When the sun rose over Long Island Saturday morning, the day Islanders fans never thought would come finally did.
From the years of wrestling with the inadequacies of Nassau Coliseum to the forced move to Brooklyn, where Barclays Center face-planted as a hockey venue — with obstructed sight lines and shoddy ice quality — the sold-out grand opening of the Islanders’ $1.1 billion UBS Arena on Saturday night marked the dawn of a new era.
An era when the Islanders have one of the most extravagant arenas in the NHL. A building that is fit to serve as home base for a team that has made it to the Stanley Cup semifinals in the past two seasons. A new home that was built for the fans.
That much was evident by the impossible-to-miss “Welcome Home” mural painted on the wall next to the escalators to the upper concourse. But what else would you expect from Jon Ledecky, a man who’s known as a fan’s owner.
“Islanders fans have the home that they deserve,” the franchise’s co-owner told The Post before the Isles fell 5-2 to the Flames in front of a passionate crowd of 17,255. “It’s been a long journey, it’s been a lot of work, but here we are.
“I just can’t wait to get inside to see the reaction on their faces as they walk in.”
What was really worth seeing was the line of fans who waited to personally thank Ledecky for delivering on his promise of a new arena.
A man whose child was diagnosed with cancer two years ago to the day wrapped himself around Ledecky and explained how much of a welcome distraction the night was. Another fan, Anthony Ferrante of West Hempstead, told Ledecky he was at the opening night of the Coliseum with his brother, who has since passed. He said he brought his son, Anthony Ferrante Jr., to sit in the same nosebleed seats on the opening night of UBS Arena to honor his brother.
“Sports brings families together,” Ledecky said. “The Islanders are a family.”
UBS Arena may have been able to come to life amid the coronavirus pandemic, which stalled construction last March for about a month, but the organization was given another painful reminder that COVID-19 is still very much a variable to be wary of.
The Islanders were without their longest tenured player, Josh Bailey; their captain, Anders Lee; in addition to Ross Johnston, Adam Pelech, Andy Greene and Anthony Beauvillier — who are all currently in COVID-19 protocol. Plus, Ryan Pulock watched from afar after suffering a lower-body injury that will sideline him for 4-6 weeks, leaving the Islanders with a shell of their team to take the ice for the first game at 2400 Hempstead Turnpike.
“I sent them a little text, because they were the ones that had put a lot of the blood, sweat and tears into keeping this team competitive,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “Having to go through the Coliseum, Barclays, and back to the Coliseum. They’re the ones that have grinded through a lot of that and they had to miss that opportunity.”
Still, the Islanders’ most highly anticipated night in recent memory went on as planned. While key members of the Islanders current core couldn’t be there, those who have cemented themselves in the franchise’s history were.
Royal blue carpet was rolled out onto center ice for the introductions of Islanders Hall of Famers Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies, Ken Morrow, Ed Westfall, Patrick Flatley, John Tonelli, Butch Goring and Bob Nystrom. The announcer then gave a shout out to Mike Bossy, who recently announced he was diagnosed with lung cancer and was unable to attend.
The most necessary tribute of the night, however, went to Charles Wang. The late former Isles owner was honored with a video montage for his loyalty to the community and his relentless commitment to keeping the team on Long Island. Without him, UBS Arena at Belmont Park would never have been possible.
So when the sun set Saturday night and the first home game of the season went in the books, Isles fans emptied out of the arena still causing a ruckus despite the loss. Because there will be other games, many other games, at UBS Arena.
Do you believe it’s real yet?