Unlikely Attraction: My Trip to the Nassau Coliseum

By Alvin Ma

“Is this where I get off for the New York Islanders’ game?” I asked. The driver of the Nassau Inter-County Express bus route n43 responded, “Yes, to your right.” I stepped off the bus, checked the time (the bus had breezed through the 30 local stops and arrived to the closest stop to Nassau Coliseum ten minutes ahead of schedule), and wondered, ‘How am I actually going to get inside the arena?’

It was Saturday night – Valentine’s Day to be exact – and the start of reading week at the nearby Nassau Community College. Aside from a handful of spectators who sought cheaper parking outside of the Nassau Coliseum grounds, the neighbourhood had zero pedestrian traffic and I was the only person on the near-empty bus to step off at that stop. Automobiles accelerated to highway speeds when the light at the nearest intersection turned green. Although I admittedly jaywalk quite frequently – especially during my stay in more urban parts of New York – this area surrounding Nassau Coliseum was not the place to take that risk. Recently I marked assignments about barriers to physical activity, with many students taking pictures of the built environment such as unshoveled sidewalks or walking trails. The below images may not be of the highest quality but it shows the icy path I took as I walked around the outside of the fenced arena complex:


20150214_182009Yes, I had to walk around to the nearest vehicular gate, as the sprawling parking lot was the only entrance I saw. The parking attendants gave me a slightly confused look but otherwise did not stop my trudging in the slushy car park. As Lance Pauker writes, “The Coliseum is one of the few East Coast sports venues accessed almost exclusively by automobile. There’s no direct train, and although there’s a bus, neither I nor anyone I talked to had ever heard of someone taking the bus to the game. Driving to the Coliseum is as much a part of the tradition as the game itself. In many ways, grumbling about traffic on the Meadowbrook and making sure you remembered where you parked so you can find it later is an Islanders experience in itself.”

Pauker describes the “overwhelmingly anti-urban” image that the New York Islanders supporters in suburban Long Island attempt to frame in comparison with the Manhattan elites and the big-city-wannabe of Brooklyn, where the Islanders franchise is expected to relocate for the 2015-16 NHL season. Other Hockey in Society writers have extensively written about Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on this website and in scholarly publications. While these writers have critically shown the complex and sometimes unjust politics occurring in its construction process, one positive aspect of the arena in Brooklyn is its location as a public transportation hub. When I visited the Barclays Center to watch the NBA Rising Stars Challenge the day before, it only took me one subway ride from my Upper West Side Manhattan hostel to the Barclays Center.

The NBA All-Star Game festivities, co-hosted by the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks (based out of “The World’s Most Famous Arena”: Midtown Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden), heavily drew upon the urban demographic of New York City. With a logo inspired by the New York City Subway and “11,100 prominent creative installations” plastered on trains and billboards, the message clearly showcases the densely-populated urban core of New York City. When I went to the “NBA House” interactive fan zone accompanying the NBA All-Star Game steps away from Madison Square Garden, one motivational speaker for an NBA Cares foundation-sponsored basketball event discussed the importance of practising shots daily at local, public basketball hoops in community centres and parks. The demographic of this audience and the target of the “We the North” campaign of the Toronto Raptors show how basketball is constructed as the inner-city sport for youth.

Hockey is often romanticized in a different way: shinny on a wide-open frozen pond like the header image of this website. Requiring cold weather and more equipment, it is not as easy to promote this form of grassroots ice hockey as shooting hoops in basketball. The NBA boasts of reaching “215 countries and territories in 47 languages”, with worldwide basketball clinics. The NHL has a long way to catch up, though teams such as the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Vancouver Canucks, and the New York Islanders have run hockey camps in non-traditional markets such as China. For the Islanders, the owner Charles Wang’s non-traditional thinking is nothing new. Wang is known and often ridiculed for exploring the prospect of sumo wrestlers dressing as goalies and approving of questionable long-term contracts while the organization otherwise works as a small-market franchise.

Nevertheless, this season has been strong so far and I am glad to have witnessed a 6-3 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets with 15,677 other fans in attendance. Going back to Pauker’s article, I do agree that the atmosphere was “both family-friendly and outrageously vulgar.” The demographics at the arena appeared to be predominantly white with a mixture of age groups: there were families, there were college students, and there were older season-ticket holders. In the first hour alone, there were two serious, rousing tributes to the military because, after all, the full name is the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum (read my thoughts on militarism and sport in a different article) balanced with the raucous “If you know the Rangers suck, clap your hands” chant despite playing a different opponent. The old barn shook with every goal, and fans clad in blue and orange jumped out of the high school auditorium-like seats to beat their chests as they chanted “YES!” ten times in unison after the goal song. When the game ended and fans flocked to their cars, celebratory “honk-honk, honk-honk-honk” choruses emanated from car horns.

20150214_190840The above image shows my view of the game. My view of the Jumbotron is obstructed and the screen in front of me that’s supposed to simulcast the Jumbotron is still advertising for a Nassau Coliseum concert. My decision to watch a hockey game at the Nassau Coliseum was a last-minute one. While I do enjoy watching hockey, the Blue Jackets and the Islanders are teams about which I know and care very little. I paid $46.95 US for a nosebleed ticket to the game and an additional $18 US for a return ticket on the Long Island Rail Road Babylon line from Penn Station (directly beneath Madison Square Garden) to Freeport Station, about 40 km away. As seen in this picture taken before going to the arena, the bus terminal at Freeport Station only shows concrete pillars supporting the train tracks and the occasional car, but not people.

20150214_175119With such low demand, it is not surprising to understand why the n43 bus is scheduled to come only once every hour during off-peak times. When Pauker mentioned that he did not see a single fan early because “nobody had trains to catch,” I’d have to agree because I was the only person waiting for the n43 bus at the closest stop to the Nassau Coliseum. I was mindful of the game ending time and had the game gone to a shootout, I’m not sure if I would have stayed because it would mean potentially standing outside for an hour in one of the coldest weekends in New York in decades. Luckily, my commute back to the bright lights of “the city that never sleeps” went smoothly. But amidst the breakdancing and buskers who sing soulfully at busy Penn Station and the hustle-bustle of Manhattan with which people associate New York, I discovered a different culture of New York – or should I say Long Island.