coliseum. The owners ruthlessly selling off players for spare change and stripping the roster down to the studs may have played a part. Things got so bad that county executive Tom Gulotta infamously called Gluckstern and Co. “Pigs at the Trough.”
Once it was obvious they weren’t going to get their way, NY Sports Ventures bailed and sold to Charles Wang, a Long Islander by way of China who wanted to see his adopted home keep the only professional sports franchise it had. Wang was a businessman, not a hockey fan. He knew that the arena was the key. But he was stuck in a lease with the county that he couldn’t get out of and that hamstrung his team by severely limiting how much money they could generate from the Coliseum. Oh, and the lease still had 15 years to go on it.
After initially spending money to upgrade the roster, Wang set out to find a way to build a new Coliseum. Enter The Lighthouse Project, an expansive, expensive undertaking that would transform the Nassau “hub” behind anything that anyone could have ever conceived. Plans for an arena and housing and businesses and medical buildings were all set. Funding was supposedly secured. All he needed was the approval of the county to get to work.
So he waited. And we waited. And waited. And waited. All the while, Hempstead town supervisor Kate Murray stalled and hemmed and hawed until she finally said okay... to a significantly downsized version of the project. It was crushing. That led Wang to the arena referendum that put the vote to the public. When the votes came in, the “nays” won, choosing not to take out a municipal bond to fund an arena for the Islanders.
That’s a very rough summary of three decades of failure and frustrations at politicians, owners and various other clowns in what seemed like a never-ending circus. There was always another Lucy ready to snatch that football away from Charlie Brown. And the true blockheads were us, the fans who kept hoping this time it would finally happen.
Even after the move to Barclays Center and with the “Iron Clad” 25-year lease Wang touted at their introductory press conference, the drama never stopped. Before their first season in Brooklyn was over, rumors started flying around that the Islanders and the new venue weren’t happy with their relationship. Barclays Center was paying the team a healthy sum to be a co-tenant, which was great for the Islanders and less great for the arena, which wasn’t making as much money off of hockey games as projected.
This was perhaps the most irritating turn in the story. The Islanders had found a home that, despite being an ill fit with the sport and the fanbase, at least put some money in their pockets. It seemed like maybe we could finally breathe. And yet, stories about new owners Malkin and Ledecky looking at Willets Point in Queens or Belmont Park across the border were all anyone could focus on.
In retrospect, the final act happened quickly, relative to the rest of the story. The Islanders played their first regular season game at Barclays Center in October of 2015. Nearly two years later, in September of 2017, the owners bid on building a complex at Belmont Park that would include an arena, a hotel, retail village and other projects. By December, they were declared the winning bidder. In September of 2019, after a year and a half of planning and community meetings and threatened lawsuits, a groundbreaking ceremony was held and construction was begun. Now, in November of 2021, the building Islanders fans have waited 30 years for is finally set to open.
If you’re a Lighthouse Hockey regular or an Islanders fan, you already know the story. But those outside of this bubble may not understand the gravity and enormity and eternity of this timeline and what UBS Arena means.
This isn’t a profitable and lucrative team moving from an old arena to a new one that can help them cash in more efficiently on that popularity. This isn’t a facelift on an old building to shoehorn in more seats or change the typeface on the walls or add aluminum foil to the roof.
This is the end of a story that has lasted for generations. For lifetimes. This is about a team sitting on the absolute brink of extinction for decades finally getting something nearly every professional sports franchise already has: a stable, viable, modern home. There are going to be people sitting in the stands over the rest of this season that have never, in their entire lives, ever known a version of the New York Islanders that weren’t searching for a solution to the “arena issues.” Imagine an entire life of games and favorite players and screaming and shouting and joy and heartbreak, all done with the specter of “but where will they play next year?” And imagine it coming to an end the instant you walk into a building.
When the Islanders first started their quest for a new arena, the NHL had 21 teams. There are now 32 franchises. Five teams have relocated. This all could have ended at any time if someone had just said, “Screw this. Just move the bastards.”
Somehow, throughout this entire saga, the Islanders are still standing, just about a half hour away from where they started.
What once was unthinkable is now reality. And it’s not on a far off planet. It’s here. On Long Island. Just off the Cross Island Parkway.