As an eighth grader, Ray Larkin went with his family to the first New York Islanders game ever. It was October 1972, at Nassau County Coliseum and Larkin went on to see hundreds more games there over the next five decades, most as a season-ticket holder.
But after all those days and nights in that cramped, spare venue, Larkin’s surroundings changed dramatically on Saturday. He and his wife, Sue Larkin, helped their beloved team usher in the next era of Islanders hockey at the smart, new UBS Arena at Belmont Park, a venue so plush and elegant that fans used to the dingy old building could wonder if they had strolled into the wrong facility.
“It’s magnificent,” said Ray Larkin, a real estate agent from Garden City. “We waited a long time for this.”
The opposing team he saw in 1972 was the Atlanta Flames, the ancestor of Saturday’s visiting team, the Calgary Flames, whose center, Brad Richardson, went into the record book as the first player to score in the new venue.
Richardson’s goal at 4:05 of the first period helped Calgary win, 5-2, in the debut game at UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y., as the short-handed Islanders, minus five regulars who had been put on the Covid-19 protocol list, played their first home game of the season after 13 road games.
“It was a messy 24 hours because of the Covid thing,” said Barry Trotz, the Islanders coach. “But it was a great atmosphere. This is a new school building that feels old school when you’re out on the ice.”
The last time the Islanders skated off their home rink after a game that counted was amid a storm of beer and water bottles, some shoes and a pair of eyeglasses, all thrown onto the ice by exuberant fans celebrating an overtime win in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning in June.
It was not the most decorous way to say adieu to the arena that, as dumpy as it was, hosted four Stanley Cup championship seasons and helped stamp the team and its fans with their scrappy and loyal identity.
For better or worse, that identity has undergone a tremendous facelift.
“That was a great transition for the closing of that chapter of Islander hockey,” Trotz said. “Hopefully we’ll forge a new chapter at Belmont here.”
The new $1.1 billion arena is snuggled in next to Belmont Park racetrack, about seven miles west of the old building, and only a couple of furlongs from the border between Queens and Nassau County.
It holds roughly 17,000 fans for hockey and is a gleaming example of the most up-to-date trends in sports arena design, with a few nods to the old barn that helped make the Islanders experience so distinctive for most of the last 50 years.
The roof hangs low, just a few feet higher than the old one in Uniondale, to help recreate that hovering, overheated atmosphere of the smaller venue; and the banners that hang from it recall all the glory that the Islanders created in the old building.
“It feels like the Colly kind of, with the low roof,” said defenseman Scott Mayfield, referring to Nassau Coliseum. “But it’s state of the art.”
Murals and banners marking the triumphant days gone by are spread throughout the building, along with other touches intended to make hard-core fans smile. There is even a Section 329, nestled into the 200 level, that recreates the famous section that was home to many of their most enthusiastic fans over the years. It has unupholstered seats and railings that make it easy to stand during games.
“I can’t believe they did this,” said Phil Fairbanks of Newburgh, N.Y., a season ticket holder in Section 329. “It started out in the old place with us just chanting and having fun, and I guess they built this to have some of the old feel.”
Developers of the arena are confident that any lingering sentimentality fans may hold for the old coliseum — if there is any — will quickly be replaced by glee over comfortable seats, clean surfaces, ample space in the concourses and enough bars and restaurants to keep people spending long after they have entered the building.
“What we are trying to do is build another iconic facility that is part of the fiber of New York City,” said Tim Leiweke, the chief executive of the Oak View Group, which is a co-developer and operator of the arena. “We are not just Nassau. We are New York metro.”
Over the ensuing weeks and years fans will pick out the things they like and dislike about the new rink. But on Saturday there were mostly smiles and expressions of wonder as they crossed the threshold into a new era.
“Wow,” Sue Larkin said. “This is different.”
Brick work on the façade is a nod to the nearby racetrack, enabling the newer building to blend in with the historic surroundings. But the structure also bears a resemblance to Citi Field, the home of the Mets, which is not surprising since Jeff Wilpon, the former co-owner of the Mets, who built that stadium, is a co-developer of UBS Arena, too.
Fans enter into a great hall, which alone cost roughly $50 million. It features two murals depicting signature images of New York, Long Island, Belmont Racetrack and the Islanders, all centered around the Stanley Cup trophy.
There will be more than just hockey. The facility will also host concerts. and Leiweke said the Islanders, as owners, will reap enormous financial benefit from those dates, unlike at Nassau County Coliseum, which the team did not own.
“They are about to have their best economic year ever,” Leiweke said, “by far,”
Leiweke boasts that the arena has more bathroom space per capita of customers than any other arena like it. That is likely to resonate with many fans, especially those who missed goals while waiting in long lines.
“You couldn’t get into the bathrooms in the old place,” said Thomas Beyer, a 58-year-old financier who now lives in Rye, N.Y. “That building was fine, but it’s time had come. Time to move on.”
The players’ facilities are in accordance with virtually all new arenas built to pamper athletes: They are luxurious. The Islanders have a small locker room to change out of their civilian clothes and a main locker room where they change into their equipment. Nearby are aquatic therapeutic facilities, a classroom with stadium seating and a large video board, weight rooms and dining facilities, plus a shooting range — about the size of the slot area in front of the goal, equipped with plastic flooring and a net.
Leiweke said that Lou Lamoriello, the Islanders president and general manager, was closely involved in the design of all the areas where players and staff gather. The locker room also features a digital ribbon message board allowing Trotz, the coach, to reinforce any messages for the players before and during games.
The message to the fans was equally clear: Prepare for a whole new identity.
“These fans deserve a home like this,” said forward Kyle Palmieri. “It’s an incredible building. That atmosphere was electric. Not the result we were looking for, but the fans showed up.”