The traditional organ music that played throughout the second intermission at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on March 3 had abruptly switched to louder rap music as the players took the ice for the third period. Oblivious Islander fans seemed unphased by the contrived attempt to stir the crowd via Biggie Smalls, many preferring to scroll through personal devices instead.
Striking this incongruent chord seemed to reflect the Islanders performance thus far tonight: disjointed, rushed and unbalanced. The visiting Montreal Canadiens carried the play from the outset, holding a commanding 4-0 lead.
The score could also signal the future of the Islanders in Brooklyn.
The team recently announced that it would relocate back to Nassau County, Long Island, their ancestral home since the expansion team’s inception in 1972. During the 2019-2020 season, the Islanders split their home games between Barclays Center and the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale. Beginning in 2020-2021, a new facility at Belmont Park will serve as the team’s permanent home rink. Reactions to the move have been mixed.
This relocation enjoyed the support of longtime fan and Queens native, Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“I’m overjoyed. The Islanders should be in Long Island,” said the governor on Feb. 29. “When they moved to Brooklyn, I felt the air come out of the balloon. It was not right, not the way it was supposed to be.”
In 2015, the Islanders arrived in Brooklyn to much fanfare but the anticipated crowds simply never materialized. Despite the convenience, accessibility and modern amenities offered at the new arena, NHL hockey was met with apathy by both traditional and hipster Brooklynites. Attendance figures for Islander home games at Barclays Center were among the lowest in the 31 team NHL. In 2019-2020, the Islanders drew an average of only 10,788-well under the 15,000 capacity. Some like Nick Hirshon, an adjunct professor at Columbia and an author of a book about the Islanders, “We Want Our Fishsticks,” weren’t surprised it didn’t work out for myriad reasons.
“The Barclays Center was built for basketball not hockey, so the scoreboard wasn’t positioned over center ice and lots of seats were obstructed,” said Hirshon. “I don’t think the Islanders ever banked on making new fans in Brooklyn but were hoping to convince Long Island fans to trek to the city.”
“Most fans were used to quick drives to Nassau Coliseum and were skeptical at best about moving to Brooklyn,” Hirshon added.
Many fans at the March 3 game took a sober view of the news, expressing neither surprise nor alarm relative to the team’s suburban pivot. “People that grew up in Brooklyn are most likely Ranger fans,” said Alicia Conn, while nursing a $14 bottle of beer as she watched the game. “I think it’s tough to expect Ranger fans to convert to being Islander fans-they are main rivals,” said the Long Island native and Brooklyn resident.
Understandably, Brooklyn Islander fans were equally less sanguine about the uninspired performance on the ice that evening against Montreal in one of the final Islander games played at Barclay’s Center.
“Nice pass, Bailey!” yelled sarcastically by a fan toward veteran Islanders winger, Jeff Bailey.
Under pressure, Bailey had rushed an outlet pass that was intercepted by Montreal defenseman, Jeff Petry. The turnover led to a Canadiens scoring chance, but the bid was thwarted by Islanders goalie, Semyon Varlamov with a stick save.
Much of the audience cheered the scoring opportunity, in French.
Clad in the distinctive red, white and blue sweaters of their beloved Montreal Canadiens, the Quebec faithful had traveled some 370 miles to demonstrate their steadfast support. If the rouge, blanc et bleu sweaters visible throughout the stands were an indication, the visiting Quebecois outnumbered the locals by a wide margin. Of course, this cross-border visit took place prior to the coronavirus scare beginning in earnest.
The flagship original six franchise was once considered synonymous with Stanley Cup championships (24) but the Canadiens are twenty-seven years removed from glory. The Islanders too were once the toast of hockey, capturing four consecutive Stanley Cups in the early 80s. The blue and orange banners hanging from the rafters represent tangible evidence of Islander glory, but they were of little help to the team trailing 4-0 on this early March evening.
New York responded to the defensive breaches on the ice by advancing into the Montreal zone. This time Bailey delivered a crisp pass to Andy Greene who found his target streaking toward the slot. After receiving the deft pass, team captain Anders Lee found himself alone in front of goalie Carey Price instinctively snapping a one timer by the Montreal backstop’s left shoulder for a goal.
Buoyed by the score, the crowd shed its collective cynicism by letting out a raucous cheer. Though still behind 4-1, the momentum had clearly shifted. After all, hockey comebacks are often driven by emotion. Just as quickly, however, the crowd’s enthusiasm was quelled.
Referees conferred and huddled to review the replay. Moments later, the zebras disallowed the goal on grounds that Lee had illegally kicked the puck into the net. Despite spirited objections from Islander coach Barry Trotz, the goal was negated. A crushing reversal that mirrors the Islanders entire Brooklyn experiment in many ways.
It is true of course, that Kings County does have a checkered NHL history. In 1942, the Brooklyn Americans filed for bankruptcy after 16 lackluster campaigns. Hirshon doesn’t necessarily consider Brooklyn a bad fit for hockey but attributes the Islanders urban misadventure to an already crowded marketplace.
“Having three NHL teams in the New York market is a dubious proposition because each team eats into the others attendance,” Hirshon said.
Will NHL hockey ever return to Brooklyn?
“After what happened with the Islanders, Brooklyn bears a messy stain in the team’s history. I can’t imagine the NHL moving another franchise to Brooklyn,” said Hirshon.
Fans seemed to feel the same way unleashing a harsh cacophony toward the home team when another turnover occurred.
“Get ready for golf!” yelled one in a faded blue Denis Potvin shirt.
For Islander fans hoping to attend future games at Barclays Center, they may need to heed their own advice by finding a new hobby.
The Canadiens defeated the Islanders 6-2 in what turned out to be the second to last game played at Barclays Center. The final Islanders game in Brooklyn was scheduled for March 22, but it has since been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.