NEW YORK — The New York Islanders finally have a new home and it’s in Brooklyn, the borough that is suddenly a hot bed of pro sports 54 years after baseball’s Dodgers headed west.
“It’s a new place and it’s only 35 minutes away by train,” team owner Charles Wang said at a news conference Wednesday. “Come and join us and see hockey.”
After seven months of negotiations, and offers to move the team out of New York, Wang announced that the Islanders will relocate about 25 miles west once their lease expires at Nassau Coliseum after the 2014-15 season.
Since the day the Islanders entered the NHL in 1972, the Coliseum in Uniondale has been the place for them. It’s where they grabbed the hockey spotlight, outshined the big, bad Rangers, and won the Stanley Cup four straight times from 1980-83.
But on Wednesday, the future became all about Brooklyn.
The move is hardly shocking and not even unprecedented. The old New York Nets left Nassau Coliseum way back when, relocated to New Jersey, and have moved into their new Brooklyn home — the new Barclays Center that will also house the Islanders.
Unlike the Nets, who changed the team logo and added Brooklyn to their name, the Islanders are sticking to their heritage through and through.
That is important to Mike Bossy, a Hockey Hall of Famer now serves as the Islanders’ vice president of corporate partnerships.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Charles’ main goal was to keep the team local, and he succeeded in doing that. As much as people may be upset because it’s not going to be in Nassau County they should be happy because he kept the team in New York.”
The Barclays Center sits across the street from the site Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley hoped to put a baseball stadium to keep his club in New York. He was unable to pull it off, so the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1958 and the borough was without a major pro sports franchise until the Nets’ arrival this year.
Coincidentally, the Nets hosted the New York Knicks in an NBA preseason game at Nassau Coliseum on Wednesday night.
Real estate developer Bruce Ratner, a minority owner of the Nets, was instrumental in getting the Barclays Center built and paving the way for Brooklyn to re-enter the world of sports in a major way. The building is the main part of a $3.5-billion sports arena, business and residential complex called Atlantic Yards that was built by Ratner’s company.
“He got offers to move the team out of state — good offers — but Charles wouldn’t do that,” Ratner said. “Charles is the real hero here today.”
Wang wanted to keep the team in New York despite failing to get the Lighthouse Project built on Long Island. The grandiose development plan would have included a new arena for the Islanders, but it never got the necessary approval for construction.
Both Wang and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stated in the past that the Islanders wouldn’t play in Nassau Coliseum one day longer that they had to. Wang said he had serious options to move the team far away — Kansas City and Quebec City both had been mentioned — but stuck to his desire to remain in the area.
“We came to the right conclusion,” Wang said.
The Islanders hope this move will help them on and off the ice. The team hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2007 and hasn’t won a postseason series since 1993.
Wang started Wednesday’s festivities in the lobby of the new arena with a bold proclamation of “Hello Brooklyn!”
He will have to wait a few years to finally see his team hit the ice in the intimate building that is expected to hold between 14,500 and 15,000 for hockey. Wang said he has no intention of trying to get out of his Long Island lease early. Once the Islanders settle into Brooklyn, they will begin a 25-year lease at the Barclays Center.
“The Islanders, I believe, will be strengthened because they were playing in an inadequate facility, and the fan experience here will be much better,” Bettman said. “If a franchise is strengthened, that’s good for everybody.”
And the NHL is certainly looking for any positive news it can get as the 39-day old lockout casts a pall over the hockey world. Bettman couldn’t avoid questions about the seemingly imminent announcement that regular-season games will be canceled for good.
Bettman set a deadline of Thursday for a new collective bargaining agreement to be reached with the players’ association that would allow for a full 82-game season to be played beginning on Nov. 2. With no negotiations scheduled, and a divide between the sides seemingly growing wider, Bettman conceded that a shortened season is the most likely scenario.
“It looks like the 82-game season is not going to be a reality,” the commissioner said.
Officials in nearby Nassau County, N.Y., have struggled for years to come up with a plan to either renovate or build a new arena to replace the Nassau Coliseum. Wang, the founder of a computer software company, presented a plan in 2003 for a privately funded multibillion-dollar development of housing, retail and a new arena on the property, but the proposal foundered amid community opposition.
“I think fans want a good experience,” Wang said. “It’s not just about watching hockey it’s also the whole ambience of coming to a place where you can get good food and you can see. We have Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn fans. Westchester might be a little bit harder, but we have them all over the tri-state area.”
The Barclays deal took seven months to complete and was finished Tuesday night, according to Wang.
“Brooklyn is big time and now we have the big-league sports to prove it,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the Nassau Coliseum for 16 violations of workplace health and safety standards. OSHA said workers had been exposed to asbestos. The areas were not accessible to the general public. It also found inadequately lighted exit routes and other violations.
SMG, the company that manages the Coliseum for Nassau County, says it will contest the citation. It says the asbestos issues had been remediated.
As recently as April, Bettman said Brooklyn might not be a viable destination for the Islanders because it’s hard to reach for the team’s fan base in Long Island and Queens. However, the team’s announcement of a news conference at the Barclays Center trumpeted the fact that it is located “atop one of the largest transportation hubs in New York City ... accessible by 11 subway lines, the Long Island Rail Road, and 11 bus lines.”
“It took us 25 minutes to get here today,” Islanders general manager Garth Snow said. “We didn’t turn our back (on fans). This announcement has shown that the key is that we stayed local and we got a first-class facility. We’re happy that our fans are still able to come and watch us play as the New York Islanders.”
Last year, voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum — backed by Wang — that would have allowed Nassau County to borrow $400 million to build a new hockey arena. Earlier this year, county officials announced they were seeking proposals to open the 77-acre parcel to any developer interested in proposing new ideas for the site. An announcement on those proposals was expected to be released any day.
County Executive Edward Mangano backed the referendum as a way of keeping the hockey team from leaving along with spurring economic development and job growth. In a statement, Mangano said an economic team will be formed to redevelop the area around the old arena. He didn’t specifically comment on the Islanders.
“I am disappointed to learn of the Islanders’ plan to relocate to Brooklyn,” Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray said in a statement. “They’ve been a valued part of this region’s identity, and we wish the team great success in the future. We hope Long Islanders will continue to cheer for the team.”
Long Island fans seemed resigned to the move.
“I wish they would stay on Long Island. I was an Islanders fan for many years and went to all the Stanley Cup wins,” said Sandy Thomas, a former season-ticket holder. He added: “But the county and the town did not want to spend any money to support them. It’s too much of a commute to go to Brooklyn to a game. I will watch it on television.”